“Why do men dress the way they do?” It comes as quite a surprise to most men when they learn to just what lengths (pun intended) men’s fashion had descended in past decades and just how those old fashions keep on coming around again and again.
The 1960s were a formative time in fashion for both men and women but to understand how and why fashion changed and where the many 60s looks came from we need to look back to a slightly earlier time.
The end of the war did not bring a joyous return to normal life since there were still, and would be for some time to come, severe shortages of most things. It did, however, bring back the desire to get out of uniform and other dull, wartime clothes and into something that would enable a man to express both his individuality and his alliance to whatever group he chose.
America had been our ally during the hostilities and American men were frequently seen on film and so American fashion influenced British looks. America’s reaction to the end of the war was to bring back to the fore the Zoot suit, a flamboyant and ultra-extravagant suit that would look outlandish today but which was instrumental in the fashions that were to follow in Britain.
The zoot suit came from the American, pre-war, gangster era and consisted of yards and yards of material made into a long coat down to the knees, wide trousers, maybe 30 inch at the knee, dwindling to a cuff at the ankle. Of course the zoot suit was also worn with an elaborate, often double-breasted, waistcoat, a gangster-style hat and fancy shoes. Its post-war adoption was only by a handful of men in America and even fewer in this country but it represented a reaction to wartime shortage and rationing and was instrumental in what followed for men’s fashion.
To see a zoot suit in all its glory, follow this link here to the V&A.
The UK Man
In the UK, fashion returned initially to pre-war styles and, since fashion materials were often on ration, to pre-war clothes. Most men wore lounge suits (ordinary work suits) both for work and leisure activities, often with a sleeveless jumper rather than a waistcoat and, of course, the obligatory tie. (See the recent Sixties Britain tie article here.)
New suits largely followed pre-war styles, often double-breasted, slightly waisted and with wide, often peaked, lapels, patch pockets and jackets to the thigh. Trousers were straight, of comfortable width, with a high waist (at the ‘belly button’), and with the turn-ups breaking just on the laces of the shoe.
However, the flamboyant zoot suit and generally relaxed attitude towards clothing styles in America along with mass-production methods of suit construction began to influence British suit design and the clothes that people wore. Suit jackets became longer, trousers full and lapels wider. Shirts which had been white ‘school’ type were replaced for casual wear initially by checks, colours and designs and then by shirts worn outside the trousers like the American ‘Hawaiian’ shirts.
Now, most fashion begins as a reaction to an existing design and as a way to express individuality and the first important group we look at began in a most unlikely way. A group of upper class English men, as a reaction to the American influence, began asking their tailors to revert back to the styles their fathers had worn. They choose black, long, straight, single-breasted jackets almost to the knee (not unlike but quite different from the zoot suit jackets), straight, plain, pin-striped, narrow trousers and a bowler hat.
If this sounds strangely familiar then it should! With a newspaper, rolled umbrella and shorter jacket, this became the standard post-war English businessman, known, loved and instantly recognisable throughout the rest of world. It also, surprisingly, influenced another small minority of quite different Englishmen to create one of the most interesting and influential fashion styles that was to typify 1950s Britain.