Rented Formalwear, Gilded-Age Style

Posted on November 25, 2013


Ad by San Francisco haberdasher Raphel`s Inc., 1899.

Dress suit rental ad for San Francisco haberdasher Raphel’s Inc., 1899.

In a previous post chronicling the history of formalwear industry leader After Six, I reported that the company was often credited for pioneering the concept of rented formal wear in the 1920s.  Well, my recent investigation of digital newspaper archives reveals that the practice goes back much further.

Chicago Daily Tribune, February 1884.

Chicago Daily Tribune, February 1884.  (Note the English-style usage of “hire”.)

Advertisements for evening wear rentals began to appear in US papers in the 1880s, most often as simple announcements in the classifieds  section.     These early merchants were typically “misfit clothing parlors” that purchased from tailors bespoke garments that were flawed or unclaimed by the clients who had commissioned them.   The idea was that this high-end apparel would be bought and subsequently sold or rented at a fraction of their intended retail price.  Similarly, used garments would often be purchased and resold, sometimes by businesses running both buy and sell ads in the same paper.  (See the newspaper story at the end of this post that describes one such operation in charmingly Dickensian detail.)

"The Hub" ad, December 1894.

Excerpt from The Hub ad, December 1894.

Relying on rejected or second-hand product would have obviously limited the inventory for early renters both in quantity and quality. It was only around the turn of the century that the rental business began to flourish thanks to significant advances in ready-to-wear garments.   Pre-constructed clothing had actually been introduced in the 1700s but was improved greatly by American tailors in the 1830s and then became a booming trade in the latter half of the century due partly to the advent of sewing machines and department stores.  The price advantages were dramatic as evidenced by an 1894 ad from Chicago’s largest clothing store, The Hub: a full-dress suit tailor-made in the customary fashion was estimated at $60-$75 while The Hub’s quality ready-to-wear versions were half that price at $25-$35.  Furthermore, the previous season’s models could be had for just $7.50 (including a vest) and if you only wished to rent an outfit the cost was a mere $3.50 per night.

January 1919 ad from Washinton Post.  No doubt the diplomatic receptions in that town made for a booming trade.

January 1919 ad from The Washington Post. No doubt the diplomatic receptions in that town made for a booming trade.

With brand new, good quality dress suits now so affordable, haberdashers and tailor shops began to add rentals as a sideline to their existing business.   Also joining in on the act were specialty shops such as costume and utility clothing retailers.  These businesses all promoted their rental products as the perfect solution for men who wanted to dress correctly  for a special occasion without breaking the bank. The recommended occasions included formal parties at a club, weddings, banquets, dances, the theatre and even funerals.

Not surprisingly, rented formalwear was popular during the Great Depression.  In fact, it was in 1936 that the Gingiss Brothers opened their first store dedicated solely to the practice.  This marked a paradigm shift in the rental business, one that would result in Gingiss growing into the world’s largest formalwear chain.  But that’s a topic for another post . . .

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Full text of “Dress Suits for Hire” from The Washington Post, September 28, 1883.

“Dress suits for hire,” painted in white letters on a small show card suspended in the window of a tailor shop in the vicinity of the Medical Museum, caught the eye of a reporter the other day.  The shop, a dingy, not over clean-looking establishment, located in the basement of a rheumatic sort of a house, would have been passed without attracting the attention of the reporter, but a sign, so unusual and in such a place, created curiosity. Descending a double flight of steps, the scribe found the proprietor sitting cross-legged on a treacherous wooden table testing the temperature of the breast of his trusty goose subsequent to pressing out a pair of trousers, the seat of which had just been half-soled.

“Yes, sir,’ running a wet finger over the goose, which hissed and spluttered, “we do hire out dress suits.  Do you want one?”  Then the little tailor paused, shifted his sharp and rosy nose a little more to the right of his face, and nailed the visitor with an eye to business.

“Well, no, not to-day; but I would like to know your terms and see the condition of the suits.”

“No trouble whatever to show goods,” the monarch of the lap-board responded cheerily, springing down from his perch at the risk of dislocating a leg of the table.  Brushing a one-eyed cat out of the only chair on the room, and inviting the visitor to be seated, he proceeded to business.

From a large trunk a suit was carefully removed.  It was evidently a veteran, and had, no doubt, figured in an endless round of social dissipations; but it was none the less valuable in the eyes of the tailor, who explained that a suit like that would be hired for three dollars a night, and a deposit of twenty dollars would be required as collateral.

“Are such deposits always made?”

“Well, in cash, no.  Most of my customers come recommended by responsible parties, and then a number are well known to me, and I hazard the risk.  What sort of people patronize me? Well, almost any class, from the dude [dandy] to the dining-room waiter.  Young workingmen and clerks patronize me mostly, and sometimes when one of the so-called social clubs proposes giving a soiree or hop the entire club hire their suits.  I have frequent calls to rig up half a dozen waiters for a dinner party, and now and then young men proposing to act as ushers at weddings come to me to tog them out.  No, our summer trade is not lively, but it is brisk in winter, and I am having my stock overhauled now for the coming season.”

“Are these suits new when you get them?”

“Bless you, no; Tommy, come out of my soup.” kicking the cat who had his nose in a bowl of something sitting on the stove-top; “we get them second-hand generally, and only buy those that have been the least worn.  They serve our purpose better.  A good dress suit properly handled will generally hire out through three seasons and pay for itself twice over each season.”

“Then the business is brisk and profitable?”

“Middling; I make a living out of it sufficient to justify my dropping my regular tailoring business in the winter.  Hello, I’ll bet that chap out there is a customer,” pointing to a flashily dressed youth who was edging his way towards the shop as if ashamed for any one to see him enter.  “That’s the way the dudes do,” the little tailor continued; “he’ll dart down here like a rabbit directly,” and hardly had the words escaped his lips when the party referred to entered hurriedly, but drew back hesitatingly on seeing the reporter.

“Never mind him, my son,” said the tailor, divining the new comer’s thoughts and nodding at the reporter; “he’s ordered his dress suit and it’s gone.  When do you want yours?”

The new arrival, evidently, much relieved, explained that he wanted a suit for that evening to attend a boatclub hop.  While he was making a selection the reporter escaped, after promising the little tailor he would call again.

Posted in: History