History and tradition dictate menswear, as we have repeatedly stated. Every person involved in the menswear industry—designer, stylist, editor, etc.—has occasionally drawn inspiration from the past. Not a single era has been disregarded.
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Therefore, I thought we’d take a little look back at men’s fashion throughout the previous hundred or so years as we continue to study the fundamentals of personal style. Maybe this can give some perspective or understanding into how menswear changes, and more importantly, how we can make wise choices about what to wear and how to express our individual styles.
LAST OF THE VICTORIANS IN THE LATE 1800s
Men were gradually shedding their Victorian influences as the nineteenth century drew to a close, but they were still carrying walking sticks, frock coats, top hats, and pocket watches. While this may appear to be an ornate and constrictive fashion statement, it was a positive start given that males of the Georgian era were dressing in high heels, pantyhose, and feathers. And you believed yourself to be a “dandy”.
1900s: Erect, Lean, and Tall
Men’s attire became more stiff and functional as the 1900s progressed. The late 1890s continued to be characterized by an athletic, long, slim profile, with tall, stiff collars. Three-piece suits were worn, which included a sack coat with matching waistcoat and pants, or a matching waistcoat and pants or a matching coat and pants with a contrasting waistcoat. The newly created trouser press was used to crease the front and back of the trousers, which were shorter than previously and frequently included “turn-ups” or “cuffs.”
Following the war, American wealth increased and commerce began to pick up. The war also brought in several timeless menswear styles that are still in style today, such as cargo pants and trench coats. With greater money, they may travel more and explore new artistic and cultural opportunities. Many traveled to France and England across the Atlantic. They obviously brought back suitcases full of the newest styles from abroad.
England was the nation that influenced American menswear the most out of all of them. American college students started personalizing items used at storied Oxford University in the 1920s, such as regimental ties, button-down shirts, coats with natural shoulders, and vibrant argyle socks. In addition, the most significant and powerful man in the world of menswear was the Prince of Wales, who subsequently assumed the title of Duke of Windsor. The refined Prince rose to prominence as the first global “style icon,” becoming well-known and respected for his perfect sense of style via newsreels, newspapers, and magazines. For the first time in history, he was a genuine trendsetter for regular people, and apparel ads used his picture to shamelessly promote their products “as worn by the Prince,” a move that was unprecedented in the history of fashion.
1930s: The pinnacle of style
The Great Depression began in the early 1930s. Even if the typical guy couldn’t afford to participate in the world of fashion, many frequently delighted in seeing the looks that those who could afford made. Hollywood motion pictures on the Silver Screen emerged as a ray of hope for the modern working class man. Attired icons such as Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gabel inspired adoration and desire in both men and women.
American taste peaked in the 1930s and was on par with any nation in Europe. During that period, American men took great care in their attire and the way they presented themselves. Men were expected to adhere to specific clothing norms and manners throughout that era. During this time, the “menswear rules,” to which we frequently allude, were drafted.
“American men comprehended for the first time that clothes should enhance a man’s physique by conforming to his natural lines rather than masking them. Clothes shouldn’t be too noticeable, though. Rather, they needed to integrate with the individual donning them. Clothing was meant to help a man be himself amid other people, not to make him stand out (as had been the case for generations, when monarchs and noblemen dressed largely to do precisely that). Finally, Americans realized that attractive apparel should aim to flatter rather than draw attention to itself. — Alan Flusser
1940s: READY-TO-WEAR’S INTRODUCTION
Following the Second World War, American men began to deviate from the strict guidelines and fundamentals of elegant attire that had been set in the 1930s. A portion of this was due to shifts in the labor force and the decline of formality in daily life. The cost of custom tailoring increased as demand declined, making mass manufacturing of menswear the new standard. During this time, America began to see the mass production of ready-to-wear apparel, some of which are still available for purchase now.
These new mass manufacturing techniques have advantages as well as disadvantages. On the one hand, basic apparel was more affordable and readily available than before. However, there was less variation in the fashions available, and worse, these big clothes producers learned that, similar to automakers, they could increase sales by introducing new models on a yearly or even seasonal basis. This marked the start of the “trend cycle” in retail, which was started by the magazine business and developed by apparel manufacturers in an attempt to increase profits.
In the end, this marketing tactic drove customers farther and further away from the “ideals of classical dress” that were created in the 1930s and revolved around selecting long-lasting clothing that accentuated the best features of the body. Rather, clothing companies now aim to perplex and coerce the customer into constantly “re-inventing himself” through the acquisition of “new styles” that are “in style.” This increases sales without considering the look’s durability or visual appeal.
1950s: THE CONFORMITY ERA
It was the Age of Conformity in the 1950s. Upon their return from the military, young men were eager to blend in with the establishment. The Ivy League style, which was saturating menswear, was the must-have for “looking the part” and fitting in. Personality in dress sense was an afterthought. Wearing an oxford shirt, loafers, a rep tie, and a boxy sack suit was the way to seem like “part of the club.” Mass Ready-to-Wear makers benefited greatly from this as well, as they were happy to sell any young guy attempting to seem professional and employable the same ill-fitting tweed coats.
Furthermore, synthetic textiles like nylon and rayon were introduced in the 1950s. The clothing makers were able to save a large amount of money on fabric costs and yet produce a garment that was perceived as “more durable and easiest to wash,” which improved their bottom line. It turns out that synthetic fabrics, particularly in suits, are awful for menswear clothing. The best fibers are usually natural ones.
In terms of style, the era was characterized by dapper gray suits and simple accessories for almost everyone, such as a hat, pocket square, martini, and cigarette.