The style of Elmer Thomas

A lot of bloggers write about stylish men. Most of the time they talk about Hollywood-stars or other artists. Politicians don’t get a lot of attention, why would they? Most of the time they dress conservatively. Today we look at another snappy dresser and he was a politician that also got voted ‘best-dressed man in the United States Senate’. The man goes by the name of John William Elmer Thomas. 

Elmer wasn’t always a snappy dresser. When he joined DePauw University he wore clothes from his father. In his words: “I wore a brown shirt my mother had made me. (Obviously, she used brown cloth because it wouldn’t show the dirt.) I wore a suit of clothes that had once belonged to my father. Dad’s clothes didn’t fit me and neither did his old congress gaiter shoes that I wore, shoes that had elastic bands on the sides that stretched when you put them on. But the stretch had long since gone out of the bands, and the tops were so loose that the shoes almost dropped off my feet as I walked. I was embarrassed to associate with the other students, so I sat in my room alone and studied. The deepest desire of my life was to be able to buy some store clothes that fit me, clothes that I was not ashamed of ” (source).

That desire to dress better and finally wear store clothes that fit would help him to a splendid career in politics. Of course, those clothes had a big impact, he would never talk to his fellow students and would lock himself up in his room to study. Eventually, he would overcome his ‘inferiority complex’. Clothes played a big part: “As soon as I got my first cheque I bought some store clothes, clothes that I wasn’t ashamed to wear. If someone gave me a million dollars now, it wouldn’t thrill me half as much as that first suit of store clothes for which I paid only a few dollars” (source).

Eventually, he would be a senator for 24 years, incredible! So how did he dress? Well let’s let pictures do the talking:

Elmer at 30 years of age (1907)

Late 1920’s

If you compare Elmer with his colleagues you will instantly notice two things. Elmer is pretty tall, and he has strong shoulders. Later in life he also gets a belly, but who doesn’t?

Early pictures show that Elmer wears single-breasted three-piece suits. He wears his suits moderately fashionable for the time (the 1920’s). At that time slim-fit was it. If you compare Elmer’s trousers with later pictures you will notice that
they gradually get wider.

In 1929 we see that he starts wearing double-breasted suits. Some people may find this strange because of his protruding belly. A lot of style bloggers will tell you that double-breasted suits should not be worn by a heavier man. I think this is bogus, Elmer here is a perfect example. So if you like double-breasted suits, just wear them!  

At first glance, it looks like Elmer has only one double-breasted suit and he wears it over and over again. This is actually not true. If you look at the details you will see that almost all of his suits are different. For instance, the first double-breasted suit he wears in 1929 has a lower peak lapel than the suit in the speech photo (1935). In another photo, he even wears a double-breasted suit with patch pockets. (question to you: which one?)


Sometimes Elmer wears a vest under his double-breasted jacket. This may seem strange, as some people say that the double-breasted suit was worn by men because they could ditch their restricting vest (source). Why Elmer wore a vest is unclear, but it may be for extra warmth. It wasn’t totally uncommon to wear a vest under a double-breasted suit. Laurence Fellows drew some pictures of that too:

The picture from 1929 also shows that Elmer wore well-tailored suits. Compare the fit of his suits with that of his colleagues and you will see that the fit is really good. The collar hugs the neck, there are no wrinkles at the midsection, the sleeves are smooth and the trousers are perfectly hemmed and drape nicely down the leg. The most important thing, it complements his body. What do I mean by that? He has strong shoulders so he wears soft shoulders, without roping. Second, the chest and midsection aren’t overly wide or overly slim, it has a slimming effect. The lapels are dropped (fashionable at the time) and make his chest broader. In other words: ‘he stands out of the crowd, without screaming’.


Later in his career, he will flirt with wider lapels. Just look at the pictures from 1937 and 1939. This is a really interesting difference from the earlier double-breasted suits. He also follows the practice of the Duke of Kent by unbuttoning the top button of his 2×2 double-breasted suits (photo). When he gets older he also starts wearing nose clip-on reading glasses (he may have used them earlier in life, I don’t really know what he has in his breast pocket at the 1926 photo). He puts them in his breast pocket. A nice personal touch. 

If we look at his ties you will notice a pattern (pun intended). They are dark coloured and he likes them simple: plain, reps and small medallions. The same kind of ties politicians wears today. There is a small difference though: they are tied well, hug the neck and the collar flatters his face. In other words: details, they make you stand out.

Was Elmer a well-dressed politician? You bet he was. Did he stand out of the crowd? Sometimes, but it was because of fit and not bold pieces. One thing is clear, he dressed with pride. He must have had a stable character, because he almost exclusively wore double-breasted suits, even at wartime, when the cloth was more scarce. He wasn’t a guy that screams #menswear as some people do today. Would he triumph over them? I don’t know, that’s up to you. What do you think?

Further reading: 
Elmer Thomas (Wikipedia)
Oklahoma Historical Society 
DePauw University (about his educational background)
Book review: Senator: 1876-1965
His story in ‘How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie’

Just for you, some bonus material:  

With friends (far left) 1957

Pictures from:
The works of E.T. Rook 
Library of Congress

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Great stuff Lennart!