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 FlusserAt 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. 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. 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 NostalgiaIn the postwar US, American men—both civilians and young men returning from service—“were ready for another change in their clothing styles.” 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. 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.” 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.” A “society florist,” Moyses Stevens, would prepare a selection of pre-made boutonnieres every morning and almost always sold out. Unfortunately for the upper classes who drove this nostalgic fashion, the “somewhat dandified” 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.”[caption id="attachment_160" align="aligncenter" width="336"] "Teddy Boys" photo by DaveGuys.com[/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[caption id="attachment_161" align="alignleft" width="280"] 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. 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. 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.