In Chapter Two, "Death in the Fog," Sam Spade gets a phone call in the middle of the night telling him his partner Miles Archer has been shot dead. Spade gets out of bed and takes his time about dressing. Naturally he is disturbed by the news, but he is always in control of his emotions. Dashiell Hammett describes his clothing in detail. Several items of his apparel now seem old-fashioned.
He put on a thin white union-suit, grey socks, black garters, and dark brown shoes. When he had fastened his shoes he picked up the telephone, called Graystone 4500, and ordered a taxicab. He put on a green-striped white shirt, a soft white collar, a green necktie, the grey suit he had worn that day, a loose tweed overcoat, and a dark grey hat.
Most people today would not even know what a union suit was. It was a combination undershirt and underpants all in one. The upper part had short sleeves. The whole union suit buttoned in front. Few men wear garters anymore, but they were necessary in those days to hold up the socks, which were usually made of wool. There was hardly any synthetic clothing material. Men's and women's clothes were made of wool, cotton, or silk. Men had detachable collars for their shirts. They could change the collars but wear the same shirt for several days. All men who lived in cities wore hats, which is an item of apparel that most men and women are giving up. Spade's trousers probably were held up by suspenders, although Hammett does not include this information. The grey suit almost certainly includes a vest, another item that has virtually disappeared in men's apparel.
The Maltese Falcon was originally published in 1929. A lot has changed since then. San Francisco had a much smaller population. The Golden Gate Bridge and the Oakland Bay Bridge did not exist. There was considerable ferry-boat traffic on the bay. Alcatraz was still a federal prison. Spade gets around in taxis, streetcars, and on foot. Apparently he does not even own a car. Later in the story when he goes down the Peninsula on a wild goose chase, he hires a limousine to take him to Burlingame and back to the city.
It is interesting to compare Sam Spade's clothing in The Maltese Falcon with that of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, a novel which was published approximately ten years later.
I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them.
"Clocks" on men's dress socks were long decorative embroidered strips. They are rarely if ever seen anymore. A clock was on the the right side of one sock and on the left side of the other, so that a man would know which sock belonged on which foot. They would be word so that the clock was showing on the outside of each ankle. Men's socks in the twenties were much longer. By 1939 most men were wearing socks that only covered the feet and ankles. Most women were still wearing dresses and skirts in 1939, and they wore long silk stockings. World War II began in Europe in 1939. When the U.S. got actively involved in late 1941, it became impossible to obtain silk from the Far East. This spurred the development of nylon stockings, which were much more durable.
Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe operated in two very different California cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Hollywood was having a strong influence on men's fashions by 1939. Marlowe is probably not wearing garters, a vest, or a hat--and certainly not a union suit or a shirt with a detachable collar. Spade needed an overcoat in San Francisco, like every other man who lived in that cold, windy, foggy city. But Philip Marlowe probably doesn't even own an overcoat in Los Angeles, although he does have a raincoat. He gets around in his own car because he couldn't operate in a sprawling city like Los Angeles without one. Automobiles play important roles in The Big Sleep. There is a black Buick limousine, a Packard convertible, and a gray Plymouth sedan, among others.