Bob Dylan. Andy Warhol. The Who. Allen Ginsberg. James Dean. The Beatles.
These world-renowned artists are household names among people of all ages, recognized for their various crafts and for being pioneers in artistic expression. There’s something else they have in common: They’re style icons from the prolific “Beat Generation” of the 1950s and ’60s.
The Beat Generation
Following World War II and the Great Depression, the late 1940s and early 1950s in America was a period known as the Age of Conformity. Daily life was conservative, from the neighborhoods people lived in and the foods they ate to the cars they drove and the way they dressed. Men’s fashion during this time was especially unimaginative, with a typical outfit consisting of a neutral-colored suit or a cardigan sweater over a button-down shirt.
In the post-war years, some Americans began to reject mainstream ideals, dissatisfied with their unexciting lifestyle. A radical shift started to spread through art, literature, and music, led largely by influential creative and intellectual types such as The Beatles and Peter Sellers. Inspired by this group of anti-conformist people who had been “beaten down” by mainstream society, the time period was coined the “Beat Generation” by American novelist Jack Kerouac.
Then in 1958, San Francisco news columnist Herb Caen used the word “Beatnik” to describe the individuals who were a part of the Beat Generation. Though the term held a negative connotation, describing people who didn’t work and spent idle time in cafés, it caught on and became representative of the period’s distinct style and attitude. Beatniks emphasized expression of freedom and creativity in their work and this was reflected in how they dressed. Their dark, form-fitting fashion was simplistic yet rebellious, and that was exactly its appeal.
It’s ironic that Beatnik fashion became so popular, really. Beat Generation pioneers dressed in a carefree way to show that they were bucking tradition and exploring their individual creativity, not to be emulated. Perhaps that rebellious, couldn’t-care-less attitude was the very reason it held so much appeal.
The timeless, Parisian-inspired Beatnik style makes it perfectly appropriate today and simple to replicate. To pull it off, the key is to make it look sleek yet effortless, as if you just threw a few things on. Thankfully, there are only a handful of components you need to create the perfect Beatnik look. You dig?
Beat Fashion – How to Get the Beatnik Look
1. Roll Neck
Also commonly called a turtleneck, these shirts or sweaters are one of the most important components of Beatnik fashion. The style is all about being understated and elegant and a roll neck, with its folded-over soft neckline and slim fit, epitomizes that. Roll necks are worn year-round, so the material can be anything, so long as it’s comfortable and appropriate for the season. However, the color absolutely must be dark, and preferably solid.
A good roll neck shirt or sweater can serve as the foundation for so many outfits, outside of just Beatnik fashion, so the most important thing is to find one you love the material and fit of. Consider this one from Mr. Porter or this lightweight cotton French Connection version.
2. Wide-Leg Pants
With the goal of feeling comfortable while also looking effortlessly put-together, wide-leg pants are a staple to Beatnik fashion. The casual yet impossibly cool look of these jeans or trousers was a more laid-back look in the 1950s and ’60s, slightly less formal than a more tailored silhouette.
In keeping with the classic Beatnik look, pants should be of a dark color, but can be any material. Pair your favorite loafers with these Topman cords or Lacoste wool pants, and don’t forget to cuff the bottoms.
3. Skinny Jeans
At the other end of the spectrum for men’s Beatnik pants styles are skinny jeans. These were a clear revolt against the looser-fitting, wider-leg pants styles men traditionally wore to work and with their suits during the Beat Generation. Rebellious skinny jeans were one of the original hipster fashions and are still a popular alternative style choice today.
The best thing about wearing skinny jeans as part of Beatnik fashion is there are very few rules. Find a skinny-fit dark wash in your favorite denim brand, then wear them with your roll neck or a sharp blazer. You can’t go wrong with a tried-and-true pair of Levi’s, and we also love this washed look pair from ASOS.
4. Striped Shirt
There is perhaps no more iconic piece of Beatnik-style clothing than a classic black-and-white striped shirt. Whether it’s short-sleeved or long-sleeved, a t-shirt or a sweater, worn on its own or underneath a jacket, a simple striped top is the pièce de la résistance in any Beatnik outfit.
Black and white truly go with anything, so this is an easy piece to incorporate into your wardrobe. Look for a material or fit you love. Topman and J. Crew both make fantastic options at even more fantastic prices.
5. Black Jacket
While this is an unofficial part of a Beatnik outfit, Beatnik style icons have historically been photographed wearing a sharp, tailored black jacket over their ensemble. Whether it’s a stylish blazer or a more functional pea coat, a jacket makes an excellent statement piece for any outfit.
A jacket allows you to inject a bit of your personal style into a Beatnik outfit. Whatever fit or style jacket you prefer, choose something with a slim fit and go for solid black or dark gray. We love this sleek, minimalist Michael Kors racer jacket and the luxe texture of this Topman skinny fit velvet blazer.
Though it is frequently mixed up with British Mod style, Beatnik fashion is much more pared-down and relaxed, right down to the footwear. Instead of edgier boots or other flashy shoes, Beatniks tend to favor classic, practical black loafers.
To really embrace Beatnik fashion, a pair of comfy black loafers is a must. Check out these affordable modern pairs with classic tassels from ASOS and Dr. Martens. As a bonus, you can wear either of these pairs to work, too.
In Beatnik style, accessories are minimal — if worn at all — and hairstyles are understated as well. A chic yet dramatic beret makes a big enough statement all on its own. Plucked straight off a Parisian boulevard, a black beret serves as the perfect topper to a Beatnik outfit.
8. Dark or Oversized Glasses
In Beatnik fashion, the fewer accessories that are worn, the better. Aside from black berets, the exception may be for oversized or dark (or both) glasses, worn indoors and out. Classic wayfarer style sunglasses are a popular choice, as are other styles that have unusual or dramatic details, such as cat-eye glasses. Clear glasses with thick black rims are also frequently seen in Beatnik fashion.
It’s easy to integrate your favorite pair of glasses into any Beatnik style outfit, so long as they’re dark. This modern take on Ray-Ban’s classic wayfarer style is a solid choice, and this clear black-rimmed pair from Tom Ford has Bluelight-blocking abilities.
Today’s reincarnation of the iconic Beatnik look has a slightly edgier look, incorporating leather and boots into the mix. Don’t be afraid to top your striped shirt with your favorite leather biker jacket or wear a fedora instead of a beret.