History's Mirror Project: Men's clothing


At first glance it may appear that 'smart' clothing for men has changed very little in this period, but on closer inspection changes and developments can be seen. At times men's clothing has been secondary to female fashions and at other times it has been in the forefront, creating a showy 'peacock' male.

Up to the 20th century clothes for men and women tended to be custom made, and men's suits remained made to measure well into the 1940s and for some time beyond this. It is now very expensive and for the very well to do. However, during those decades ready-made clothes became more available. Mass marketing reduced the price of tailoring for the majority of men and as a consequence more men were able to buy a range of clothing for formal and leisure wear as well as their traditional workplace outfits. Until well into the century, men had their work clothes and, if lucky, a suit for 'Sunday best'. Fashion was not a consideration for many.

The standard suit shape developed from military uniforms in the eighteenth century and, although suits now seem far removed from this, certain aspects still apply. The detailed shaping of jackets, collars and cuffs requires knowledge of precise tailoring techniques. It has always been far more difficult for the untrained person to make men's formal clothes than those for women and consequently men's styles have been more reliant on the attitudes and skills of tailors and outfitters. It was not until the end of the 20th century that anything other than a smart suit was acceptable wear for a man going to work in a non manual job or for occasion wear.

During this time many men were in actual uniform because of the war. Fabrics that were available had priority use for uniform production, so there was less for civilian clothing. The effect of this was to create a silhouette that had a single breasted jacket with trousers with no pleats or turn ups. After the war, as the forces were demobbed and things became more plentiful the prevailing style became looser and larger, with wide lapels and collars. Men generally wore hats out, a trilby or a bowler. The main fabric was wool and usually in shades of black, grey, brown or dull green. These were sometimes mixed in checks or flecks but were predominantly plain. The availability of shoes was limited but again these were black or brown and brogue or Oxford styles. Towards the end of the decade American fashions, spread by Hollywood films shown in the UK, were increasingly influential on what people aspired to wear.


Gentlemen's clothing at the start of the 50s was still conservative in style with trim tailoring, single breasted jackets and straight cut trousers. Ties were quite thin. Casual wear was a light jacket or blazer and lighter coloured trousers. V-necked sweaters and cardigans were popular. Cotton prints and colourful Hawaiian shirts were beginning to be seen.

In 1953 there was a fashion for long jackets and narrow shirt collars. Influenced by the 1940s jazz wear 'Zoot 'suit, Teddy Boys took this style to an extreme with very long jackets with contrasting collars, tight trousers and large crepe soled shoes (brothel creepers). This coincided with the beginning of rock and roll in Britain.

By the end of the 1950s the mood had changed. Clothes were more casual with bright colours and patterns. Trousers were high waisted but narrow. Jeans were being worn as casual rather than work wear. Smart shoes were still similar to previously but the toes began to get more pointed. Tennis shoes (sneakers) and baseball boots and two tone suede or white lace ups became popular with youths. Fluorescent day-glo socks had a fashion outing too.


The sixties started with the same styles as previously but this soon changed. At the beginning formal clothes were smart and chic, with a slim straight silhouette, narrow lapels on a short jacket and ankle skimming trousers with no turn ups. These were influenced by the Kennedy family in the USA and their designer, Halston.

With the arrival of the Beatles, and the 'swinging sixties' fashion for men took off. Collarless suits buttoned to the neck were worn by the new groups of young musicians, with belted high waisted narrow trousers. They wore winklepicker shoes and Cuban heels. Top tailors for this generation were Paul Smith and John Stephen.

Gradually clothes for younger men became far more casual. Bright colours and organic patterns were the norm, coupled with exotic fabrics. Ex-military uniforms were fashionable, especially the brocaded dress jackets. At the time there was a glut of military wear which had been released by international armies after World War II, and young people snapped them up. Consequently by the mid sixties huge military great coats were seen everywhere. It was an irony that the parents of these young men had been only too keen to get out of these uniforms.

In the early sixties Britain had one of its periodic youth culture antagonisms. This was Mods versus Rockers. The rockers evolved from the Teddy Boys and the early rock and rollers, wore jeans and leather jackets and rode motorbikes (if they could afford them). The mods evolved from the preppie American look of the late 50s. They wore smarter clothes; polo sweaters, Ben Sherman shirts with buttoned down collars, college sweaters and Parka (army surplus) coats. They rode scooters. Only the extreme groups of these two actually fought each other, at seaside towns on Bank Holidays, but the fashion influences spread much further.

As the drug culture influenced musical groups and what they wore, young men copied. Lightweight floaty fabrics, velvet and fur were seen on young men. Trousers for this group were tight and low slung with flares and often brightly coloured. Shoes worn were elasticated side 'Chelsea' boots, moccasins and sandals. The trilbies and bowlers of the 40s and 50s had given way to Dylan caps and large felt floppy hats.


By the mid 1970s formal suiting took on an Italian influence, with the arrival of Armani, Versace and Valentino. Suits became looser. Jackets were single breasted, longer and had large loose collars. Trousers were high-waisted and looser with flares. Shirts had longer collars and ties were broad. Bright colours and patterns were popular for shirts, sometimes with a tie of the same fabric. Open necked shirts were often worn in more formal settings. Blouson jackets became popular. In general hair was worn quite long and beards and moustaches were ever-present.

The rise of glam rock and disco influenced fashion a great deal. Shiny soft fabrics, rhinestones and sequins were found on young men's fashions. These went well with the platform shoes and makeup that was being shown on Top of the Pops and in the discos. Most young men didn't go with the extremes of this fashion as exhibited by David Bowie, but many did try some feminisation of their wardrobes.

Tank tops brightly coloured and patterned tight sleeveless sweaters were very popular and complemented the looser sleeved and large collared shirts. Many young men had continued with the late sixties look of jeans and t-shirts. This anti fashion look evolved in the mid to late 70s into punk. Narrow black jeans, tartan, leather 'bondage' styles and torn clothing earmarked the punk look and ethos. Weird hairstyles and colours, tattoos and piercings were outlandish at the time, but can now be found throughout society.


The pervading fashions in this decade had a looser more casual look, but suits became more popular again with designers such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Burberry. The silhouette was square, with loose double breasted jackets, wide lapels, shoulder pads, broad ties, loose high waisted trousers with turn ups and braces. These suits were worn with brogues and loafers. Shirts were often bright in colour and ties were heavily patterned and wide. In the late 80s there was reference back to some of the 50s styles which fitted well with this shape.

The sporty look was high fashion. Loose t-shirts and t-shaped tops were around. Headbands were worn by some. Lightweight sleeveless gilets with pockets first became popular. This look was influenced by the burgeoning gym and aerobic fad of the time. Baseball caps were seen everywhere. The trilby and bowler had disappeared completely.

Another area which had gradually developed was urban style. This references the sporty style with sports clothing being its basis. Track suits and trainers worn with jewellery became the basis, influenced by the development of rap and hip hop. It started in the USA but gradually came to Britain, being adopted by groups of urban youth. This fashion has gradually developed with more extreme styles of trainer or trousers. Wearing the right label on your clothes, which started in the 1980s, is a vital aspect of this. The nuances of the fashion, what is in and what is not, change rapidly by the day.

Formal wear

Men's formal evening wear has not changed a great deal in the 40s -80s time period. In the 40s most men would have never had cause to wear such clothes. A dinner suit was traditionally black, with a black bow tie and a black cummerbund where appropriate. Shirts started off as the traditional dress shirt with separate collar and cuffs. Gradually it was thought appropriate to use a normal white shirt but this was sometimes frilly fronted or lacy. From the fifties onwards newer fabrics like mohair silk and fabrics with a sheen were used. Sometimes these had a contrast collar and this might be a cowl shape with a single button.

Jacket and trouser shapes mirrored the fashions in the 60s and 70s. By the eighties waistcoats were popular with the loose jacket fashion, and these were often brightly coloured and patterned and had a bow tie to match and possibly a contrasting cummerbund.

There were many formal dress hire shops on the high street from the 1970s onwards so now anyone is able to hire a suit for a special occasion without the need to buy one. Consequently, dinner suits and evening wear can often be seen at weddings and formal events nowadays.