A Look at Men's Clothing in the 1950s
During the ‘50s, leisurewear for men became very popular. Instead of wearing three piece suits all day long, men would dress for business in the morning and quickly changed into more comfortable clothing when they returned home.
For labor workers in a uniform, many employment offices now had lockers so men could change into street clothes before heading home. Naturally, on the weekends, men wore casual clothing fit for whatever task they had: lounge clothes for at home, sport clothes for playing or viewing sporting events, and swim clothes for the beach.
None of this is new information. Leisure clothing has been established since the 1920s. What sets 1950s men’s casual clothing apart is the sheer variety of options, the bold splash of colors, and the overwhelming use of new textures and materials. The cost of clothing plummeted after the war. New synthetic materials made clothes easy to wash and wear and the movies helped spread new fashions faster than ever before. For both men and women, the 1950s gave them options — lots of options — to wear any time of day. The diversity was most prevalent in casual clothing.
To contrast with colorful, textured sport coats, men’s casual pants/trousers/slacks came in just as many if not more varieties. The general rule was to wear a textured sport coat with smooth pants, or textured pants with a smooth sport coat.
The same rules applied to colors. Patterns on top meant solid color on the bottom and vice versa. Too much texture or print was considered tacky. Matching top and bottom colors was also “too formal” for leisurewear. Colors were almost always mixed.
1950s men’s slacks were often made of gabardine, rayon, Nylon, Dracon, cotton, linen, flannel, silk, wool, and blends of these. “Wash and wear” easy care was a major marketing slogan. In winter, heavier textured fabrics were favored such as wool tweed and corduroy.
Solid colors were common, as were some subtle patterns such as thin stripes, checks, and plaid. Two distinct patterns were the “flecks” and “splash” patterns found in the second half of the decade. Colors after 1954 were quite bold – pink, teal, sea-green, rust, yellow, lavender, and powder blue. Neutral shades such as light and medium grey, blues, browns, white, and tans were common throughout the decade.
Some slacks had contrasting pocket flaps, belts, top stitching, and insert panels. These are very collectable today as part of the “atomic era” style.
Waistbands were given new treatments in the 1950s. They continued to fit high on the waist, some slightly higher than previous decades. While most slacks were designed to be worn with thin belts, a few styles had unique belt loops, beltless waistbands, and back details:
- Self-belt – An attached belt in matching fabric. Could be full, half, or partial length.
- Continuous waistband – High waist with no waistband seam, optional dropped belt loops. Known today as the Hollywood waistband.
- Drop belt loops – Belt loops placed 1.5 to 2 inches below the waistband edge.
- Tunnel belt loops – Wide A-frame belt loops creating a “tunnel” for the belt to slide through
- Backstrap – A belt back or backstrap placed on the backside of the slacks, cinched with a slide.
- Elastic Back- Putter Pants had a wide elastic back waistband for comfort.
From the waistband down, 1950s pants fit wide and full around the hips and thighs, ending in a cuff or plain hem. After 1954, men’s pants took inspiration from Rome, where the tapered leg look was already trending. Plain or pleated waistbands were smoothed down and tapered into a long, lean, leggy look. The cuff was now only 17-1/2 inches. Pockets now had flaps and beltloops returned to standard placement.
As the decade inched closer to the 1960s, the pleated waistband was old news. The baggy look, too, was replaced by a more narrow, straight-leg pant. The rise was still high, but now centered at or just below the navel.
Most pants had belt loops and were worn with a thin leather belt. They were skinny — 3/4″to 1″ wide, sometimes less, were the standard belt widths. Thin belts with a small buckle helped keep the appearance trim and neat. Webbed nylon belts with brass buckles and even woven plastic belts were also used in summer.
Denim blue jeans transitioned from western wear and workwear to casual wear for rebel teens, a move led by James Dean (Rebel Without a Cause) and Marlon Brando (The Wild One). Everyone was wearing blue jeans and jean jackets.
Levi’s changed their marketing campaign away from cowboys to teens going off to college and families relaxing at home. They also changed their line of blue jeans from “Dude Ranch Duds” to “Western Wear” by the end of the 1950s.
Both men and women wore jeans. The men’s cut featured contrast stitching, a straight leg, and wide rolled cuff. Denim was either a dark wash or a medium blue wash saturated with dye (no faded jeans yet!). Levi’s has reissued a few men’s jeans from the 1950s.
“Don’t forget to wear them knee length so you don’t look like a fugitive from a baseball game. With them you’ll want knee-length socks in contrasting designs. The shoes of course should be moccasins or sports style. And wear these shorts with a swagger, lads. This is a fashion with the comfort men have been waiting for so long, and now,-in its many forms- it has entree anywhere.” Esquire, August 1956
Men’s 1950s shorts were not a new invention, but they certainly gained mass market appeal starting in 1949. Beach and sport playing were the prime reasons men wore shorts prior to the 1950s. Now, it was all about casual fashion. The most popular style of short was the almost-knee length walk (walking) shorts, known as Bermuda shorts today. They fit like men’s slacks without pleats at the waistband, and hung straight down to an inch or two above the knee cap. They came in plain colors as well as plaid, seersucker, and stripes in cotton, linen, madras, and even flannel. Some had back belts and most were worn with a contrasting fabric belt.
Shorts were hardly ever worn without a pair of knee high socks, usually in bold patterns such as the classic argyle. Plain colors were OK, too. Paired with a slip on pair of penny loafers or moccasins, a man was set for a round of golf, a walk to the park, a day at the seaside, or gardening in his own backyard. Some fashionable men wore flannel shorts to dinner paired with a sport coat, shirt, and tie, especially in seaside resort towns.
Shorts lengths changed little for most of the decade, but some specifically designed for athletic wear were even shorter. They hit about mid thigh, worn without a belt and made of a sturdier cotton twill. They provided maximum freedom to move and breathe and play a great game of baseball, tennis, or soccer.
Swim shorts were even shorter than sport shorts with flat or gathered elastic waistbands, zipper fly or side buttons, and sometimes a small flap pocket on one side. It was quite common to buy swim shorts with a matching button-down sport shirt, worn open. The brief (aka Speedo) style swim-short were another swimsuit option.
The button down shirt was a year round style in both long and short sleeves. Shirts came in plaid, plaid, plaid, and more plaid. Solid colors, too, but mostly just plaid. Heavy plaid fleece or wool blends for winter (Pendleton still makes them just like the ’50s cut) and light cotton or madras in summer. Most button down shirts came with either a high button collar like a dress shirt or an open neck collar. Two chest pockets with button down flaps mimicked the western look, another style of button-down shirt. Pockets could also be patch with no flaps. Besides plaid, pastels were common (pink, yellow, teal blue) as well as abstract prints, small checks (gingham), and vertical stripes.
The Hawaiian “Aloha” shirt was a classic button down shirt made of cotton and printed in abstract tropical designs. It could be worn tucked in, but when paired with casual pants and shirts, it was left untucked.
Men’s 1950s knit shirts resembled a modern day polo, except the collar was much wider and contrasted with the shirt body. Some knit shirts buttoned with a single button at the neck, while others had two buttons on a placket. A few styles had a lace up placket instead of buttons– a carry over style from the 1930s. Most were pullover styles with a gathered waistband worn tucked (and sometimes not tucked) into pants.
The T-shirt was less common among men than it was with youth. It was made of a jersey knit and a high round collar that sometimes came in a contrasting color (modern day calls them ringer T’s). They usually had one patch pocket on the chest. Some T-shirts had novelty prints on them, but most men wore them in plain colors. They were reserved for active sportswear.
Shirt jackets were a blend between the button down shirt and a long sleeve lightweight jacket. It was mostly a spring or fall item, when the weather was too cool for short sleeves but too warm for a lightweight button down shirt. They featured a wide pointed collar worn buttoned or tied with contrasting panels of stripes, checks or other western inspired print. They had one patch or flap pocket on the chest and an elastic waistband to keep the cool wind out. Sleeves buttoned at the cuff.
In the 1950s, a new cowboy emerged from Hollywood — this time not out on the range, but inside by the fire, singing soulful tunes. Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and Roy Rogers entertained families at home as single singing cowboys. They dressed in western influenced clothing that was wearable at home, not just out on the ranch.
The western style was influencing all types of garment designs, prints, and accessories. For men, the biggest influence was on casual shirts. Button down shirts featured double check pockets with button flaps or arrow tipped slit pockets. Shirt collars were extra long and pointy. Long shirt cuffs had 4-5 buttons, usually snaps. Shirts came in the very popular ’50s plaid as well as vertical stripes.
The most western styled shirts had yokes, fringe, colorful embroidery, western symbols, and the iconic V-front panels across the chest. Shirts could be cotton, but they also came in a shiny silk or rayon finish to mimic fancy rodeo duds.
The Western influence on shirts carried over into shirt-jackets and coats. The same style details were featured on men’s outerwear. Leather or suede were both common jacket materials as well as textured wool with suede elbow patches and collars. Extra large pockets, big shiny buttons, yokes, and inset panels all had a place on outerwear design.
Men’s sweaters increased in popularity in the early 1950s. The casual nature of the times combined with better indoor heating and AC meant men could replace jackets with a light pullover sweater or button up cardigan instead.
While many women continued to hand knit sweaters, improvements in knitting machines made machine-made sweaters more affordable. Thanks to new synthetic fibers, sweaters were now thin, soft, and shrink-resistant. For those that could afford it, Cashmere, Alpaca, and lambswool were the best natural fibers.
Sweaters came in three weights: flat-knit was the lightest stitch, Shaker knit was a medium rib stitch, and a shell stitch was thick and fancy. Most sweaters had ribbed necklines and wide rib cuffs. The fit was straight and slim, just like jackets.
The sleeveless V-neck sweater vest was popular with conservative men. The vest replaced the waistcoat of a 3 piece suit. Worn in plain colors over a dress shirt and tie, it was appropriate for businesswear, yet added a touch of casualness men desired. Varieties that came in bold patterns were worn over open neck sport shirts for a casual sporty look both on and off the golf course.
Button up cardigan sweaters were still classics for casual dress. The low V-neck styles could also be worn under a buttoned up suit coat or sport coat without showing, adding a layer of warmth.
On high school and college campuses (and worn by post college age men as well), the letterman cardigan sweater or V-neck pullover called an “Award Sweater,” “Letter Sweater,” or “Varsity Sweater” was the athletic man’s uniform. The large felt white or gold block letter on the left side represented the school name. Additional letters, stripes, and symbols were sewn onto varsity sweaters or varsity jackets to specify the sport, year, or position on the team.
Letterman sweaters were a symbol of social rank in school and a nod to the past for grown men. They have become an icon for 1950s fashion thanks to many movies about life in 1950s high schools, such as Grease.
For winter wear, the pullover sweater (sometimes cardigan style) was knit with large stripes, color blocks, and Scandinavian designs inspired by ski wear. White, red, and black were common color combinations. On the ski slopes, these sweaters were wool, thick, and quite heavy for warmth, but in the city they merely looked heavy with a wide shaker knit or shell stitch knitted loosely. Some pullover designs featured the high shawl collar that could be rolled up against the neck for more warmth or opened up for warmer climates.
Light Jackets and Coats
Men’s casual coats became very popular in the 1950s. Formal long coats and raincoats existed for business attire, but they were not needed on nights and weekends. Shorter jackets became the everyday choice for men and came in a few favorite styles with a lot of choice in materials and color. For the first time in 20th century fashion history, men’s outerwear was fashionable, not just practical. A man’s personality was expressed in the type of jacket he wore.
The surcoat was the most popular in the early 1950s. It was mid hip length with a straight fitting body, fabric or fur classic collar, a yoke, and big slash or flap pockets– either two or four. The defining characteristic was the matching belt that wrapped around the waist.
The look was modeled after the Safari hunter’s jacket, popular from the turn of the century to the 1930s. This design gave way to the Norfolk-style surcoat jacket. Both designs had a quilted lining that was often removable. The jacket came in smooth leather, suede, gabardine, and synthetic blends. Color choices were endless, although brown or grey was preferred over all choices.
A similar jacket without the belt was the classic Mackinaw style. It was a rugged, outdoorsy style that usually came in heavy wool plaid or solid bright colors with a patterned quilted lining. Plain ones could be smooth or textured wool. They all had a button up or full zip-up front, classic collar, two or three large patch pockets and a with a slide belt. The design was long and straight and looked good with nearly any kind of ensemble underneath.
The above two styles remained popular for the entire 1950s decade and were the basic of 1960s coats as well. The long, lean lines resonated with the era. However, if we were to choose one iconic style of men’s 1950s jacket, it would be the bomber jacket. This short waisted jacket with ribbed waistband, cuffs, front zipper, slash pockets, and ribbed collar or classic point collar became trendy in the 1940s and only grew in popularity.
The original design was called the Eisenhower jacket, a military jacket worn by the president. Over time, the extra military pockets were lost in favor of a simpler, more streamlined look. They came in suede, leather, wool, gabardine, and even cheap vinyl and satin. Teens and college kids wore bomber jackets with school colors and chenille “Letters” on the chest.
Gabardine fabric was the best choice for a light jacket. The “Gab jacket” became a name for a similar style to the bomber jacket except with the straight hemline. They were the perfect jacket for the casual man who needed a light jacket for spring or a heavier suede jacket for fall.
Some Gab jackets were reversible, some had two chest pockets instead of slash side pockets, some had knit collars while most had fold out collars. Prints and pattern were trendy too in the middle to late 1950s. Diamonds, checks, argyle, colorblock and splash are just a few collectable prints.
Today “gab” jackets are hard to find with collars. Golf jackets, bomber jackets, and varsity jackets are more current names.
Leather or suede bomber jackets had their own fad following. Made of horsehide or cowhide in dark brown or black, almost every man who drove a car or rode a motorbike wore one. Topless convertible sport cars were the envy of every suburban man who longed to escape corporate business life on his way home. Wearing a leather jacket gave him that sense of youthful freedom. Leather made it the most windproof and durable choice as well. Zip-out linings made them easy to wash at home.
The black motorcycle jacket with off center zip, slash chest pocket, one button flap pocket, and bottom belt became associated with rebellious youth, even if they didn’t actually ride a motorcycle. For rockabilly greasers, this was the style to wear.
Leather was sued to make nearly all other style of men’s jackets such as long surcoats and shirt gab jacket styles.
The final two bits of 1950s causal men’s fashion are in his accessories: shoes and a hat. Casual shoes came in many forms, mostly slip on but some lace up Oxfords with unique materials. The crepe sole, for instance, was a new casual detail that changed the shoe look from sleek to rugged.
The penny loafer, so named because a penny could be placed in the cutout piece that ran across the vamp, was daily wear for Ivy League kids. Mature men wore them as well, at home where slip on shoes were simply more comfortable. Most penny loafers were a medium brown. A few slightly more formal styles came in black or brown with a tassel tie. Some loafers came in two tones as well – snazzy!
The moccasin was another favorite slip on. Black or brown were equally popular with contrast stitching and a bow tie. For at home, moccasin slippers in white or tan were soft yet dressy enough to be worn in company.
Saddle shoes, those iconic black and white lace up shoes associated with teens, were still very common since their debut in the 1920s. In the 1950s, we saw more color combinations, such as blue and white, grey and white, brown and white, and brown and tan. Mature men hardly wore them, but they did wear other vivid colors for lace up Oxfords. Blue suede shoes were not only the topic of a popular Elvis song but were also popular casual men’s shoes. Why blue? I couldn’t find the answer. Maybe blue was the new black? It was not followed by other colors (some green), although textures were plentiful: embossed leather like heavy reptile skin, corduroy, rough suede, woven canvas, and even printed plaid. Textured shoes, both lace up and slip on style, were big fashion items for trendy fashionable men.
Sport shoes, worn for actually playing sports, continued to have their place in footwear history. The styles didn’t change drastically from the turn of the century. The high top Converse shoes remained popular among basketball wearers– this time with a crepe sole, ventilating eyelets, and a rubber cap toe. Black and white canvas high tops were still the best choice for athletes while low tops in white, brown or blue were worn year round for the ultimate in sporty casualness.
There are quite a few more, less common, styles of shoes for both dress and casual wear to look at.
Men’s Western boots were colorful with wide box toes. In 1957, the pointy cockroach killer toe emerged.
The 1950s were a great time for men’s hats. After two decades of little change in style or variety, the 1950s came rolling in with splashes of color and fun new shapes. Little did they know that this would become the last decade of men wearing hats as required fashion. It was both the golden age and the end of an age for men in hats.
Fedora or Trilby Hat
The new “Bold look” of the early 1950s, had men in lean suits with elongated lapels, straight lines, and bland colors. His hat needed to compliment the lean look with a tall crown that tapered in on the sides and had a strong snap down brim. Wide grosgrain hat bands and contrast binding (ie grey binding on a brown hat) made the look stand apart from 1940s fedoras.
The Fedora hat style never went out of fashion but Old Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra, certainly helped keep it in style throughout the 1950s. He wore all types of fedoras, but it was his late 1950s stingy brim fedora that really made a lasting impression on hat history. Today the stingy brim fedora is incredibly popular with fashionable young men, just as it was in the ’50s and ’60s.
Fedora hats in the second half of the decade shrunk. Crowns were shorter, with noticeably tapered sides, and a tilted back, downward slope. Brims widths shrunk from almost 3 inches down to 2 1/4 or 2 1/8 inches.
- Colors: Brown, Tan, Green, Blue, Grey, Black
- Material: Fur felt or woven straw
- Shape: Center crown crease, usually pinch front
- Brim: Narrow brim, increasingly narrower as the 50s progressed. Brim turned down in front and up at sides with a deep turn up at the back. A narrow fedora brim is often called a Stingy brim.
- Band: Solid Petersham or silk ribbon colors that contrasted with the hat such as a green band on a grey hat. Flat bow on the side often with feather accent. Late 50’s brought in thin leather bands or felt bands to match the hat body and knotted instead of a bow. Hat brim was either unlined to lined in matching Petersham ribbon.
- Style: Centered on head with a slight tilt forward in the early 50s. Centered on head with a tilt back in the later 50s.
A cross between homburg and fedora was the newest men’s’ dressy hat, the Tremont. The crown had a center dent on top, straight sides and a narrow snap brim. The downward front brim gave the hat a more casual look while an upturned brim was dressier. With a pinched crown and snapped brim the Tremont was at its most informal. Not that formality of casualness matter to the average man.
Pork Pie Hats
The popular 1940s men’s hat returns in the 1950s with more colors and simpler, more refined style. It was usually called a telescope crown hat with a flat top or the classic pork pie but with a taller crown and wide hat band. Common colors were dark brown or dark grey. Brim widths narrow at the end of the decade to around 2 inches.
The flat top hat called a terrace top was seen in the late 1950s, as an alternative to the pork pie with creased inner ring. The hat band was very wide, covered three quarters of the crown.
- Colors: Light browns, olive-green.
- Material: Fur felt or straw.
- Shape: Short, oval flat top with deep crease around oval.
- Brim: Flat brim all around or slightly curled just at the back.
- Band: Wide grosgrain or silk ribbon with flat bow or twist tie.
- Style: Worn at an angle or tilted back.
Straw hats came in different shapes and natural colors just like their felt cousins did. Boaters, fedoras, Panamas, telescope and pork pie hats all came in woven straw. Brim sizes were everything from 3 inches down to 2 inches. Typically brims were wider with straw hats than with felt hats.
The unique qualities of 1950s straw hats were in the bold and colorful hat bands. Wide silks, pleated puggaree, and grosgrain ribbons in bold stripes, checks, and geometric print patterns matched the colorful suits 1950s men were wearing. The newest fabrics were cotton Madras and Indian prints with gold thread. Cheap rayon and cotton blends were also used.
Coconut straw with a bandana print hat band and matching pocket square became trendy at vacation destinations. Tropical Hawaiian prints, palm trees, bananas, and polka dots rounded out some of the novelty designs. Straw hats were cheap and plentiful, a man could own several for each season.
Panama, Milan, Sennit, Raffia, Umbria Pala, Bari bread, and reed were just some of the straws used in 1950s hats.
- Colors: Natural yellow straw, beached white straw and shades of coconut browns.
- Material: Thick, thin, natural and synthetic hand-woven straws.
- Shape: Same as felt varieties. Usually more brim in the front and less in the back for sun shading.
- Brim: Many curved to the back, some to the front.
- Band: Wide silk ribbon in early ’50s, thinner silk ties in later ’50s.
- Style: Worn same as felt varieties.
- Pictured below: Straw Boater, Straw Fedora, Straw Trilby, Straw Pork pie.
The hat that was more common in Europe than in the USA was the tweed walking cap. Many colorful patterns of Harris tweed made this a cool weather hat. It increased in popularity through to the 1960s.
- Material: Wool tweed, summer cotton plaids.
- Shape: Tall round crown shaped the head snugly.
- Brim: Narrow brim angled down all around and turned up at the back.
- Band: Thin self fabric band with tie, bow, or clip onside.
- Style: Worn snug over head and forehead.
The end of the decade saw a great variety of hat shapes, textures, fabrics, narrow brims, and colors. Everything and anything was thrown onto a hat, trying to get more men to buy into the fun and colorful fashions that defined the 1960s.
Many of these new hats had already been worn by the Urban male, specifically Black Cultures (American and Caribbean). Their fashion became the style leader going into the 60s and 70s.
The most casual of hats was the flat cap. Common at the turn of the century, it never went out of style but lost popularity in the last few decades. It was mostly worn by boys and working-class men.
In the ’50s the casual cap went mainstream again as sportswear for activities such as driving a car, playing golf, and hunting as well as general summer attire. The 8-panel cap was replaced by the English cap, oval cap and small cap. The overall shape was narrow but the patterns were large. Tartan plaid and big checks were favorites in summer. Nubby tweeds, corduroy and leather for the winter.
Solid and smooth colors as well as textured tweeds, herringbone, and plaid were all options. The cap fit flat and moderately wide on the head, with the top stitched down to the brim at the center. They could be traditional 8 panels or a single round panel on top.
Men’s western hats remained a popular option for those seeking the most Western look. They had severe turned-up brims and lower, flatter crowns to match the fedora and other city hats of the decade.