A Brief History of Men’s Fashion

We’ve said it time and time again, menswear is ruled by history and tradition. Every person in menswear (designer, stylist, editor, etc) has taken inspiration from the past at one time or another. And no era has been overlooked.

Therefore, as we continue to explore the foundations of personal style, I thought we’d take a quick look back at the last hundred-or-so years in men’s fashion. Perhaps this will provide a little insight or context as to how menswear shifts, and more importantly, how we can make informed decisions when it comes to buying clothing and developing personal style.

LATE 1800S: LAST OF THE VICTORIANS
As the nineteenth century came to an end men were slowly shaking-off the Victorian influence which still had them wearing tophats, frock coats, and pocket watches while carrying walking sticks. This may seem like an elaborate and restrictive way to dress, but it was a big step in the right direction considering the Georgian period that proceeded it had men wearing feathers, panty hose, and high heels. And you thought you were a “dandy”.

1900S: TALL, LONG & LEAN
As we moved into the 1900s men’s clothing was predominantly utilitarian and rather unimaginative. The long, lean, and athletic silhouette of the late 1890s persisted, and tall, stiff collars characterize the period. Three-piece suits consisting of a sack coat with matching waistcoat and trousers were worn, as were matching coat and waistcoat with contrasting trousers, or matching coat and trousers with contrasting waistcoat. Sounds familiar, right? Trousers were shorter than before, often had “turn-ups” or “cuffs“, and were creased front and back using the newly-invented trouser press.

After the war (which introduced numerous classic menswear designs which are still used today, like trench coats and cargos), business started to pick-up and Americans had more money. More money allowed them to travel more and broaden their horizons culturally and aesthetically. Many crossed the Atlantic to England and France. Naturally they returned with suitcases full of the latest fashions being worn overseas.

Of all the countries, England had the most influence on American menswear. In the 1920s American college students began putting their own spin on pieces being worn at the legendary Oxford University, including button-down shirts, natural-shouldered jackets, regimental ties, and colorful argyle socks. Furthermore, the Prince of Wales, who later became the Duke of Windsor, was the world’s most important and influential menswear figure. Through newsreels, newspapers, and magazines the elegant Prince became the first international “style icon” and became widely known and renowned for his impeccable taste in clothing. He was a legitimate trendsetter for every day people and it was the first time in history that clothing advertisers would use a celebrity face to sell clothing, shamelessly plugging their items “as worn by the Prince”.

1930S: THE HEIGHT OF ELEGANCE
The begining of the 1930s saw the great depression. Although the average man couldn’t afford to partake in the world of fashion, many often enjoyed observing the style choices of those who could. Hollywood films on the Silver Screen became a beacon for hope for the working class man living in this era. Men and women alike looked with admiration and aspiration to elegantly dressed stars like Fred Astaire, Clark Gabel, Cary Grant, and Gary Cooper.

In the 1930s the American taste level was at its peak, rivaling that of any European country. It was a time when American men took pride in the clothing they wore and the image they projected. It was a time when men dressed by certain codes of conduct and etiquette. The “menswear rules”, which we often reference, were written in this period.

“For the first time American men realized that clothing should not be worn to hide the natural lines of the body, but, rather, to conform to them, thereby enhancing he male physique. At the same time, clothes should not be too obvious. Instead, they had to become part of the man who was wearing them. The idea of clothing was not to set the man apart (as had been the case for centuries, when kings and noblemen dressed primarily to accomplish just that) but to allow him to be an individual among individuals…. Americans had finally leanred that the goal of good clothing was to flatter rather than be conspicuous.” – Alan Flusser

1940S: THE BIRTH OF READY-TO-WEAR
With the end of World War II, American men strayed from the high standards and basic principles of fine dress established in the thirties. Part of this was changes in the workforce and the loss of formality in everyday life. With lower demand, the price of custom tailoring rose, which allowed for the mass production of menswear to takeover as the everyday norm. This period saw the introduction of mass produced ready-to-wear clothing in America, by some brands that are still selling us clothing today.

There were positives and negatives to these new methods of mass production. On the one hand, basic clothing was cheaper and more accessible than ever. On the other hand, there was less variety in the styles being offered, and, much worse, these major clothing manufacturers realized (just like the automobile manufacturers) that they could stimulate sales by offering changes in styles every year, or even every season. This began the “trend cycle” in retail, which was created by clothing manufacturers to make more money and propagated by the magazine industry, also to make more money.

Ultimately this marketing strategy pushed the consumer further and further away from the “ideals of classical dress” established in the 1930s, which were all about choosing long-term pieces that best flatter the body. Instead the goal of clothiers became to confuse and pressure the consumer to continually “re-invent himself” by purchasing “new styles” that are “in fashion”. More sales, regardless of the longevity or aesthetic of the look.

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