In spite the current presidential race going on between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney, and the political fatigue that follows, we want to profile a past president today. I decided to write about president Harry S. Truman when Gentleman’s Gazette reader Charles Day introduced us to an array of remarkable pictures of Truman’s suits. I found these pictures particularly interesting because Captain Harry – as his friends called him – was in fact a haberdasher in the early 1920’s. Today, I would like to shed a little more light on this often mentioned but rarely discussed career of the 33rd President of the United States. In the following, I want to take a detailed look at his clothes and discuss certain notable features.
Harry S. Truman – Bank Clerk, Farmer & Haberdasher
Much has been written about Mr. Truman, and hence I do not want expound on details that others have researched much more extensively than I.
However, one of my favorite anecdotes about him is the fact that his middle name was simply “S.” – it’s not an abbreviation! What exactly his parents had in mind when they named him in Lamar, Missouri on May 18, 1884, I don’t know, but it does emphasize how important it is in the US to have a middle name.
After high school graduation at the age of 17, Truman took a few odd jobs and eventually landed a job as a bank clerk. In 1906 he left the business to help his father at the family farm. In 1910, he began writing letters to his former classmate Bess Wallace who declined his first offer of marriage in 1911. However, Truman was determined young man, and built a tennis court for his athletic beloved, though it did not seem to impress her much. Finally in 1913, the two became engaged. Truman was then 29 years old, but he was still figuring out what to do with his life.
In a letter to Bess he wrote: “Do you . . . want to be a farmer? Or shall I do some other business?” After his father’s death he invested in two risky endeavors in zinc and oil, both of which left him with more debt than before. During WWI, Truman became a captain in the army and upon his return to the US, he decided to quit farming and pursue a career as a haberdasher in downtown Kansas City, together with his military friend Edward “Eddie” Jacobson. Both had served in the 129th Field Artillery and while stationed at Camp Doniphan in Oklahoma, they operated the regimental canteen with such great success that they decided to go into business together once the war was over. Truman once remarked:
“We’d done so well in the canteen, we didn’t see why we couldn’t do just as well in civilian life, and it looked like we were a pretty good combination. I’d do the selling and keep the books, and we had a clerk part of the time, and Eddie would do the buying. Of course the way things turned out we both did everything, a little of everything.”
As such, they started their Truman & Jacobson haberdashery on November 28, 1919, at 104 West 12th Street.
They sold mostly gent’s accessories but also a few suits. Interestingly, Truman would always wear tailored suits, not the ones he sold in the store!
Their prime location in downtown Kansas City was just across the Muehlebach Hotel (see ad) and the two signed a lease for 5 years on May 27, 1919. Initially, the store prospered and served as a meeting point for elegant men about town as well as members of the 129th Field Artillery. Some even brought their law books to study at the store in the evening.
In the picture above, you can see the interior of their haberdashery. Left to right, are: Harry S. Truman, Francis Berry (a corporal in the 129th), Mike Flynn (a Lieutenant in Battery “D”) & Kelsey Cravens (a friend of Truman).
Due to continuing success, Truman filed the articles for incorporation to became president of the Truman & Jacobson, on February 23, 1921 . However, shortly thereafter the haberdashery faced financial difficulties during the recession and finally Truman & Jacobson had to close its doors in September, 1922. Both Truman Truman and Jacobson left heavily indebted. In 1949 he wrote to a friend:
I can’t tell you how very much I appreciated your letter of the twenty-fourth and enclosure. That made me remember a very sad experience through which I went in connection with that stock certificate. We almost made it too and had it not been for that good-for-nothing bunch of bankrupt lawyers who tried to force me into bankruptcy, and did force Eddie Jacobson into it, I believe we could have pulled the situation through.
Eddie is now on his own and doing a very successful business out in Westport.
I am certainly appreciative of your action in this matter.
Sincerely, Harry S. Truman
While Jacobson continued to work in the menswear trade and eventually opened his own store, Truman pursued a different career where he advanced from county administrator to U.S. Senator to Vice President and, ultimately, President of the United States. Despite their business failure, their friendship stayed alive. In fact, the Jewish Eddie Jacobson had a huge impact on Truman in regard to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine as a refuge for survivors of the Nazi Holocaust in Europe. During a meeting at the White House on March 13, 1948, Jacobson persuaded Truman to meet with Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the Zionist movement at the time. Just about two months later, the United States became the first nation to recognize the newly formed state of Israel diplomatically.
As you can see, Truman’s connections from his haberdasher days had a significant influence on him even during his presidency.
Truman’s haberdashery says had a significant influence on his style, and this unique photo collection of some of his collection is evidence of his interest in style. He was always noted to be particularly well put together, no matter the occasion. First, let’s start with Truman’s wedding suit, which looks rather informal for traditionalists.
It was finished on May 17, 1919 and tailored by his friend Theodore “Ted” Marks of Kansas City, MO. An invoice from September 5 that same year, names a grey stripe suit as well as a “Shepard plaid” on the second line for $65. It most likely refers to Truman’s houndstooth wedding suit with patch pockets – how unusual for a formal garment! In an interview with tailor Ted Marks, he says that the suit was just made for the Truman’s wedding and that he owned a suit like that himself, which made them look like twins.
Technically, a sheppard’s check is different from a houndstooth, but back then names were often used used interchangeably. However, a ‘plaid’ would usually imply that there was some kind of a plaid, which is not true in this case.
I find the suit interesting for many reasons. On the one hand, it features three informal patch pockets but no buttonhole for a boutonniere. The chest pockets flares up, which is quite elegant and typical for the 1920’s. The buttons are brown, while the check is black and off white. Note the narrow shoulders and lack of drape, which was typical for the time. Overall, the jacket and sleeves are short but people used to be shorter back then. The positioning of the lower patch pockets is very low in my opinion. As mentioned before, Truman would always wear tailored suits, not the ones off the rack he sold in his store.
Picture of the Wallace-Truman wedding party in the yard of the Wallace home in Independence, Missouri. Left to right: Helen Wallace, cousin of the bride; Harry S Truman; Bess Wallace Truman; Louise Wells, cousin of the bride. Back row: Ted Marks, tailor and friend of the groom; Frank Wallace, brother of the bride.
In the beginning, all of Harry Truman’s suits and evening wear were tailored by his friend Ted Marks, who was in fact a Brit who had emigrated to the US around 1906. In the 1940’s, when Marks had reached retirement age, he would refer a lot of the work from the president to Stephen Brod, likewise from Kansas City, Missouri. Later Sol Stolowy, a Polish immigrant who resided in Kansas City and had bought fixtures and a big three way mirror from the bankrupt Truman & Jacobson store, also made some of Truman’s suits in the late 1950’s.
Sol worked for the Kansas City Custom Garment Co. and took over the company in 1952. He once told Truman,
“You know, Mr. President, that I came from Poland where never could a Jewish boy make clothes for a president — only in America.”
Truman supposedly replied,
“In America, everything is possible. I was a farm boy and became president of the United States.”
More more information about their relationship, you should read this interview.
Truman’s Evening Wear
In the 1930’s Truman would wear this stunning tailcoat – I wonder whether his waistcoat, shirts and jewelry are preserved as well, but I doubt it. Of course, I would also like to see his evening shoes, or his footwear in general for that matter.
Personally, I really like the silhouette of this tailcoat. The wider shoulders, wider peaked lapels and the defined waistline are very flattering.
After the war, Stephen Brod tailored an interesting white linen dinner jacket for Truman with peaked, beige silk covered lapels and Kent 4×1 buttoning configuration. Note, the lapels point straight to the sides rather than up or down and the buttons are mother of pearl.
A year later, Truman opted for a classic single button tuxedo in midnight blue fabric, with black silk covered lapels and jetted pockets. Note, Truman always skips the boutonniere, which surprises me. Although, sometime you could see Truman with a masonic lapel pin in his buttonhole.
Most men will never own a white or cream linen dinner jacket, let alone rent one. The fact that Truman owned two of them clearly shows that he was very interested in clothes all his life. This 4×1 jacket style with the shawl collar is hardly seen anymore although it can look quite attractive. Ralph Lauren – who else?! – had a jacket in this style in his collection years ago but it has vanished ever since.
Overall, the I saw about 30 lounge suits of Truman’s, but since some of them were quite similar, I only picked out a select few that I want to highlight. Please take a look at the gallery below to see more pictures.
Classic double breasted Suit in grey flannel. Truman seems to have liked wearing double breasted garments. Often, he would also leave the bottom button unbuttoned, just like the Neapolitans do. In this picture, the inside button is buttoned to the lower button and the outside one to the upper one, which is why the lapels have a different width.
I really like the brown Donegal tweed of this three piece suit because it has such a rich color depth and speaks to his country roots.
This mid grey three piece suit with jetted pockets is one of the few that features a buttonhole. It is tailored in the 3-role-2 silhouette, which is still popular with bespoke customers today. Fortunately, we also have a picture of him wearing this particular suit. You can see his natural shoulders and that he did not show any cuff although he dressed very carefully.
66 year old Harry S. Truman in dapper ensemble with hat and trenchcoat.
This casual jacket with contrasting sleeve and gigantic collar reminds me of something Gay Talese could wear. It did not surprise me that this piece was not custom made because rarely will people go to the extent to bespeak such a random piece that is worn on very few occasions.
Truman did also like micro checks and the 4×2 double breasted style, especially in the 1950’s. The suit in the picture looks a bit unfortunate because it is not buttoned correctly on the inside – just compare the lapel width and you will notice what I mean.
Blazers & Sportscoats
Of course, Truman would also wear blazers and sportscoats every once in a while but interestingly he would often by them from stores rather than tailors.
This single breasted, sportscoat with a slight changeant effect is cut without darts in a sack style with very narrow, typical 1960’s lapels.
Last but not least, I want to draw your attention to a single breasted navy blazer with patch pockets, and machine pick stitching. The golden buttons were custom made and bear the seal of the president. Custom buttons are something rarely encountered nowadays, though I like the idea behind it.
Now, what do you think of Truman’s suits? Did the man have style? What do you think? Let us know in the comments below and don’t forget to checkout the gallery and for more pictures take a look at the article by the NHS: Suited for a President.
Picture Credit: Truman Library and National Park Service.