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Whether stepping into a Lyft or the driver’s seat of our own ride, most of us don’t give a second thought to the convenience that is a car.
But when the automobile first rolled out, it changed life as Americans knew it, opening up a new range of possibilities while at the same time making the world seem a bit smaller. And that tectonic shift rocked not only the transportation industry but, perhaps unexpectedly, the world of fashion, too.
Keep in mind that the car’s predecessor was the horse and buggy. (Yawn.) So this monumental leap in technology warranted a sartorial change just as major, in terms of both form and function. Thus, motoring style — from driving gloves to car coats to goggles — soon emerged as one of the hottest fashion trends of the early 20th century.
Driving at the dawn of automobiles wasn’t for the faint of heart. Roads were unpaved and treacherous, and early cars lacked hard tops and windshields and had partially or completely open cabs, exposing drivers and passengers to the elements. Thus, protective clothing and accessories were necessary to keep riders comfortable, safe, and clean.
More importantly, like with most technology, early adopters of the automobile were well to do and forward-thinking — and they wanted others to know it. So, even when one was done riding in the car, he or she wasn’t through wearing stylish motoring apparel that alerted others to the fact that they were hip, affluent individuals on the move.
These motorheads were such a lucrative market for retailers that a trade publication of the time encouraged store owners to obtain a list of car owners from the local registration bureau in order to convince them about the need for proper driving apparel, according to the Ultimate History Project.
“Suggested form letters played on fears that an improperly dressed driver was missing out on the joys of motoring,” according to an article by Ultimate History Project staff. “‘Your car may be high powered,’ one letter cautioned, ‘You may have perfectly good tires and lots of gas and oil… but if you are not comfortable yourself, you don’t enjoy riding.’ The solution was simple: ‘You need proper motoring clothes.’”
(We’ll delve into some of the most essential car fashion items in a minute.)
Unfortunately, with time, as the masses came to embrace (and afford) the automobile, its novelty — and that of motoring fashion — faded for the upper classes. So, too, did advancements that made cars warmer and more enclosed put the brakes on driving style.
However, those with a penchant for nostalgia still find this type of apparel highly appealing. Fashion designer Isobel Halliday founded British Motoring Apparel in 2013 to provide “quality, functional clothing inspired by the road and applicable to the demands of daily life,” according to her website.
“For me, the appeal is centered around the marriage of the car and the authenticity of what would have been worn at the time,” the Glasgow resident told Racked. “I want to see people driving with an understanding of the history.”
Halliday draws on her studies at the London College of Fashion and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art as well as detailed historical research to craft replica items, often rendered in natural materials fibers like wool, cotton, and silk. One of her first and most popular pieces is the Ulster, a 1950s dispatch-style coat.
She says that most of her clientele are classic car owners and enthusiasts with an eye for detail.
“My target customer is someone who is really passionate about the details,” she said. “They are looking to complete the experience of owning and driving a classic car by looking more in keeping with their vehicle. They appreciate the function and the history of the designs. They want something that is well made, with the same attention to detail and period accuracy that they look for when choosing the upholstery or the headlamps.”
Indeed, the history of motoring fashion is an intriguing one, as it parallels the development of the automobile itself and shines a light on a culture firmly in the rearview.
Whether you were in the passenger seat or the driver’s, a car coat was crucial during the early years of automobiles. According to the Ultimate History Project, a comfortable, warm coat not prone to wrinkles was essential for men and women alike.
Car coats were often loose and oversized to allow maximum mobility and were made of heavyweight cloth, leather, or fur to keep the wearer cozy and warm. (Fur car coats soon became a punchline for satirists of the day because they made motorists look like shaggy beasts.)
And motorists didn’t ditch the coats when it got warm, either. In summer months, lightweight coats of linen or alpaca wool — also known as “dusters” — were worn to shield one’s outfit from dust and dirt.
Not surprisingly, female motorists found a fashion opportunity in the car coat, donning brightly hued coats of various fabrics to complement the color of one’s car. Forget matching your shoes to your purse — this was the ultimate in color coordination.
Along with the rest of motoring fashion, car coats became a status symbol, around 1905, indicating that the wearer owned a car or knew someone who did. Even if you weren’t motoring on a given day, it was still de rigueur to look like you were.
Driving gloves, which first appeared in the 1890s, according to Gentleman’s Gazette, were such a necessity for early motorists that they merited a special place in the car that still endures today: the glove compartment.
Made out of thick leather, sometimes lined in wool, and extending beyond the wrist in a gauntlet style, early driving gloves were needed not only to protect the driver from the elements but to help him (or her) maintain a firm grip on the steering wheel. Back then, there was no power steering, and typical metal or wood steering wheels could get slippery in damp conditions.
In the 1930s, after Henry Ford’s Model T brought motoring to the masses, driving gloves changed in style, becoming shorter, thinner (and unlined), and tighter, thus providing greater sensitivity to the fingers — so the driver could literally feel where the rubber met the road. Perforations were also added for ventilation to prevent sweaty palms.
Soon, driving gloves became a status symbol. One was considered high-class if he could wear pristine, light-colored driving gloves on a regular basis — demonstrating that he could afford the staff to clean and maintain them.
Over the next few decades, as heaters and other developments made cars warmer and layers of grip made steering wheels easier to control, driving gloves — like most motoring fashions — fell out of vogue, save for vintage car enthusiasts and cool cats like James Bond and Steve McQueen, who continued to sport them.
Although not prized for their looks, driving goggles were an important accessory for safety purposes. Both male and female drivers and passengers wore goggles year-round to protect the eyes from dust, debris, insects, and inclement weather — all of which could cause serious eye conditions, according to the Kansas Historical Society.
Goggles were often made of leather and had glass lenses in metal frames, which made them quite pricey. Some clever designers even created caps and hats with convenient built-in goggles specifically for motorists.
Regular glasses simply weren’t secure enough to withstand high speeds and winds and didn’t provide enough coverage. In fact, doctors implored motorists to rinse their eyes with a solution of water and boric acid after every drive to disinfect the eye and remove particles, even if they wore goggles during the ride.
Motoring didn’t catch on as quickly in Europe as it did in the United States. But, by the 1960s, Europeans were full throttle in their passion for driving, and Italian makes were a hot commodity.
Soon, Italians decided that they needed a special kind of footwear to support their driving pursuits, and, according to Modern Gentleman Magazine, the Italian company Car Shoe launched in 1963 with its patented creation: a long, slim moccasin of supple leather with rubber nubs on the soles. (Perhaps the most famous brand of car shoe, Tod’s, came out shortly after.)
The car shoe was meant to replace traditional shoes for driving and to provide a superior driving experience. Most men’s shoes of the time were stiff and cumbersome and could impede driving. Also, the heels often became worn down by the constant motion of braking, accelerating, and working the clutch — not a good look for your modern dandy.
The car shoe’s rubber nubs allow the driver to easily switch between pedals with minimal pressure on the footbed, according to GQ. The thinner sole affords the foot more sensitivity, and the slim profile provides greater precision.
Although driving shoes were an ultra-high-end item when they first came out — reserved for wealthy men who could afford “investment footwear” solely for recreation — the style has since become more mainstream. It remains popular today, but it’s favored more for its form than its originally intended function.
Still, the driving shoe is an important item in the annals of car fashion because it may be the last relevant vestige of a style that has long since run out of gas.