Honorable Style in Dishonorable Times: American Gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s

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Beshears, Laura: Honorable Style in Dishonorable Times: American Gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s Journal of American Culture (33:3) [Sep 2010] , p.197-206.

Honorable Style in Dishonorable Times: American Gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s Laura Beshears. The Journal of American Culture. Malden: Sep 2010. Vol. 33, Iss. 3; pg. 197, 10 pgs Abstract (Summary)

Prohibition, which came into effect in July of 1920 with the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment, also illustrated the progressives' idealism, as many believed that the elimination of alcohol, because it allegedly created "poverty, marital distress, and negligence," would cleanse society (Mordden 141). [...] the birth of the radio and the movies as well as the development of flight induced excitement and fostered a vision of a society engaged in perpetual technological advancement (Mordden 47). [...] Horatio Alger, Jr. and his late nineteenth-century books- portraits of men who, born underprivileged, rose to wealth and success through hard work, honesty, self-confidence, commitment, and a bit of luck (Weiss 53-54) - characterized the progressive spirit, as it encouraged people to work hard for a better future and for the fulfillment of the American dream. Full Text

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Copyright Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Sep 2010
"You don't need to be ordering fancy duds," Frankie Rio advised his boss as a tailor took measurements of Capone's swollen physique at the Lexington Hotel. "You're going to prison. Why don't you have a suit made with stripes on it?" "The hell I am," Al shot back. "I'm going back to Florida for a nice long rest, and I need some new clothes before I go." In this irrationally jaunty mood, he ordered two new lightweight suits and made plans for an extended stay at his Palm Island hacienda. (Bergreen 485)

This excerpt from Laurence Bergreen's biography of Al Capone informs the reader of the gangster's criminality and potential jail time, but it also says much about the lifestyle of this infamous crook. Planning a tranquil retreat in Florida while being fitted for a made-to-measure suit in a highend hotel, Capone appeared to be a man who lived a life of wealth and leisure and who chose to flaunt his affluence through an expensive wardrobe. However, that he preferred stylish clothing as a means to indicate his financial success was not an unusual practice among mobsters. Rather, "stylish consumption defined the public enemy" (Ruth 63), and the image of the Prohibition-era gangster, rising through the criminal ranks in his three-piece suit, fedora, tie, overcoat, and polished shoes, has become ingrained in the collective American conscious. These hip fashions not only reflected the mood of urban America in the 1920s and early 1930s but also expressed gangsters' anxieties and ambitions as they staked out their place in the country's newly formed metropolitan society. Similar to the flappers' short and unshapely dress, which signaled the newfound liberation of many women in the 1920s, the gangsters' fashions echoed the historical forces at play in the early twentieth century. Their attire spoke to the rampant growth of organized crime in major American cities during the Jazz Age. Much of this crime hinged on the passing of Prohibition in 1920, and many gangsters made good money from bootlegging and racketeering for over a decade, as Prohibition was not repealed until 1933. The gangsters' business-like garb reflected their aim to legitimize their status as businessmen, marked their rise from destitute pasts to wealth, and positioned them as a model of the new American ideal for the urban working class. At the same time, other elements of gangster dress, combined with the mobsters' extreme materialistic consumption and penchant for ostentation, unveiled their illicit activities and exposed them as imposters and corrupters of the American dream. Al Capone, who became one of the most notorious crime lords of the 1920s and 1930s, epitomized the...
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