When we look back on the past 10 decades, there can be no doubt that different trends have characterized each era. Among men’s fashion, the developments have often been a bit more subtle, especially during the first half of the century. However, when you examine the styles side by side and consider the underlying history, the changes – and the reasons for their occurrence – become clearer.
Below we’ll be examining the most popular garment trends for men that made the 20th century what it was, what brought the style about, and whether it’s still a popular look today.
About the look: Much like women, men’s fashion in this decade was fairly staid, requiring the body to be covered with multiple layers of clothing. After WWI, the longer knee-length jackets men had worn were being replaced by “sack coats,” which were shorter and softer. A white suit shirt, necktie, and pants matching the jacket made up the rest out the main outfit. Clothes, though not tight, were close to the body. Collars were often detachable and tended to sit high on the neck. Oxfords or short boots were the shoes of choice, which either laced up with ribbon or buttoned on the side. Two-tone boots were particularly well-liked.
Is it in style today? Many of the suits of the 1910s are similar to the “slim” style that is popular now and could be easily worn today, but the other aspects of the outfit – the large, separate collar, button-up boots, and required hat – have a decidedly dated look and are rarely seen anymore.
About the look: Men’s suiting in the 20s became more lightweight and whimsical than they had been previously. In the first part of the decade, the slim fit remained the norm, while in later years, a wider silhouette started becoming popular. The attached collar shirt had begun to win out over detachable variants, and bow ties (especially colorful ones) became the favored neck accessory. Decorating your suit pocket was a must, and handkerchiefs and small watches were treasured. Practical, lace-up Oxford shoes also eclipsed buttoned boots in popularity.
Is it in style today? The fondness for accessories that flourished during the 1920s is still prevalent today, with the wristwatch replacing the pocket watch. Contemporary suits usually utilize softer, thinner fabrics than this decade and forego the waistcoat (vest) that had been a must since the 1910s. The bow tie is still around, albeit less frequently seen than the traditional necktie, and today’s dress shoes continue to closely resemble those of the 20s.
About the look: One big change to men’s styling in the 30s was the shape of the suit. As the Depression hit and men were struggling to provide for their families, suits became much wider and contoured to create the illusion of a muscular physique, based on the body types of boxers and other athletes, who were also becoming more popular during the decade. Double-breasted jackets served to enhance the effect and were the most popular type, while pants sat very high on the waist and tapered outward, helping to create a brawny look.
Is it in style today? The 1930s tend to be referenced more often when someone is trying to achieve a gangster-like or “tough guy” costume more than a regular outfit. The wide shapes of the era look out of place amongst today’s skinny-fit suits. However, the idea that men’s garments could boost men’s masculinity recurred throughout the 20th century and continues to do so today as an oft-debated concept.
About the look: During World War II, men who remained at home wanted to support the efforts overseas, and the key way of doing so was to show adherence to rationing and project a disciplined image. The waistcoats of prior years were deemed indulgent inessentials and done away with, and the use of synthetic materials like rayon in suits became acceptable and desirable. At the same time, some men chose to wear “zoot suits,” which used large amounts of rationed fabric and dye. This blatant overuse of resources during a time when the army had a genuine need for them disgusted many servicemen. In later years, war-weary men demanded more comfortable clothing, leading to the innovation of men’s casual clothing. Neckties began to be dispensed with outside the office, and soon hats would go the same way.
Is it in style today? The core struggle of the 1940s – asceticism versus luxury – is certainly a debate that transcends clothing. The opposition to the zoot suits had a racial element as well, as they were particularly common among Latino and black Americans. The clothes may have changed, but the issues brought to light in this era remain complex and important topics.
About the look: The move toward casual clothing that started at the end of the 1940s really took off in the 50s. Pieces like knit shirts, T-shirts, and sweaters that had previously been considered garments for sporting events became acceptable for general wear. Similarly, shoes such as loafers, previously worn only around the house, could become part of a daily outfit. Blue suede loafers were especially trendy. The suit shirt gave way to soft button-downs and hats were worn less and less often. Trousers with an interesting texture, like corduroys, were a popular choice to finish an outfit.
Is it popular today? The 50s represent a key point in men’s fashion. The quickly-growing interest in leisurewear gave men access to more choices than ever as the idea of what was appropriate began to be challenged. This is similar to the changes in office dress codes in recent years; fewer and fewer are requiring men to wear suits and employees are free to dress in a more individual, comfortable way.