The Postwar & 1950s Explosion of Formal Wear

 “American men have strayed from the high standards and basic principles of fine dress established in the thirties” — Alan Flusser[1]

At the end of World War II, menswear saw an explosion of fashions and styles—some new, some nostalgic, some heralding the entrance of a new audience or tailoring powerhouse. There are many possible reasons for this outpouring of options: the postwar spirit of victory, the increase in money spent by rising middle classes, less restriction on product availability, the empowerment of new subcultures using clothes as statements; even the opening of new borders thanks to the fall of fascism. According to Alan Flusser, the postwar period was a dismal time for American men’s formal wear. He blames this phenomenon at least in part on a general decrease in formality as well as the dissolution of a clear hierarchy after the war: no longer were only a select few capable of dictating proper style.[2] At the same time, the mass manufacturing of ready-to-wear clothing (even ready-to-wear dinner jackets!) led companies to constantly create new styles, eroding the idea of permanent fashion.[3] On the other hand, increased accessibility of clothing allowed for new outlooks and new expressions through fashion—even formal fashion. And, like language, you might think of style as a living body that expresses the needs and viewpoints of the people who use it. No matter which of these perspectives you subscribe to, however, each of the movements introduced in this era has influenced modern men’s formal wear to some extent.

The Bold Look vs. Edwardian Nostalgia

In the postwar US, American men—both civilians and young men returning from service—“were ready for another change in their clothing styles.”[4] The wanted something new, something truly American in style. And Esquire magazine delivered just that, announcing its new “Bold Look” in 1948. This fashion’s silhouette was clearly a reaction to the fabric restrictions of the World War II years and heavily inspired by the zoot suit. Its double-breasted jacket was on the longer side and proportions were exaggerated with wide shoulders and broad lapels, while trousers grew fuller as well.[5] In addition, the Bold Look emphasized matching accessories: “This utterly contrived look leaned heavily on matched accessories such as ties and handkerchiefs in sharp contrast to the sophisticated, serendipitous style of the 1930s.”[6] In England, on the other hand, men reacted to the war’s end (and against new American fashion) with a return to Edwardian-style nostalgia: tapered jackets with velvet lapels, etc. There was even a noted revival in the wearing of boutonnieres (almost nonexistent since pre-World War I): “After World War II, the fortunes of the buttonhole revived a little as the neo-Edwardian look of the early fifties recalled some of the glamour of the Belle Époque.”[7] A “society florist,” Moyses Stevens, would prepare a selection of pre-made boutonnieres every morning and almost always sold out.[8] Unfortunately for the upper classes who drove this nostalgic fashion, the “somewhat dandified”[9] look was soon appropriated by young, working-class men known as “Teddy boys” or “Teds,” thus destroying the look’s associations with wealth, elegance, and glamor. The Teddy boys added certain elements to traditional Edwardian fashion in order to make it their own: e.g., crepe-soled shoes and narrow ties. Thus, they not only appropriated but also brilliantly subverted upper-class ideals:

“Ted dress was not merely borrowed fashion, it was bastard fashion. It may even have had clandestine ancestors in the form of the very American trends against which Savile Row was attempting to redefine itself, notably the zoot suit.”[10]

[caption id="attachment_160" align="aligncenter" width="336"]Photo by "Teddy Boys" photo by[/caption]

Conformity and the Gray Flannel Suit

“‘No style was ever so firmly resisted, so acrimoniously debated—or so enthusiastically received in various segments of the industry’” — Apparel Arts’ 75 Years of Fashion[11]

[caption id="attachment_161" align="alignleft" width="280"]James Willard Schultz in Gray Suit. Photo credits to MSU James Willard Schultz in Gray Suit. Photo credits to MSU[/caption] Though one faction of the postwar fashion industry (and its consumers) demanded the new, the original, the bold; many young men returning from service simply wanted to blend in and get on with their lives. Thus, the 1950s are often known as the “Age of Conformity.” With both American and British middle classes and former soldiers attempting to define themselves, a ready-made business suit served as a new uniform allowing seamless camouflage within the Establishment.[12] After the war, manufacturers had grown increasingly adept at developing synthetic fabrics that made clothes lighter, more durable, longer lasting, better able to hold a crease, and even washable. However, these synthetic fabrics didn’t have the same flexibility and range as natural fibers, meaning they could only create relatively unsophisticated designs.[13] Because there were so few options, the business suit really did serve as a uniform: everyone looked the same. Even dinner jackets were manufactured this way, replacing the formerly popular shawl collar with a noted lapel—the same style seen on business suits. If clothes are a means of expression, then the gray flannel suit was a means of keeping one’s head down and staying quiet. Clearly this is not a style that could last—and the sixties served as backlash against this overwhelming conformity.

The Continental Look

Thanks to the fall of fascism, Italian designers and their sharp, modern suits were introduced to and were considered extremely fashionable in England. By the mid to late 1950s, a new style based on these Italian designs was produced and grew popular in England and, eventually, was exported to the US. The shorter, leaner, single-breasted jacket with tapered trousers was known as the “Italian Style” or “Continental Look.”[14] Along with this new silhouette, postwar austerity and overwhelming conformity was gradually replaced by “increasing colour and pattern, a fundamental shift in menswear that would explode in the so-called ‘peacock revolution’ of the 1960s.”[15] By the end of the 1950s, this look—silhouette and color combined—became the very height of a new modernity. [caption id="attachment_162" align="aligncenter" width="706"]Cary Grant in Gray Continental Suit North by Northwest; Cary Grant in Gray Continental Suit[/caption] The Continental silhouette grew increasingly popular as formal wear, in addition to business wear. (Please note that at this point in the history, a mention of “formal wear” really refers to semi-formal wear, as tailcoats were almost never seen—they appeared only at the most formal of formal occasions.) During World War II, dinner jackets were very rarely worn outside the home. On those extremely rare occasions where dinner jackets did make an appearance, most tended to be the shawl-collared double-breasted style originally introduced by the Duke of Windsor. By the late fifties, though, the dinner jacket began to make a comeback—now in the lean, sharp Italian style “launched through fashion shows and worn by the stars of the burgeoning film industry based at the Cinecitta studios in Rome.”[16] Savile Row, however, was quite slow to respond to the decade’s changing look. It was, perhaps, still recovering both from the destruction wrought by war and from the more figurative destruction of the unparalleled class of its original Edwardian “London Blade” suit. Only one shop—in fact, a women’s shop—successfully manufactured a line of ready-to-wear suits inspired by “la bella figura” Italian style.[17] These suits were single-breasted with a lower waist, back vents, two buttons, and a more fitted line; they were developed for Hepworth’s and successfully sold in the US as well—even replacing the early century’s exaggerated Bold Look.

Carnaby Street: Minority and Youth Culture

Finally, while Savile Row struggled to reclaim its former glory, Carnaby Street took over as the heart of London’s fashion district: “a separate market came into being catering specifically to young people with large disposable incomes.”[18] Carnaby Street made a name for itself as home to a new kind of boutique that attracted young men aiming to identify and express themselves through fashion. These young men were aiming to—like every earlier generation stretching back further than Beau Brummell himself!—dress differently than their fathers. Carnaby Street’s reign didn’t reach its peak until the sixties—but it only could have reached that peak under the right conditions, and those conditions were met by the turmoil of different fashions and identities during the fifties. The turmoil, confusion, and attempted regrowth of postwar America and Europe is obvious through the many fashions it produced and the backlashes to those fashions—both within the same decade and in the sixties. The role of formalwear throughout this decade—first as symbolic return to prewar nostalgia, safety, wealth, and class distinctions; then as weapon against classicism; finally as a kind of equalizer across classes and countries—is, I think particularly notable. [1] (1985), 5. [2] Flusser (1985), 8. [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid., 20. [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid. [7] Foulkes, 32. [8] Ibid., 34. [9] Laver, 260. [10] Chenoune, 234. [11] Quoted in Flusser (1985) 20, regarding the gray flannel suit. [12] Ibid., 8. [13] Ibid. [14] Laver, 261. [15] Blackman, 180. [16] Blackman, 180. [17] Ibid. [18] Laver, 260.