For those in the know, the character of Perry Mason has been at the center of many types of media. He’s probably most well known, though, as the main character of a long-running television series (which was, in turn, based on a series of books by author Erle Stanley Gardner). Today, however, we’ll take a look at the new Perry Mason series from HBO and analyze its style.
Perry Mason: Small-Screen Menswear Style Review
The original TV series was broadcast from 1957 to 1966, running for 9 seasons and 271 episodes. In it, actor Raymond Burr portrayed Perry Mason as a clean-shaven, unflappable defense attorney who was always able to get people to confess to a crime on the witness stand. We’re not going to discuss the style of the original series in-depth today; partly because much of it was shot in black and white, and partly because most of the styles featured were in the mod and jet-age fashions of the late ’50s and the early ’60s, which were clean but overall, unremarkable.
Unflappable defense attorney Perry Mason, as portrayed in the original TV series by Raymond Burr.
Meanwhile, the new series from HBO (which features Matthew Rhys in the title role) is a gritty and noir-ish origin story for the character, attempting to make him seem more like a real person with human flaws. This series introduces us to the character at possibly his lowest point: as an unemployed, divorced owner of a now-defunct dairy farm on the edges of Los Angeles in 1932. Not only is the city in the throes of The Great Depression, but there’s also quite a bit of institutional corruption going on, which we see plainly. Thankfully for us as viewers, this new series is far more interesting from a stylistic point of view, and for clothes buffs, this is a particularly special time in the history of menswear.
The Golden Age of Menswear
At this point in the 1930s, men’s style had completely emerged from the Victorian era into the modern era. The Prince of Wales (later to be the Duke of Windsor) was setting style trends the world over, and menswear overall was at its most detailed, elegant, and flattering in all of the 20th century–at least, in our opinion.
At this point in the 1930s, men’s style had completely emerged from the Victorian era into the modern era.
This show exemplifies everything we love about 1930s fashion. From the rich fabric patterns to the classic and flattering silhouettes, to the copious wearing of hats and other accessories, we think it’s really the height of classic menswear. In fact, we appreciate the style of this era so much that we wrote a book about it: Gentlemen of the Golden Age. Of course, it must be stated that at this time, racism, inequality, poverty, unemployment, and corruption were all running rampant–and this isn’t something that’s glossed over by the show. We won’t go into the details of the plot here, but the costumes worn by the various characters are a treat for the eyes and for any lover of classic men’s style.
Style Breakdown: Perry Mason
At least at the beginning of the series, Perry’s style does an excellent job of illustrating just what state he’s in. He’s a grizzled World War I veteran, desperate and downtrodden, and in some scenes, is portrayed as really just above homeless. His most distinctive style choice is a worn leather jacket. This is somewhat unique, as leather jackets aren’t typically worn as outerwear by most men in this time period (unless specifically required as part of one’s job, say, for example, being a pilot). Still, this jacket gives him a distinctively working-class air and helps him to keep a low profile when he’s doing things like investigating and searching for clues.
Perry’s style does an excellent job of illustrating just what state he’s in.
He owns only one suit; a simple gray wool suit with a notched lapel, that is baggy and somewhat rumpled in its fit–really in the style of a sack suit. He favors striped or patterned shirts in shades of pale brown or ivory, which for someone of his means, would be easy to maintain in that day and age. He rarely buttons up his collars entirely, which adds to his dilapidated air. He also wears the short patterned ties that were characteristic of the era. However, he doesn’t pair these ties with higher-rise trousers, which also would have been common at the time. We’re not sure if this was just an oversight on the part of the costume designer, or a deliberate choice of Mason the character.
Perry Mason’s only suit early in the series is a simple gray sack suit, somewhat rumpled in appearance.
To show how little he cares about his appearance, his clothes are often dirty and worn and he’ll wear them in multiple scenes, sometimes over multiple days. In one scene, he even pays the coroner to let him take a necktie from one of the residents of his morgue. At the time though, many men didn’t actually own a lot of clothing, so it’s accurate to show many of the male characters (aside from the affluent ones) repeatedly wearing the same clothes over and over again. Importantly though, while Perry Mason is on the fringes of polite society, he still upholds the base level of what would be considered as acceptable clothing for a man at that time.
To show how little he cares about his appearance, his clothes are often dirty.
He always wears a jacket outside of the home, for instance; collared and button-up shirts are the norm; he’ll almost always be wearing a tie in social situations; and he’ll wear a hat whenever he’s outdoors. Given Perry’s practical approach, analytical mind, and what we expect to be his eventual transformation into a justice-bent defense attorney, we think that he’ll probably get his style act together in the future as the series continues. Maybe it won’t be quite to the same finely-wrought degree as his mentor-cum-father-figure, E.B. Jonathan, but it will probably be elevated as time goes on.
Perry Mason always wear jackets and hats when outside of his home
Style Breakdown: E.B. Jonathan
Let’s get into the style of the character of E.B. Jonathan, as played by John Lithgow. As the lead criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, E.B Jonathan is the most sumptuously and nattily dressed character on the entire show. He employs Perry Mason to do his detective work and as we mentioned before, he acts as sort of a father figure to Mason. He’s often depicted as sitting behind his broad office desk or drinking whiskey in his gentleman’s club, seemingly oblivious to prohibition.
He wears a completely new ensemble in almost every scene he’s featured in, which speaks not only to his affluence but also to his position in society. He exclusively wears three-piece suits that feature soft patterns like stripes, or overchecks. The material of these suits is quite heavy so it will drape attractively. This is a key feature of 1930’s suiting which prized structure and shape.
E.B Jonathan is frequently seen in a completely new ensemble in almost every scene he’s featured in.
Like many of the characters on the show, he fully embraces all of the accessories that were common of the 1930s dressing such as collar clips, watch chains, Winchester shirts, and so on. His shirt collars are pointed but detachable, which is a holdover from the Victorian era. While they do have a more modern shape, they give him an aura of authority and suit his position and goals well.
His Homburg hats and watch chains mark him out as a member of the older generation whereas men of Perry’s generation are typically seen wearing things like fedoras and wristwatches. He also owns a shawl collar silk bathrobe in a navy pattern which we think is supremely elegant.
E.B Jonathan fully embraces all of the accessories that were common of the 1930s dressing
The Pete Strickland Style
Now, we’ll cover the style of Perry Mason’s investigative sidekick, Pete Strickland, as played by Shea Whigham. Overall, his style is more irreverent and playful, which seems appropriate for his wise-cracking, sailor-mouth character. Pete typically acts like he’s resentful of authority or men with greater power and status than he has, so his clothing choices might be a deliberate way to illustrate that he’s not going to fall in line with typical definitions of authority.
An example of this is that he too wears buttoned-down shirts and ties but often somewhat unbuttoned and loosely tied to illustrate that he may be wearing them begrudgingly, more than anything. He also wears a flat cap possibly to illustrate his lower-class status although it may again be just to show that he doesn’t want to wear the hat styles that are common for men in higher stations. This is in contrast to Perry who wears a scruffy fedora as a fallen member of the middle class that gives the impression that he has given up somewhat.
Pete’s patterns are often bolder and combined together in the same outfit showing that he’s a bit more flashy, overall. For example, he’s got an overcoat in a small plaid pattern that is worn with wide, striped ties. And again like Perry, we do also see Pete wearing the same clothes repeatedly.
Pete’s patterns are often bolder and combined together in the same outfit showing that he’s a bit more flashy, overall.
The Paul Drake Style
The style of Paul Drake as portrayed by actor Chris Chalk is up next. As a black police officer in the deeply racist and corrupt Los Angeles Police Department, Paul is frequently marginalized and threatened if he doesn’t do as he’s told by the other officers. Meanwhile, though, he also has one of the most interesting wardrobes in the show.
He’s frequently depicted in his police uniform which is structured and crisp, in much the same way as a military uniform might be. It features epaulets, brass buttons, a belt, and a cross-chest strap. His wide-leg pants are neatly creased and break perfectly over his shoes. His uniform is worn with a crisp white shirt and a dark necktie.
He also has a couple of distinct ensembles when wearing civilian attire. His clothes are pressed, neat, well-fitted, and never stained or shabby. Because of his line of work and his already marginalized status in society, he really doesn’t have the luxury of being sloppy and lazy with his clothing like Pete and Perry do.
Paul Drakes’s clothes are always are pressed, neat, well-fitted, and never stained or shabby.
One noteworthy garment is a belted peacoat length double-breasted jacket that appears to be in a rusty brown color. When observed more closely, however, it can actually be seen to be a unique blend of yellow, black, and orange threads. It has wide, rounded lapels that extend almost to his shoulders.
Paul also acts as a good example of the styling of 1930’s button-down shirts. His shirts frequently feature small patterns and motifs with long spear collars and narrow collar spreads. They also feature bold stripes in blue and white, for example. And he pairs these shirts characteristically 1930’s ties that are again short and boldly patterned.
We think that his bold, crisp, and unique wardrobe speaks to his own personal pride and dignity and he’s probably a character who will similarly evolve over the course of the show.
One noteworthy garment is a belted peacoat length double-breasted jacket that appears to be in a rusty brown color.
Other Noteworthy Outfits from The Show
1. District Attorney Maynard Barnes – This character is occasionally seen and is a fan of large bow ties.
2. Film Executive – In episode 1, he wears a navy, pinstripe suit with a long, pointed collar.
3. Studio Owner – Also in episode 1, this character is depicted in White Tie.
4. Gambling Hall Owner – In episode 3, this character is seen wearing a dark shirt and an ivory jacket.
So, as far as the costuming overall is concerned, the show has certainly leaned into getting the aesthetic of the 1930’s down. With that said though, they have made a few choices that are less than authentic. As we said before, we think that Perry’s leather jacket is an unusual choice for every day, around town jacket although there may be some unexplained personal attachment to it for him. Also, it could be a visual shorthand to clearly differentiate him from the other characters.
Studio owner wearing a white tie, episode 1
As we also mentioned before, the standard rise isn’t really part of the 1930’s look but Perry also wears them frequently. We don’t see many of the characters wear suspenders or braces, either. Certainly, E.B Jonathan wears them underneath his suits and waistcoats but for this time, we probably would’ve expected seeing other characters like Pete and Perry, wear them as well.
Standard rise isn’t really a part of the 1930’s style but Perry Mason is often seen wearing them
How To Get The Look
With the style breakdown out of the way, let’s now discuss how to get the look of the Perry Mason series, if you’re so interested. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that we actually don’t recommend directly emulating the style of Perry Mason’s character but there are still some things we can take from the character that he does do well.
1. Leather Jacket
First, a leather jacket with a classic silhouette is something that is always going to be in style. It’s better to have a few tried and true quality pieces in your wardrobe that you can wear multiple times rather than having lots of things that you don’t like to wear.
Granted, they shouldn’t necessarily be worn so often that they’re shabby, but if you maintain your clothing, wearing something that’s versatile and can be paired with many different elements is always a safe bet.
Preston wearing his leather jacket
2. Vintage Hats
Vintage hat styles like fedoras can flatter many faces and they’re an easy way to add some vintage cool to your outfit. The wider the brim, the higher the crown of the hat, the more old school it’s going to look. So, play around with different hat styles until you find one that suits you best.
Vintage hat styles like fedoras can flatter many faces and they’re an easy way to add some vintage cool to your outfit.
3. Collar Jewelry
The single easiest way to get a 1930’s look to your outfits is to wear collar jewelry. Nearly every professional male character on the show does wear some form of collar jewelry. Some wear collar clips like the prominent local businessman who is the father of the defendant in the story.
Others wear collar bars such as this corrupt cop, and still, others wear collar pins such as E.B. Jonathan. Overall, it’s just a great look.
The easiest way to get a 1930’s look to your outfits is to wear collar jewelry.
We love how the best-dressed characters on the show are generally keen on wearing accessories. They used far more of them than the average modern man would but accessories like pocket squares, tie clips, tie chains, and cufflinks round up their outfits with additional style elements.
Nice pocket watch chain and lapis ring with POW check waistcoat and striped suit
5. Three-Piece Suit
Also, we do recommend that you give the three-piece suit a try. Nothing projects an air of confidence and authority in quite the same way as a three-piece suit does. It’s an elegant and professional look and especially in the colder seasons; having the extra layer of fabric from the waistcoat can come in handy.
If you don’t have a specific three-piece suit, you also can try the style technique of wearing a two-piece suit with a contrasting waistcoat for a slightly more playful feel. Also, when wearing this three-piece suit, don’t forget to put on all of the accessories including the pocket square, pocket watch or watch chain, bow tie or necktie in silk, collar clip or pin, and a hat.
Raphael wearing a three-piece houndstooth suit
Again, taking specific style inspiration from the character of Paul Drake, you should endeavor to find an overcoat style that fits you well. Finding something unique is probably easily achieved by buying vintage. If you do this, it will add a layer of complexity to an entire season’s worth of outfits.
Find an overcoat style that fits you well.
7. Patterned Shirts
Also, try different shirt patterns like stripes, micro-patterns, and so on. Today’s shirt wardrobes are often dominated by plain whites and blues but Paul’s character reminds us that there are a variety of shirt pattern options out there to experiment with.
Paul Drake in a patterned shirt
8. Wider-Legged Pants
If you’re tired of the current skinny trends or you just don’t have particularly thin legs, in either case, we’d suggest that you try experimenting with wider-legged pants. A well-cut pair of wide trousers that feature a proper amount of break for your leg length will probably be more flattering to more men than the current trend for super skinny styles. Wider leg doesn’t necessarily have to mean wide leg. Of course, just something that’s a bit more substantial than a current fashion would dictate.
9. Medium-High to High-Rise Trousers
Finally, a medium-high or high rise on your trousers will also lengthen your leg line or diminish the appearance of an overly long torso thus making you look built up or traditionally masculine overall.
A well-cut pair of wide trousers that feature a proper amount of break for your leg length will probably be more flattering to more men than the current trend for super skinny styles.