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Men's fashions through the ages

21st April 2016 Print
Man in suit

It would be easy to presume that menswear has remained fairly stable over the last few decades, save for little evolutions and fads here and there. Indeed, it may only be when you scrutinise the history of men's clothing over the last one or two hundred years, that you realise how profoundly it has changed in response to all manner of social, cultural, political and economic factors. 

Here, we take a closer look at the twists and turns that have characterised the development of men's fashion within the space of just a few generations. 

The Georgian and Victorian eras 

People commonly associate the years immediately before 1900 with a stereotypically restrictive Victorian style of dress consisting of the likes of top hats, frock coats and pocket watches. 

However, even these hallmarks of the industrial age actually marked a loosening-up of clothing conventions from the Georgian era, when men were routinely expected to wear pantyhose, high heels and feathers. Never mind today's hipster throwbacks - these were truly the years of the "dandy"

The age when practicality trumped all else 

There was no sudden step change in male sartorial choices with the passing of Queen Victoria - the menswear template of the early 20th century remained one with little scope for individuality or imagination, utilitarianism being the name of the game. 

Silhouettes remained tall and lean, characterised by three-piece suits comprising a sack coat with matching waistcoat and trousers. It took until the post-World War I period for more drastic changes to become apparent, as higher earnings allowed ordinary men to travel more and incorporate various fashion influences from abroad into their wardrobes. 

The true emergence of 20th century fashion 

Although austerity returned in the 1930s with the Great Depression, men's sartorial imaginations continued to be fired by elegantly dressed screen icons like Fred Astaire, Cary Grant and Clark Gabel. Then, immediately following World War II, came the widespread mass production of menswear and the emergence of many brands that are still selling us clothing now. 

The late 1940s was also the period when the whole notion of "fashion" as we know it now - with "trends" that change every season - gradually took hold. Magazines began to emerge that commented on the latest male fashions, placing a new emphasis on male consumers continually "reinventing themselves" by updating their style. 

Conformity, followed by rebellion 

Such notions of individuality gave way in the 1950s to the urgency among young men returning from the military to fit in and "look the part" by donning conservative grey suits and minimalist accessories like a pocket square and cigarette. 

There couldn't have been a greater contrast, therefore, between that decade and the youthful, rebellious self-expression of the 1960s. The latter was an age in which even the older generations wanted to look carefree, and the steady liberation of dress codes continued in the 1970s era of hippies and disco, as the likes of bell bottom jeans, homemade headbands and ever-wider and bolder neckties became all the rage. 

Confidence, power and individuality 

As Western countries enjoyed a return to prosperity in the early MTV age, with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan taking office on each side of the Atlantic, so "power dressing", characterised by broad shoulders and bold graphic and colour patterns, become the boardroom norm. 

The decades since then have seen a renewed emphasis on individuality in male fashion, with an almost "anything goes" ethos. While the clothing itself has continued to evolve, so too has the way men now learn about and buy clothing, as online shopping and fashion bloggers have come to wield huge influence in the 2000s and 2010s. 

Men's fashion, then, has never really stayed the same, even if many current lines do proudly hark back to the past while incorporating the best of the present. With highly respected heritage labels like Dickies Life now joined by a range of youthful upstart brands, the male fashionista has certainly never had greater choice - or power - than they do now. 

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Man in suit