1950s Mens Fashion Style Guide – A Trip Back In Time
From Senator Eugene McCarthy’s hearings to North Korea’s invasion of the south–and from the discovery of James Dean to Russia’s Sputnik launch in 1957—-U. S. society went into a tailspin on the heels of World War II.
Your nostalgia sensibilities may kick in when you look back at homes that could be bought for around $10,000 and gas (you may wish to sit down) that ran around 18-cents per gallon.
During the 1950s, men who earned in excess of $5,000 a year were considered top earners and in keeping with the times, a cardboard Diner’s Club Card debuted in 1950 so for the first time ever, cash took a back seat to credit.
Finance was evolving. Social behaviors were changing. It stands to reason that men’s fashion underwent a meteoric revolution as well—and what a revolution it proved to be!
An era to see and be seen
Before one can begin to delve into 1950s trends and styles, it’s important to understand the nation’s sensibilities between 1950 to 1959. The biggest impact on fashion during the war years was textile rationing that limited not just new ideas but the priorities of a nation fighting on two fronts. But 1950s fashion reflected a new sense of freedom.
Designers were free to think “out of the suit.” These six legends represent six of the most innovative:
Nudie Cohn launched his business in 1947 as textile availability swung from the scarce end of the continuum to presenting men’s designers with myriad choices. The Ukrainian-born tailor got his start making garments for Hollywood country and western stars like Tex Williams, but his designs were eagerly sought by everyone. By 1959, he had single-handedly turned western-wear into a mainstream men’s clothing niche.
Bill Blass. While Nudie Cohn was churning out cowboy-inspired duds, Bill Blass burst onto the men’s fashion scene by creating one-of-a-kind designs and then wearing them to high-profile events, often stopping men and women in their tracks. His aim was to break with European styling and showcase the “suave persona” of the American man eager to take chances on his wardrobe. His strategy worked! His brand is still around.
Nazareno Fonticoli and Gaetano Savini launched the Brioni line of men’s clothing in 1945, but the pair grew famous in the 1950s when they were proclaimed tailors to the stars, dressing Clark Gable and Gary Cooper on screen and off. Known best for pioneering the streamlined Roman suit with broad shoulders, a V-silhouette and no cuffs, this dynamic duo returned to Italy in 1957 to host the first-ever menswear fashion show.
Pierre Cardin. Post-war France found designer Pierre Cardin in a position to launch his brand in 1950. Cardin was zealously committed to adding flair and style to men’s fashion. His signatures were collarless suits and slim silhouettes for men eager to break out of conservative dress mode. Cardin was a pioneer in lifestyle licensing, showing the world that men’s fashion didn’t begin and end with the well-tailored suit.
Ascot Chang. You don’t read much about Asian men who rose to fashion fame after World War II, which is why Chang belongs on this list. In 1953, he launched his custom shirt design empire from his Hong Kong boutique. His fame spread as tourists brought home his distinctly-styled garments. Chang’s reputation hit the big time thanks to launching 16 shirt boutiques worldwide. To this day, he remains king of the impeccably-tailored shirt.
Simon Ackerman. Brit Simon Ackerman’s ambition was to create Savile Row-quality men’s suits for the international menswear market. He achieved his goal with room to spare. His hallmark? Bespoke tailoring at ready-to-wear prices. From his clothing empire in England’s Cheshire County, he sold his designs around the world at establishments with panache, including Harrod’s and Saks Fifth Avenue.
It’s Closet Time!
Thanks to the aforementioned designers and their colleagues who infused life into the 1950s with their innovative ideas, styling, textiles, tailoring and wider color palette, men’s fashion was given a new direction that broke open design constraints ruling this industry for decades.
No garment type was left out, which is why we broke categories down for your reading pleasure.
Styles that suited every guy
The idea that a man could show up in public wearing anything other than a suit when the 1950s dawned was unimaginable. Meticulously-tailored suits with their over-stitched lapels, breast pockets, matching pants and pristine linings were standard uniforms for men working hard to re-integrate themselves into jobs once the war was over.
Formal suits for special occasions may have received a few style makeovers, but for the most part, the quintessential tuxedo plus dinner jackets in black and white remained constant throughout the 1950s, while daytime suits continued to be churned out in blue, black and brown color palettes. Happily, by decades’ end, shop windows were filled with charcoals, greys and tans.
Matching and contrasting vests that came with suits or were sold separately added a professorial touch to ensemblesand made it acceptable for men to show up for certain occasions without a jacket. By 1960, sports jackets had also become standard items in fashion-conscious men’s wardrobes now split between “office” and “casual” garments.
Alternatives to suits
If you laughed when you read the mini-bio of designer Nudie Cohn, you likely aren’t old enough to remember the 1950’s western trend that contrasted dramatically with the stodgy suit-centered men’s wardrobe. Even fashion authorities were incredulous. Men showed up for barbecues and other social occasions dressed like “cowboys” and textile manufacturers couldn’t churn out enough plaid fabric to meet demand.
When western-style plaid shirts weren’t appropriate, guys slipped into cardigan sweaters to avoid wearing jackets, though as an homage to WWII legends like Eisenhower, Patton and MacArthur, there was a short period during the 1950s when military tailoring and garments in shades of khaki, tan and brown were snapped up by men liberated from the status quo—after all, who shows up for a barbecue in a Brooks Brothers suit?
Keep your pants on!
Trousers were the jeans of the 1950s. While trouser pleats disappeared as a result of fabric shortages during the war, they reappeared in the 1950s with a twist: some tailors believed pleats facing outward were more flattering than those facing inward. By the time this silly debate was resolved, pleats were fast becoming history on the menswear fashion scene.
Trouser cuffs hung around until the market for men’s pants prompted designers to slim down silhouettes and venture into “no-loop” pants. Pioneering among those who experimented with this concept was the Silver Manufacturing Company where designers dreamed up the Sansabelt slack in 1959, impacting the belt market big time. These clever pants required nothing more than a hook closing and stretchy waistband to eliminate the need for a belt.
Designers realized that they had the option of designing with or without belt loops, an expensive construction add-on that was labor intensive. The demise of the leisure trouser was about to be heralded when blue jeans literally and figuratively “made the scene” in the early 1950s on the bodies of the era’s young celebrities.
Denim jeans had been around since Leob Strauss made them for California gold miners in 1853, but the nation, it seems, was ready for this practical garment to go mainstream. By 1959, men’s closets were filled with black, washed and cuffed jeans and the first designer jeans arrived on store shelves. One of the biggest pioneers in this niche was the well-established Bill Blass.
Shirt styles explode
The 1950s may best be described as a breakout year for men’s shirts because the “one-style-fits-all” Arrow and Van Heussen labels that had been the mainstay of guy’s wardrobes for decades suddenly morphed into a rainbow of new silhouettes, fabrics and cuts. Shirt styles stopped being boring as new classifications of shirts were introduced to the retail marketplace.
Designers like Ascot Chang focused as much on tailoring as they did on fabric, and color palettes were off the charts.
Our favorite? The classic Hawaiian shirt, patterned with flamingos, tropical palm trees, pineapples and fish. Many of these garments were designed to be worn over pants rather than tucked in. Even bowling shirts had their moment in the sun during this decade. Colors? Pink shirts were all the rage, even for guys who heretofore only allowed blue into their closets!
In addition to shirts with collars and sleeves, polo shirts came into their own. Originally invented by world-class tennis player Rene Lacoste in the late 1920s, knit cotton shirts left the tennis court and crashed the casual men’s fashion scene and that iconic little alligator stitched to the breast of these comfortable knits remain to this day.
Your Mom says, “Don’t catch cold”!
Perhaps men’s outerwear designers were too busy working on shirts to turn their attention to coats because if you browsed the coat department at any upscale 1950s-era shop, you’d find a rather staid collection of long wool designs in dark colors. Double breasted? That’s as fancy as it got, which may have been why innovative outerwear designers of the early 1950s jumped into the jacket market with such enthusiasm.
The star of the era? The bomber jacket swept through the men’s fashion community like wildfire. Was it influenced by those military-style garments discussed earlier? Probably. After all, Eisenhower was the war hero swept into the presidency in 1953, so the jacket truly reflected the time.
To use today’s lingo, the bomber jacket was the bomb, which is why outerwear designers made them in every cloth on the planet: wool, suede, leather, gabardine, faux leather and even satin. It’s no accident that the award-winning Broadway play “Bye, Bye Birdie,” with its cast of bomber jacket-clad dancers, opened to rave reviews in 1960.
If the shoe fits…
If the 1930s and 1940s were known for conservative lace up shoes, men’s shoe designers jumped out of the shoe box in the 1950s by introducing footwear that could be slid on rather than laced up. The loafer gave men the ability to slide on a shoe and go, and loafer introductions ran the gamut from sleek, casual and tassel-trimmed to ultimate fad: the penny loafer stitched with a place to stow a cent.
Even soles were revamped. The crepe sole entered the shoe world in the 1950s and wound up on loafers plus the latest slide-on iteration: the moccasin. Shoe store windows were filled with loafers and moccasins. Formal black. Snazzy two-tone and reptile skins in colors that ranged from white to candy colors. Priced at from $5 to $9 a pair, the hottest sellers were blue suede, commercial tributes to both Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.
The 1950s was also the decade sneakers became part of men’s wardrobes. It was just a matter of time before this came about. Indiana basketball legend Chuck Taylor endorsed Converse athletic shoes in 1923 and by 1953, sales of Converse high tops skyrocketed. Who benefitted most? The shoelace industry! After a hiatus courtesy of slip-in shoe styles, shoe laces were back.
Hats off – belts, too
While the 1950s could be classified as the decade of relaxed men’s fashion, the transition wasn’t without its casualties. Once upon a time, men wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without wearing a hat, but by 1960, that trend had gone the way of the Dodo Bird. Fedoras, porkpies, walking hats, top hats, panamas and other “must-have” chapeaus were more likely found in thrift shops than on shelves in men’s closets–unless, of course, you were Frank Sinatra!
It was inevitable that the belt market for men would also recede a bit thanks to the introduction of beltless trousers and blue jeans that were snug enough at the waist to stay up without a belt. Sure, men seeking novel ways to hold up their britches throughout the 1950s may have added flair to their wardrobes with the occasional, nostalgic pair of suspenders, but belts remained a fashion staple for both stylistic and practical reasons.
As a matter of fact, the biggest belt sensation of the 1950s was “the skinny belt,” a slim, lightweight accessory made in every conceivable material: leather, woven textiles, reptile skin and western-style tanned and punched hides. No respectable mid-1950s man’s wardrobe would be complete without at least one skinny black belt.
The men’s accessories market expands
Until the 1950s, the typical American man laid claim to few accessories while women couldn’t get enough necklaces, bracelets and purses, leaving the opposite sex bereft in the “extra touches” department. Was there a void? Not completely. In 1950, guys owned a watch, at least one pair of cuff links, a couple of tie pins and their bureau drawers were stocked with neatly folded handkerchiefs and black socks.
One of the biggest casualties of the accessory scene during the 1950s were cuff links. Shirt manufacturers were adding buttons to cuffs so men didn’t have to bother adding links. Button cuffs made life easier (and dressing faster) for men tired of struggling with these accessories that, like women’s earrings, became useless if one was lost.
That black sock epidemic? Over. Any staid suit could be dressed up with a pair of colorful socks, and ties once made exclusively of sedate silk fabric made room on tie racks for lively new designs in silk, cotton, linens and even rayon. The “skinny tie” crashed onto the men’s fashion scene for a short while. Men could change up their look with a slim striped design or one embellished with small clusters of patterns. For about 97-cents, you could buy something splashy in rayon that spruced up even the most conservative suit.
Who lead the decade’s fashion parade?
The aforementioned designers knew that Hollywood was the place to make a name for themselves so many clothing trends for men began in the west and swept eastward. Singers, actors and sports heroes could practically assure a new designer’s success simply by getting out the word that they were wearing his or her label.
Playboy founder Hugh Hefner took the silk dressing gown mainstream, making it a must-have for men who identified with his personality. Manufacturers began to churn out short robes in lightweight cottons, rayons and nylons for those who couldn’t afford silk. With a more liberal license to dress out of the box, men of the 1950s were poised to embark on an era of experimentation that included bell-bottom pants, necklaces, statement-making shirts and fashion innovations representing the era of the hippy.
You might say that the 1950s was the decade men finally got some fashion respect. Who were the losers? Women, of course. By the 1960s, they had to share their closets with guys coming into their own in terms of their fashion sensibilities.
The era of the battle for closet space had officially begun!