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Male Fashions From The ’50s – A Throwback to 1950s Men’s Fashion
A starstruck girl asks their ringleader, an exquisitely leather-jacketed, cuff-jeaned, scuff-booted, 1950s men’s fashion hero Marlon Brando, “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” in The Wild One, a 1953 youth-ploitation film in which an outlaw biker gang runs rampant across Hicksville USA.
“What have you got?” said Brando, with a world-weary sigh.
The quick response, at least in terms of style, was: a lot. The early years of the decade were a style desert, a buttoned-up residue of rigid post-war conformity in which even the most insane of men were caught in grey-suit lockdown; but by the time Brando came into town, a major loosening-up had begun.
Rock ‘n’ roll music, Beat poetry, and the abstract expressionists led the countercultural charge, and fashion followed suit; cuts were looser, collars lost their starch, and parts of sportswear, workwear, and military uniform began to find their way into the everyday wardrobe. So, if you have any doubts, trust Teeanime!
WHAT IS 1950S MEN’S FASHION?
The turtleneck, denim jacket, and knitted polo were starting to become style standards, worn with a practiced nonchalance and a sneer at the be-hatted corporate drones. The rise of the white T-shirt best symbolized the rebel-yell era.
In 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando sweated in one, while James Dean brooded in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Arthur Miller wrote in one. G. Bruce Boyer, fashion historian and author of True Style: The History and Principles of Classic Menswear, was a teenager in the 1950s. “It became a kind of visual shorthand for rebellion,” he recalls. It symbolized the appropriation of blue-collar attire by those who rejected corporate society.
Elvis Presley replaced trilbies with slick quiffs, ties with button-down shirts, and fusty flannels with featherweight fleck-linen coats. “His dirty work clothes clung to him so gracefully, as though you couldn’t buy a better fit from a custom tailor but only earn it from the Natural Tailor of Natural Joy,” writes Jack Kerouac of Dean Moriarty (inspired by real-life Beat hipster Neal Cassady) in 1957’s On The Road.
Jackson Pollock, who created his iconic drip paintings in splattered denim overalls, led the pack of rowdy artists. Jackson and his peers sought to appear the opposite. The 1950s rebels found their ultimate, enduring cause in breaking with sartorial tradition. Boyer thinks they shattered the mold. We carry on their heritage.
WHAT DOES 1950S MEN’S FASHION MEAN TODAY?
“I wanted to put some freedom into the men’s collections,” Miuccia Prada stated, “and one of the finest means I discovered of accomplishing so was to reference an era – the 1950s – when men first had the freedom to express themselves with their clothes.”
Prada has revived 1950s men’s fashion—high-waisted trousers, Perfecto leather jackets, Cuban-collar shirts, penny loafers—better than most. Their last Mr Porter collaboration comprised striped bowling shirts, checked Harrington jackets, graphic knitted polos, suede blousons, and Prada Spazzolato leather loafers. “The 1950s was a time of celebration and optimism, and the collection represents that,” said Mr Porter buyer Daniel Todd.
A knitted polo, textured sport coat, or pleated trousers can give a work-or-play look a breezy insouciance and smart-casual confidence.
“We’re at a comparable place to the 1950s,” says tailor and designer Timothy Everest. “Separates have replaced suits in most offices, so employees must find other methods to stand out. The wider-leg trouser and fine-checked blouson jacket were important to that.
Lucas Ossendrijver at Lanvin and Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino, among others, have updated those designs with printed satin bomber jackets and palm tree-print shirts. Ossendrijver tells FashionBeans that 1950s clothes set the standard. “They’re reusable.”
There’s another reason 1950s men’s attire is timeless: Marlon Brando’s subversive and cool style lives on. From Cliff Richard imploring us to move-it-and-a-groove-it in a drape jacket in 1958 (yeah, he was a hepcat) to a bequiffed Alex Turner wearing a Saint Laurent varsity jacket in the 2010s, this specific uprising into style shows no risk of burning out.
Teenagers live in a “jolly world of gangs, games, movies, and music,” according to a recent Life magazine article. They speak a strange language, love chocolate milkshakes, wear moccasins everywhere, and drive like demons.” Who wouldn’t want to emulate that sixty years later?
KEY 1950S MEN’S CLOTHING
These are the most important pieces of men’s fashion from the 1950s that still influence fashion today.
1. CUBAN COLLAR SHIRT
Nothing says “Havana blast” like this breezy summer, men’s casual essential, which can be traced back to the 18th century in South America, when it was a working-class uniform, but truly made a striped, checkered, and Polynesian-print splash in the 1950s, when Elvis and Montgomery Clift wore it.
It resembles a classier Hawaiian shirt with its notch lapel-like collar (sometimes called a camp or revere collar), short sleeves, and straight, boxy hem. Wear under a blazer for an off-duty Don Draper appearance or roll the sleeves for Gene Vincent. Reiss and Timothy Everest have attractive simple and printed options.
2. PLEATED TROUSERS
Those who saw 1950s fashion as a bastion of flat-front homogeneity in the trouser department failed to account for the hepcats and rockabillies, who were saying “pleats please” decades before Issey Miyake. “The early rockers largely borrowed from the zoot outfits used by jazz artists in the 1940s,” writes G. Bruce Boyer. “It was a brightly colored, exaggerated take on tailoring.”
Pleated trousers create elegant lines and a full silhouette (though any maxi-pleated ’80s-style version should be avoided unless you’re going to a Kid Creole & The Coconuts-themed costume party), work equally well in a formal or casual setting, and have the added summertime benefit of allowing air to circulate around the pins. The beige cotton chinos from E.Tautz are particularly mid-century stylish, while Kent & Curwen’s come in utilitarian brown.
3. 1950S MEN’S SHOES: PENNY LOAFERS
The classic slip-on shoes (the’moccasins’ referred to in Life’s breathless anatomisation of the teenager) have a chequered history – Norwegian fishermen and small-denomination coins play a role at various points – but, for our purposes, it’s enough to know that these shoes became the classic finishing touch for the Ivy League preppy look that blossomed in the 1950s, and that they’ve been gracing the feet of every well-
If you want to go full prep, pair an original pair of Bass Weejuns with khakis, a navy blazer, an Oxford button-down shirt, and a knit tie (no socks, of course), and avoid the ‘enhancements’ that various designers have felt compelled to add over the years – zebra print, baroque tassels, Cuban heels, backless iterations with fun-fur trim, and so on.
4. KNITTED POLO
The knit polo, developed in the 1950s in fine-knit cottons and cashmere, was a breezy alternative to the shirt, and patterned versions gave wearers pizzazz and Riviera-readiness. Rene Lacoste pioneered the polo shirt in the 1920s as a breezy alternative to tennis players’ heavily starched, long-sleeved whites.
Jude Law’s Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley wears stripe-panel polos, cuffed shorts, and suede loafers to show corniche-owning bebop flair. Modern Dickies can sip dirty prosecco in retro-futurist Scott Fraser Collection (sky blue L-stripe), Next (textured with contrasting white), and Uniqlo variations (plain emerald green).
5. BLOUSON JACKET & SPORT COATS
Where do I begin with the blouson? Starting out as the Harrington jacket, the sporty, waist-length, zippered, tartan-lined, elastic-cuffed mainstay was initially produced in the UK in the 1930s as one of the most lightweight rainproof golfing sport coats (the lining came courtesy of Lord Lovat, a British commando and keen putter who gave permission for his clan check to be used), but really took off after its export to the US in the 1950s, dovetailing with the trend for flight and
Elvis, Dean, and Steve McQueen embraced it, and mods, soul boys, and Britpop legends have followed suit (take a lightweight bow, Damon Albarn and Liam Gallagher). Prada’s satin G9 is more Drive than the original Baracuta G9, but it’s expensive.
6. LEATHER JACKET
Marlon Brando on a motorcycle in The Wild One or Fonzie in Happy Days are 1950s men’s fashion icons. Even Grease, set in 1958, liked leather. Leather jackets have been a fashion staple for guys since the 1950s.
Leather jackets, which go well with jeans, are a 1950s men’s fashion staple. Buy excellent leather that will last for years and withstand all those motorcycle rides.
7. FEDORA HAT
Frank Sinatra made the fedora the most popular hat of the 1950s. The fedora, popular in 1950s movies and among trendy young men, is a timeless men’s accessory.
Fedoras, which provide an old-school touch to every outfit, aren’t only for your father’s pals. They’re sleek and sophisticated, with a mysterious air about them. Many men nowadays wear fedoras with a brim of less than two inches. However, for a more dramatic appearance, choose a generous or broad brim fedora for a lasting impression.