Potsdam Conference 1945 - Stalin, Truman & Churchill

Harry S. Truman – President & Haberdasher

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.

Truman on His Wedding Day June 28, 1919 in Houndstooth Suit

Truman on His Wedding Day June 28, 1919 in Houndstooth Suit

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.

Truman & Jacobson

Truman & Jacobson

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.

Harry S. Truman & in his haberdashery ca. 1921

Harry S. Truman & in his haberdashery ca. 1921

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:

Dear Ed:

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


Truman with Tie Pocket Square & Masonic Lapel Pin 1950

Truman with Tie Pocket Square & Masonic Lapel Pin 1950

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 Suits

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.

Truman's Houndstooth Wedding Suit with Patch Pockets & Brown Buttons

Truman’s Houndstooth Wedding Suit with Patch Pockets & Brown Buttons

Tailor's Receipt from 1919

Tailor’s Receipt from 1919

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.

Truman Wedding Party

Truman Wedding Party

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.

Elegant Tailcoat of Truman from 1934

Elegant Tailcoat of Truman from 1934

Personally, I really like the silhouette of this tailcoat. The wider shoulders, wider peaked lapels and the defined waistline are very flattering.

4x1 Double-breasted, white linen dinner jacket by Stephen Brod March 15, 1947

4×1 Double-breasted, white linen dinner jacket by Stephen Brod March 15, 1947

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.

Midnight Blue Tuxedo by Stephen Brod, 1948

Midnight Blue Tuxedo by Stephen Brod, 1948

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.

Double-breasted, cream linen dinner jacket, Brod 1953

Double-breasted, cream linen dinner jacket, Brod 1953

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.

Lounge Suits

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.

Double Breasted Suit in Grey June 6, 1945

Double Breasted Suit in Grey June 6, 1945

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.

Single Breasted Donegal Tweed Suit in Mottled Brown 1948

Single Breasted Donegal Tweed Suit in Mottled Brown 1948

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.

Single-breasted, gray suit, Brod 1950.

Single-breasted, gray suit, Brod 1950.

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.

President Truman wearing the gray suit, May 1950

President Truman wearing the gray suit, May 1950

66 year old Harry S. Truman in dapper ensemble with hat and trenchcoat.

Single-breasted, leather and tan herringbone western style sports jacket.California Sportswear Co, LA 1950

Single-breasted, leather and tan herringbone western style sports jacket.California Sportswear Co, LA 1950

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.

4x2 Double-breasted, blue and gray micro check suit, Brod 1958

4×2 Double-breasted, blue and gray micro check suit, Brod 1958

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.

Single-breasted, light blue cotton sports coat, Clipper Craft ca 1965

Single-breasted, light blue cotton sports coat, Clipper Craft ca 1965

This single breasted, sportscoat with a slight changeant effect is cut without darts in a sack style with very narrow, typical 1960’s lapels.

6x3 Double Breasted Navy Blazer, Made in France by Cezar Ltd. for A. Sulka & Company, 1971

6×3 Double Breasted Navy Blazer, Made in France by Cezar Ltd. for A. Sulka & Company, 1971

This 6×3 blazer is very maritime and reminds me of a pea coat rather than a blazer. Interestingly it is of French provenance and was made for A. Sulka in the early seventies.

Single-breasted, navy blue blazer, gold buttons with presidential seal, ca. 1970

Single-breasted, navy blue blazer, gold buttons with presidential seal, ca. 1970

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.

9 replies
  1. Jerry Finefrock says:

    The very elegant evening tailcoat of HST compared to what the two present canadates wore at the the Alfred Smith Dinner show that we have declined severly in style. Even at White House evening functions evening dress is dinner jacket. Romney wore black studs and links with a white tie and a tailcoat; at least he wore a wing collar although his tie was 1/2 above and 1/2 under the wings. Obama was worse, a turn down collar and the same black studs with white tie. I could not tell if his coat really had tailes. God Lord, as president he does have a valet. Guess I will sell my pearl and silver studs and link set.

  2. Herr Doktor says:

    HST was one of the best dressed presidents evah. The Glen Plaid double breasted suit was quite nice. You can’t see it in these photos, but Truman also was probably the last president to wear spectators.

  3. Burt Page says:

    an oxford suit is the best investment a man can make. my grandson, a junior at the university of alabama told me where he wants to go in the business world. this is what i told him. “if that is where you want to go, start with buying an oxford suit. it will take you places you never thought you would go, and with the right people who can help you get there. regardless of price there is no suit that compares with an oxford. i know, i have had twelve oxford suits.

  4. Burt Page says:

    being a Truman democrat, this was a great article on president Truman. i was born in 1935 and he has been the best president in my lifetime.

  5. Park Jacobs Weatheby says:

    Mr. Scheider enjoyed the article on former President Harry S. Truman and his refined meticulous tatse in men’s clothing.

    I’m a bit curious about his associate Mr. Jacobson…years ago in the area where I reside there once was a well renowed upper scale department store and the family name was “Jacobson’s” and just wondering if there might be any family connection?

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