The post-war decade that is the 1950s is often heralded by some as a kind of heyday for all things traditional and conservative. This often applies to everything, including fashion, and, to a large extent, that is true. Why, you might ask?
It is primarily because what we consider preppy or trad styles for men today have their root and genesis in this pivotal decade. Some fashionistas often react to the mention of the 50s fashion for guys by declaring a decade of modest dress and “boring” styles.
Yet this would be ignoring the fact that this decade was not only pivotal for the rest that followed but was, itself, a radical reaction to the fashion consensus that came before it. In this article, we’ll describe typical 1950s men’s fashion and how it rebelled against the conventions of the truly conservative (and sparing) 1940s.
From abundant use of fabrics to the advent of shorts and sports wear as a thing people put on, the 1950s was more than just a bunch of quintessentially preppy looks and was as revolutionary as some of the looks of the decade that followed.
Tailoring – 1950s Men’s Suits
The traditional styles associated with 1950s men’s fashion typically revolve around three-piece suits, fedors, baggy trousers, knee-high socks, and maybe an accessory like a wrist watch.
While this isn’t a completely inaccurate picture of the typical 50s fashion, men had a lot more to choose from in that decade than ever before and this isn’t accurately captured by the above list. For one, suits themselves gave way to more casual options with sport jackets and even blazers as men began wearing khakis and other suiting options.
The three-piece suit definitely dominated the work environment for the white-collar class, but it was far from the only option in casual wear. In fact, the explosion in casual wear in 1950s fashion for guys marks it as the beginning of what we would now call activewear and sportswear.
In terms of jackets and styles, they came in a wide variety of colors and rarely featured one single color throughout. Jackets often incorporated some small detail such as a line or dotted pattern to break up the visual landscape. Professional men tended towards black and grey suits with navy a popular option as well.
Materials and Patterns
One material that came into vogue in the 1950s and hasn’t really seen a revival since is corduroy. This material impacted every category of men’s clothing and you could even find entire suits made out of the stuff. As the decade progresses, the noticeable change in suit jackets, blazers, and sportcoats is that the color options expand and patterns become increasingly loud and complex.
That is, they become a lot more noticeable than the subtle stripes and designs prevalent earlier in the decade. Another aspect of this decade’s explosion of fashion options is that you begin to see a stratification based upon class in terms of what suiting option a man wore.
The above mentioned corduroy, for example, tended to be less expensive than the three-piece wool suits that dominated sales earlier in the decade. Similarly, as you get closer to the 1960s you begin to see designers experimenting with artificial fibers in making everything from suits to dress shirts – all of which arrived at markedly lower prices than their natural fiber counterparts.
Two other materials that tended to be popular during the 1950s men’s fashion were jersey and madras. Jersey was often preferred by many men because it could be comfortably worn year around and, as we discussed above, could be used in both formal and informal applications.
As the lines between casual and formal blurred increasingly as the decade wore on, jersey was a great vector for moving this trend forward.
Big and Baggy
Something modern people will pick up on almost immediately when they see 1950s fashion for guys is how big and baggy the pants seem to be in relation to what most men wear today.
There are a couple of reasons for this but most of them center around the 1940s and its tendency towards scarcity in materials thus the suiting and clothing from this period tended to be made from less fabric.
The other concept at play was the idea that a clothing purchase was for a lifetime – or as close as possible.
Prior to the advent of mass industrialization and fast-fashion production techniques, most clothing items – for either gender – took a lot more time than they do today. In a relative sense, they cost more money as well.
You can find historical evidence of the importance of clothing and its durability in things such as wills where one relative bequeaths another their wardrobe.
Making pants with more fabric allowed the wearer to not only escape the frugal approach of the previous decade but also gave more room to work with in terms of longevity and repair.
1950s Men’s Slacks
Because of the standard sport coat/jacket/blazer and slacks combination, a general rule was that you paired smooth slacks with a textured coat or vice versa. You could find slacks in everything from artificial fibers to wool and they tended to taper at the ankles which leads to their billowing effect when compared with modern pants.
One major innovation of suit pants and slacks of this era was the improvement of the waistband which meant that men could go without suspenders in order to hold their pants up. Of course, belts were still considered pretty much a given no matter what look a man was attempting.
Later styles incorporated even better waistbands that meant you could wear the pants without a belt and this became even more popular in the next decade. Colors tended to be seasonal with darker colors dominating the fall and winter and pastels making appearances during the spring and summer months.
1950s Men’s Shorts
When it came to shorts, the 1950s were the era when men revolutionized their sartorial game. Prior to this decade, shorts were primarily seen as a athletic garment or something for the beach.
As the expansion of casual wear became more rapid in the 1950s, shorts took on an increased role in this movement. Compared to now, shorts were still a relatively conservative affair.
For one, the cuff stopped just above the knee and shorts were always accompanied by knee-high socks thus negating the “scandal” of showing so much leg. Shorts came in everything from plaid to seersucker and were composed of cotton, linen, and some artificial materials.
Socks were often styled according to the occasion with loud argyle styles being the preferred garment of golfers and tennis players.
Though decidedly casual wear, wearers would often incorporate a jacket in order to step up the level of formality of their outfit but shorts, overall, were considered a casual thing and would not be acceptable formal wear in any circumstance in 1950s men’s fashion.
1950s Men’s Shirts
Typical men’s shirts of the 1950s include shirt jackets, trad button downs, knit shirts, t-shirts, and even Hawaiian shirts as you move towards the 1960s and the age of jetset travel becomes more firmly established.
Again, shirts are occasion specific and you wouldn’t find a Hawaiian shirt at a formal event. The quintessential 1950s men’s shirt is the button down. Why? It can expand with your girth, it’s easy to repair (replacing buttons was a common skill in the 1950s, and it can be adapted to a range of use scenarios.
Cotton button downs are the most common with shades of blue and grey being the most dominant colors. The fabric was often thicker than what we are accustomed to today and could be more likened to a polo shirt in thickness.
One major reason for this is because seasonality was not yet a major concept in designing men’s fashion during this period as it was all largely occasion based due to the relatively little variance between the seasons in what men wore prior to the 1950s.
It helps to keep in mind that shorts were often something relegated to the beach and the tennis court which meant that the vast majority of men wore nothing but pants all year around.
As we have established above, the 1950s saw the rise of sportswear and activewear as categories of fashion but it also saw the rise of outerwear. The most popular choices for men were bush jackets and anything that stopped at the waist.
1950s Bomber Jacket
Part of the reason for this is that longer jackets were often associated with formal occasions and working life. One major linkage between men’s fashion now and 1950s fashion for guys is the bomber jacket, a staple in both eras. Like now, the bomber jacket came in every flavor imaginable and was a go-to choice for men of all ages.
Commonly, men often used their jacket as a chance to express their personality and this is why you would see some more rigid rules around jacket type and materials then as opposed to now.
For example, it would be odd to see a suburban dentist wearing a leather jacket on the weekends. As much as clothing expressed an individual’s personality, it also broadcasted other things such as social class and even extracurricular hobbies.
Hats were also a major component of the 1950s man’s wardrobe and often consisted of fedoras, the Panama hat, and the walking hat (also known as the bucket hat). See our guide to men’s hats
Footwear was still a very traditional category for men in the 1950s in that very little changed – except for one major development. The de rigueur selection for most men was a penny loafer in either black or brown. A slip-on option might be worn at home when the gentleman is no longer at work.
These could also come in two-tone options such as black and whtie or brown and white to add some flavor to your typical 1950s men’s footwear. The major development of this era was the Converse shoe and the rise of the sports shoe.