When you’re looking to improve your look and don’t know where to start– the history of mens style is a great place to begin. Instead of putting an outfit together because it looks good on that other guy, use the history of mens style to build your own look that’s congruent to who you really are.
My bachelor’s degree is in History, so I love looking back on the different eras of mens style to create an improved look for my clients. The history of mens style can be used as a reference point when you’re building a foundational look. A former client of mine was drawn to the James Bond style archetype. He preferred riptide and ripstop pants over jeans for the mobility. He was heavily into martial arts, so this worked for him. To take it a step further, you can match your style archetypes with a specific era in mens fashion to build your look.
Pick a decade that is congruent with who you really are. For example, James Bond worked for my client because he spent a lot of time training in martial arts. His personality had undercurrents of mystery and nobility. He didn’t care for button down shirts, but there was this subdued gentleman air to his character, so the archetype still fit.
James Bond first came on the scene in 1962. There’s been decades of 007 mens style since then. Ask yourself which particular Bond character or movie you like best, and start there. Personally, I’m still impatiently waiting for Idris Elba to play the role. But, I’ll digress for the moment.
How To Build The History Of Mens Style Into Your Look.
The fashion of the times has a lot to do with what was going on culturally. Take a look at the decades of mens style below, and pick which elements from that era that you want to incorporate into your look. The most efficient way to build your look is to pull mens fashions from iconic TV and film characters and movies that made a statement. I’ll share some from each decade below.
Mens Style From The 1940s and 1950s:
If you’re interested in the mens style of the 1940s and 50s; think World War II. Heavy fabrics were big because a lot of men were coming home from war wearing a pea coat from being on a ship, or trench coats from literally being in the trenches. A lot of utilitarian fashion began with this era, and spilled over into culture. A lot of fabrics were developed in the industrial revolution, so polyester in the 60s which is basically made out of plastic and oil because they had a lot of oil left over from reserves from WWII. Think: mobsters like Al Capone.
1940s Mens Style Elements:
- Double-breasted suits
- Wide, pleated and cuffed trousers
- Fedoras and pork pie hats, straw hats
- Strong, sturdy fabrics
- Zoot suits (popularized by African-American, Mexican American, Italian American, and Filipino American communities during the 1940s)
- Pocket squares
- Jazz, swing
- Baggy, shoulder pads
1950s Mens Style Elements:
Think Harry Belafonte (Dorothy Dandridge!!!!), Sidney Poitier, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, Miles Davis, Marlon Brando, Keye Luke, James Dean, Elvis Presley, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. The classic menswear suits, and white t-shirt and leather jacket look emerged from this era. You can see this look in the movie Grease; along with the Motorcycle culture, raw denim rolled up. Rebel that goes against the grain. When guys were tough and cool and rolled up their sleeves on their white t-shirts and put a pack of Marlboros in their t-shirt pockets.
Ebony magazine reflects on the time of the 1950s: “grooming remained dapper and clean, the shirts, open suits, sports coats and casual slacks gave a relaxed and effortless look to anybody who donned the trend. The little details were what brought looks together like shirts with embroidery, hats paired with a shirt and pants rather than a suit—and of course, emphasis was put on accessories—watches, glasses, and belts.”
- Blue jeans
- Lightweight fabrics in brighter colors
- Blouson jackets
- Denim jackets
- Saddle shoes and penny loafers
- Bermuda shorts
- Trench overcoats
- Leather motorcycle jackets
- Acrylic knitwear
Mens Style From The 1960s:
Things became fitted compared to the 40s baggy trousers. Soul music icons reigned in this era: Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Jimmy Hendrix, Woodstock, Austin Powers, The Beatles, etc. The 60s exploded with the Civil Rights Movement. The music changed. Everyone went around wearing whatever they wanted. Human rights, civil rights, feminism were cultural explosions and expanded everyone’s minds. As a result fashion exploded in the best way. It’s a great era to go back to and gain inspiration from for menswear because there’s so much diversity over a 10 year period. This list just covers some of the basics.
- Narrow tailoring
- Chelsea boots
- Black Panther Party style: iconic black berets (functional and political)
- Mandarin collar
- Pea coats
- Bold, geometric prints and patterns
- Polka dots and paisley
- Bohemian style
- Fringed suede jackets
Mens Style From The 1970s:
The 1970s took on a disco vibe. Bellbottom blue jeans were in, and there were disco suits. Think Studio 54, Saturday Night Fever with John Travolta. Not hippie anymore, but there was still bellbottoms. The emergence of Reggae music, rasta style and Bob Marley became a cultural phenomenon during this era. Major style influences also include: James Brown, Richard Roundtree as Shaft, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, Super Fly, Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, Rocky Balboa’s gray sweatshirt, Freddie Mercury, and more. The 70s also came with a NY punk character and more trends and freedom in film.
- Flared pant leg and bellbottoms
- Sweater vests, leather vests, suede vests,
- Ruffed shirts
- Bob Marley’s three-striped Adidas tracksuits
- Patchwork quilt pants
- Denim on denim
- Wide and open collars
- Tie-dye tops
- Turtleneck sweaters
- Disco, platform shoes
- Jumpsuits and tracksuits
- Velour, terrycloth
- Punk rock and funk
- Flamboyant and bold satin shirts and rock glam
Mens Style From The 1980s:
Ah, my favorite decade. You’ve got Michael Jackson in Thriller and beyond: literally everything he touches influences fashion in every way, and Prince gifted us with When Doves Cry and his iconic purple suits — such an original style icon, Muhammad Ali, classic Run-DMC style with the track suits and the gold chain. Guns N Roses. David Bowie, Prince, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren and Gianni Versace, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Johnny Depp, Lenny Kravitz. You’ve got Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy, Morgan Freedman, Samuel L. Jackson, Carl Weathers and Sylvester Stallone, Spike Lee.
- Miami vice style
- Colorful and preppy
- Heavy metal
- Acid wash, b-boy style
- Polo shirts
- Statement t-shirts
- Denim jackets
- Bomber jackets, windbreakers, leather jackets
- Members only jackets
- Oversized shirts, athletic caps
- Male work-out wear: short shorts, chunky sweaters, sweatpants
- Broad shoulders and oversized suit jackets
- Pinstripe suit and suspenders
- Shoulder pads
- Chunky knitwear
- Popped collars
- High rise jeans
- Boat shoes and loafers
Mens Style From The 1990s:
In the 1990s, you had cultural influences like The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, Pulp Fiction, Boyz N the Hood, Wesley Snipes in White Men Can’t Jump, and other mens style mentions like Jay Z, Will Smith, Denzel Washington in the historic Malcom X role, Jared Leto, Robert Downey Jr., Brad Pitt, David Bowie, Prince, Eddie Murphy, and so on. Grunge flannel combos with relaxed fit overalls with one strap down was an iconic 90s look. Then, there’s The Bodyguard!!! I’m just gotta mention it. Grunge also happened in the 90s that changed rock style.
- Aviator jackets
- Relaxed fit overalls with one strap down and skater tees
- Bucket hats and baggy jeans
- Flannel shirts
- Ripped jeans
- Unbuttoned shirts over graphic t-shirts and tank tops
- Doc martens
- Oversized t-shirts
- Combat boots
- Angora sweaters
- Stovepipe jeans
- Gangster rap: west coast v. east coast style
What To Do Next.
In the comments below, let me know which mens style era inspires you the most and why? Include films, TV roles or movies unmentioned or listed that you pull from to build your own sense of style. I’d love to hear from you.