100 Years of Men’s Fashion A lot has changed in the last century
You may or may not have seen that 100 Years of Men’s Fashion video on YouTube that Mode Glam put together (and if you haven’t, check it out. It’s awesome), but regardless, it’s fascinating to go back in time and see what was in style then and just how far we’ve come to get to where we are today. In keeping with the theme of a fashion-focused journey back in time, we decided to do a little digging of our own. Men’s fashion, believe it or not, has changed a lot in the past century. From tailcoats to zoot suits to bell bottom pants and everything in between, here is a brief timeline of men’s fashion from the past century.
At the turn of the century, most men began wearing the traditional “middle-class men’s suit” that originated in England, as opposed to the more decadent knee-length frock coats and complex suits of the 1800’s. Most suits in the early 1900’s consisted of three pieces: the jacket, the trousers, and the vest (known as a waistcoat at the time). Men wore morning coats during the day, which typically were just jackets with a tailcoat that is cut away on a curving line from the front to the back, and often paired them with matching or subtly striped trousers. Additionally, men had evening suits in darker colors and richer fabrics. Like women, affluent men of this era would change clothes several times a day as propriety dictated.
In the 1910’s, lighter fabrics and simpler suit separates grew in popularity, and by the latter half of the 1910’s, a man’s daytime suit consisted of a simpler single-breasted jacket with narrow lapels and high buttons, paired with straight trousers. Button-down shirts were typically pastel, striped, and adorned with a club (round-edge) collar and a tie. Collars, it should be noted, were detachable. This was because collars required more frequent cleaning than shirts and could be more easily replaced if ruined. Men’s ensembles were completed with boater or gambler hats, as well as two-tone boots.
tl;dr: Men’s fashion was dictated by propriety and formality
Favorite Trend: Detachable collars
The Jazz Age called for a new take on life, and the postwar optimism of society was reflected in everything from clothing to music. Suits were simpler and slimmer, and brighter, lighter colors replaced the black, charcoal, and navy of the previous decade. Shoulderpads disappeared, and men began wearing tighter-fitting jackets with sloping shoulders. Ties became more casual as silks were replaced with a variety of knits. Bow ties became quite “in” during the 1920’s, too. By the mid 20’s, new button-down shirts with attached collars and softer fabrics were introduced and made the norm. The white striped shirts of the previous decade were replaced with an explosion of color. Men began tying Windsor knots with their ties, which meant that club collars were replaced with pointed spread collars to accommodate the style. It was a time of excitement, economic growth, and the birth of Hollywood. Every man dressed to the nine’s.
Front creases and cuffs started popping up on trousers, emphasizing a man’s overall shape and casting a strong, stern silhouette. New, lower-sitting, baggy trousers meant that men began wearing belts instead of suspenders. Originating at Oxford University, these trousers were referred to as “Oxford Bags,” and often were quite wide in comparison to the tightly-fitted jackets of the era.
Finally, if you were anyone in the 20’s, you wouldn’t be caught dead leaving the house without a befitting hat. The summer months called for Panama straw and boater hats, while the colder months required felt fedoras. As automobiles grew in popularity and general affordability, cars became a major part of 1920’s culture. This resulted in the popularity of driving-specific attire, such as flat driving caps made of tweed or wool, leather jackets, and white silk scarves.
tl;dr: Postwar optimism, jazz music, and the birth of Hollywood inspired men to dress to the nine’s
Favorite Trend: Bow ties and fedoras
On October 24, 1929, the economic world came crashing down, taking the fashion industry (and most industries) down with it. Cutbacks in clothing production and fabric rationing resulted in men’s suits being restructured in an attempt to still be stylish despite needing to cut down on fabric and cost of materials. The “Superman” silhouette became popular–men’s suits were fashioned to illuminate extra broad shoulders (with shoulder pads), thin waists, and tapered legs. Very wide, pointed, elongated lapels that further emphasized a man’s broad shape were characteristic of suit jackets in this decade. Men’s suits had thin waists in order to conserve fabric, and fashions of the time were predominantly teeming with dark and neutral colors, as bright colors were viewed as distasteful due to the hard times everyone was facing. Wool, flannel, tweed, and linen ruled the era.
Men’s trousers sat exceptionally high up–about 3 inches above the naval–and hung down in long, straight columns. They were adorned with strong, pressed pleats down the center.
The polo shirt and the bush shirt (a short-sleeve shirt adorned with 4 front pockets) became a popular alternative to the classic button-down. Younger generations began adopting sweaters from the lower class and redefining them as refined fashion garments.
In terms of accessories, newsboy caps and Ivy caps took center stage in the 30’s. Oxfords (solid and two-tone) and wingtips were still popular shoe choices. However, the birth of more casual shoe styles like moccasins, loafers, and rubber-soled Keds originated in the 30’s, and men would wear these at home or at sporting events exclusively. Bright checked and striped socks emerged as a trendy element to add to one’s business attire. The end of the 30’s gave way to the “Swing” era. Swing music, the jitterbug, and swing dancing hit the scene, and the zoot suit was born. Zoot suits were characterized by excessive fabric and sleeves with pants worn tight at the waist. Jackets were long, and the suit was accessorized by a keychain that extended to the knees, as well as a hat traditionally adorned with a feather. Zoot suits were thought to be both sharp and rebellious–as they were originally popular with gangsters and younger generations.
tl;dr: The Great Depression caused cutbacks in clothing production and fashion rationing, resulting in a paradox in which men yearned to continue to look stylish while needing to conserve fabric and cut excessive expenses
Favorite Trend: Ivy caps and zoot suits
Many consider the 1940’s to be the last decade of truly gentlemanly style and elegance (whoever said that hasn’t met the guys here at The GentleManual). With the severity of the war hanging over society, strict fabric rationing and a prevailing demand for practicality over style began to influence the fashion world. Any flashiness and extravagance in men’s fashion from the previous decades all but disappeared–if you were seen wearing something flashy or expensive, it was considered a diss to patriotism (as all money and fabric needed to be reserved to help those in uniform).
As a result, suits started being made without vests, pocket flaps, and trouser cuffs. The men that didn’t leave the country to fight in the war aimed to look as austere as possible, and subsequently adopted a style of simplicity with little (if any) detail. The zoot suit was condemned for its excessive use of fabric, though it was still worn to a lesser degree.
After the war, men’s fashion revived, but to a lesser extent than before. Double-breasted jackets returned, as well as wider trousers. Colors came onto the fashion scene again, and hand-painted silk ties were all the rage. Every man in the 1940’s wore a tie, as it was seen as a way of expressing one’s individuality after so many years of not being able to. Wider, shorter ties in colorful patterns were a hot item, and men would wear them with decorative tie pins to further express themselves. It can safely be assumed that the period following the war was kind of like a big exhale for society after years of holding its breath–people could relax again, fun was not only allowed but encouraged, and society as a whole embraced a more leisurely pace. Casual, Hawaiian shirts became a huge menswear trend toward the end of the 40’s, thanks in part to Elvis Presley.
tl;dr: Wartime austerity and fabric rationing meant that for the first time, practicality was put above flashiness in men’s fashion
Favorite Trend: Colorful ties
At the beginning of the decade, men’s attire was decidedly simple. Most businessmen adhered to a uniform of dark flannel suits, and conformity became ideal once again. Since everyone had returned from the War, a new monicker–”head of the household”–became synonymous with “husband.” The threat of the Cold War loomed over everyone’s heads, and men wanted to look as much like good Americans as possible, and thus, everyone looked alike. Suits no longer sported shoulder pads (but if they did, they were minimal), double-breasted suits were greatly outnumbered, ties were slimmer, shirt collars were less pronounced, and the brims of hats were considerably narrower. Trousers, however, remained mostly unchanged.
Over time, the 50’s became a bit more leisurely. Travel began booming, as well as an interest in sports. Fashion adapted with these interests, and casual, athletic attire (like the polo shirt) grew in popularity. Short shorts in pastel colors also took center stage in men’s casual wear. Sports blazers began being cut in more comfortable shapes and made from more lightweight materials, and became a staple of everyday wear. Additionally, sunglasses–which were previously considered a luxury item–became more affordable and thus grew in popularity. Wayfarer and Clubmaster styles were seen on anyone and everyone throughout the decade (and are still popular today!).
For teenagers and young adults, the 50’s were boring. The overall sense of postwar calm that permeated society wasn’t all that stimulating, and the greaser subculture was born. Influenced by rock and roll and fittingly named from the iconic greased-back hairstyles of the era, greasers were typically working-class youths, hoodlums, and motorcycle gangs. Greasers became a popular subculture both in pop culture and in fashion due to influence from Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, and James Dean. Greaser style included fitted white and black t-shirts, ringer t-shirts, baseball shirts, black or blue rolled-up denim, leather jackets, bomber jackets, and letterman jackets. Teenagers would complete the look with fedoras, motorcycle helmets, vintage leather caps, flat caps, army boots, winklepickers, creepers, and Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars.
tl;dr: Sports and leisurely travel grew in popularity, prompting a growth in casual attire. Teenagers broke off from adult fashion for the first time, creating their own greaser subculture.
Favorite Trend: Greaser fashion
Many consider the 60’s a revolutionary period for men’s fashion. Formality eventually gave way to skinny and flared trousers, flower shirts, wide lapels, and other adventurous trends. Suits became tighter-fitting, trousers were narrow, and vests were all but a thing of the past. Some say that while women’s fashion was becoming decidedly more boxy and masculine, men’s fashion took a more effeminate turn in the 60’s, with longer hair, bright colors, thin silk scarves, paisley prints, velvet pants, puffy sleeves, and men’s jewelry all taking their turn in the fashion spotlight. Suits were often (if one’s job permitted) abandoned in place of army coats and denim jackets. Following the lead from the previous decade, youth continued to branch off from adults and lead the way when it came to fashion, and the 60’s was predominantly considered “youth-driven” in terms of subcultures–mod, rocker, hippie, etc.–and the trends that came with them. 60’s fashion, as a result, was as bold as it was lighthearted.
During this time, the British music scene grew in popularity, and as a result, basically any trend that looked like it came directly from the high streets of London became desirable during this era (think Beatles–pea coats and round sunglasses, anyone?). In fact, some say that the Beatles singlehandedly made clean, straight cut business suits a stylish wardrobe essential. From suits and skinny ties, to their signature haircuts, to skin-tight turtlenecks, and everything in between, if the Beatles wore it, it became a 60’s staple.
tl;dr: Youth-driven subcultures dictated fashion in the 60’s, trends were highly influenced by the Beatles, and men’s fashion decidedly became more mod and feminine throughout the decade.
Favorite Trend: Slim-fitting suits and skinny ties
Some say that fashion from the 70’s came from another planet–and we’d be hard-pressed not to believe them. The 70’s were a crazy time for men’s fashion. Things that would’ve been laughed at just 10 years prior were big on the fashion scene during this era. As synthetic fabrics and materials dropped in price and increased ease of travel and shipping meant fast fashion was more easily accessible, casual menswear and the “wash and wear” evolution of men’s clothing became both abundant and widely available to all at extremely low prices. This directly reflected the era’s focus on spontaneity and indulgence.
By 1972, platform shoes and bell bottom trousers were menswear staples. Leisure suits and tracksuits were also popular. Bell bottoms were characterized by a high waist, a tight fit through the thighs, and a flare beginning at the knees and extending outward. Bell bottoms were paired with suits and wide collar shirts in varying patterns from loud florals to polka dot to checked to plaid and everything in between. Chunky cable knit turtleneck sweaters (often with matching belts or hats) were also all the rage. 3-piece disco suits circa 1977’s hit flick Saturday Night Fever were every man’s dream look. It was undoubtedly a groovy time to be alive.
tl;dr: Increased ease of travel and shipping, coupled with a drop in the cost of synthetic materials, gave rise to the casual menswear “wash and wear” evolution of men’s fashion. Platform shoes, bell bottoms, leisure suits, and chunky sweaters took the stage in the 70’s.
Favorite Trend: Bold colors and patterns
Continuing the pattern of snug-fitting, casual clothing, the 80’s were another decade of interesting fashion choices. However, fashion was already beginning to become more subdued and less outlandish than the previous decade. Activewear–think matching sweatpants and sweatshirts, pro-sports (NFL) branded clothes, and athletic shoes like Nike Air Jordans–was a popular choice in menswear in the 80’s. If a man wasn’t wearing sports-inspired duds, he was donning a denim jacket, a long-sleeved velour shirt, and a pair of Levi’s. The economic boom in the 80’s, coupled with society’s newfound attitude toward success and power dressing, made for a very self-conscious and gluttonous (at least, in terms of materiality and excess) decade. Brands mattered, and “Yuppies” (Young Working Professionals) made casualwear, collegiate attire, and “prep” a significant trend in the 80’s.
Men’s suits were surprisingly conservative in the 80’s. Suits in neutral colors were paired with skinny ties, and knit square-bottomed versions were the “it” tie of the decade. When men weren’t working, they would pair graphic printed button-down shirts with slacks for a go-to ensemble that was appropriate almost anywhere.
Other popular pieces in menswear included slouchy, pleated trousers, bomber jackets, preppy plaids and polo shirts, and turtlenecks. Men’s trousers and blazers started to hit the shelves tapered much in the way that they’re worn today.
tl;dr: Since the economy was doing well, men’s fashion took a turn toward excess, and brand names and slouchier-fitting clothes were all the rage. Young Working Professionals made preppy-casual a significant 80’s trend.
Favorite Trend: Bomber jackets
The 1990’s proved to be another huge transformation in terms of fashion, as men basically banished any and all trends from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s in an attempt to redefine themselves. “Casual” was undoubtedly here to stay, and minimalism was the new “in” thing. Mainstream fashions were influenced by three significant youth subcultures of the decade: rave, hip-hop, and grunge (a direct diss to the excess and flashiness of the past two decades). T-shirts, shorts, jeans, trainers, sweatshirts, hoodies, tattoos, piercings, and prominently displayed brands comprised the majority of any man’s closet. In fact, the shift towards a more casual work uniform began thanks to the 90’s and its rejection of stuffiness and formality.
The 70’s and the 80’s were all about excess and glamour when it came to fashion. By the 90’s, however, most if not all of that influence was gone, replaced instead with an era of casual, relaxed clothing in simpler colors and cuts. Leather jackets, knit sweaters, flannel button-downs, bowling-inspired button-downs, baggy denim jeans, overalls (especially with one strap down–thanks Will Smith), baseball caps, jorts (jean shorts), manpris (man + capris… not quite shorts, not quite pants. Yeah, that happened), parachute pants, sporty sneakers, and graphic t-shirts were 90’s staples. Oh, and saggy boxer-baring pants were also big in the 90’s… where they should stay.
tl;dr: The 90’s were all about rejecting the trends of previous decades, and as a result, the decade was characterized by casual, relaxed clothing influenced by grunge, hip-hop, and rave subcultures.
Favorite Trend: Knit sweaters and graphic T’s
From dressing for propriety to dressing to express yourself (even if expressing yourself meant throwing on a pair of jorts), we’ve certainly come a long way. In 100 years, we have changed the game when it comes to fashion many, many times. Menswear has been influenced by music, war, the economy, women’s fashion, cars, gangs, celebrities, sports, and so much more since before you were even born. Think about that the next time you put on a fedora or a tie!