1950s men’s fashion has returned to modern wardrobes this year. 1950s men’s shirts in particular seem to always get the biggest revival. Dress shirts, button down casuals, polo shirts, even retro T-shirts all have their place both in the vintage retro market and in our current everyday fashion. I didn’t realize just how many different styles of men’s ’50s shirts there were until I began research for this article. I think you, too, will find the history of 1950s men’s shirts an interesting study.
1950s Men’s Dress Shirts
The trend for more colors, lighter materials, and a casual, comfortable style was reflected in men’s dress shirts in the 1950s. For the most part stiff, wide, long collars that needed collar pins to hold them in place were gone. The new types of collars were shorter, straighter, and usually didn’t need additional accessories. The length of collars is similar to today’s men’s dress shirts, or a tad longer. The button down collar became very trendy as a neat way to keep collars in place without severe starching or collar pins. There was a brief resurgence of round (AKA club or penny collars) too.
Dress shirt collars came in everything beyond basic white and blue, like fancy checks, plaids, and small patterns – all similar to those found in men’s sport shirts. Materials featured more cloth with an open, breathable weave. The difference between dress and sport was still in the tailoring and the fancy collar types. When the short sleeve dress shirt hit the market around 1953, retailers feared they would look too much like sport shirts. Educating the salesmen to show off the new style as a cooler alternative to long sleeves was required. Fortunately, most male shoppers picked up the trendy short sleeved style with enthusiasm. Now they could relax in their offices in casual comfort and still look respectable when the need came to put their suit jackets back on.
There were two styles for men in the ’50s. The traditional Ivy look with narrow, straight point collar and thin tie (think Don Draper in early Mad Men) and the new Continental look, inspired by Italian tailoring, which featured wider spread collars to accommodate wide tie knots like the Windsor. Both styles came with one and sometimes two chest pockets. Continental shirts came in more tropical colors such as Melon, Tangerine, Granada green, and Malacca yellow. Some shirts even came in small prints similar to patterns of a Macclesfield tie. The young men were first to pick up on the Continental trend with the rest of the casual seeking ’50s men to follow.
1950s Men’s Sport Shirts, Casual Shirts
While dress shirts in the early 1950s eventually got some color diversity, the sport shirts were always colorful. It was a welcome break from the humdrum “grey flannel suit” of the early conservative ’50s. Weekends and afternoons after work were a time for men to match their wives and look like tourists on a tropical vacation. Sport shirts were made of knit or pre-shrunk cotton and synthetic fabrics that washed and wore easily. “No ironing needed” was a big selling point, mostly for house wives who were the primary purchasers of men’s shirts.
Unlike the ’20s to the ’40s, there was a wide variety of sport clothes. Previously, sport shirts consisted of unbuttoned dress shirts and some knit shirts. The 1950s took casual men’s shirts to new places with new colors, new styles and some outlandish prints!
Men’s 1950s Button Down Shirt
The button down shirt was a spin off from men’s dress shirts. They always had one or two chest pockets, were worn tucked in,and had a moderate point collar. Most shirt collars buttoned up to the neck just like dress shirts. Some styles were made “sporty” with double large pockets and more casual materials. In fall and winter, a long sleeve plaid flannel shirt (aka a country or California ranch look) was especially popular.
Plaid shirts were still common in short sleeve versions for summer, too. Vertical or horizontal stripes and solid colors were also popular but plaid ruled the decade. Since pants were always solid colors, a patterned shirt was a welcome vibrant contrast. There was no limit to colors and color combinations in the ’50s. They were MUCH more bold than today’s color selection.
Some button-up shirts combined a shirt jacket and button-down shirt into one style.The jacket shirt came in plaid or western-inspired motifs. They were often made of gabardine fabric, common lightweight jacket material. They buttoned up the front but also had a wide elastic or rib waistband just like jackets had.
Men’s 1950s Knit Shirts and T-Shirts
A sporty and youthful alternative to the classic button down shirt was the snug fitting knit shirt. It had its roots back to the 1920s, with little change in the overall shape through the ’60s. A high round rib collar matched a wide rib band that was worn outside of trousers, and around the waist. A narrow rib sleeve band was also common, although the new “T Shirt” variety had a simple stitched sleeve and an open waist.
A knit shirt jacket style emerged as a cross between an open collar dress shirt and knit T-shirt. Two buttons to a large open collar gave it a conservative “golf attire” look while the knit material and ribbed waistband made it equally casual. A knit shirt with knit collar is often called a “polo shirt” today although that name wasn’t very common in the 50’s. The fight between “classic” and “the new casual” is a common one in 1950’s men’s fashion.
Just like other men’s sportswear, the knit shirt took on all sorts of stripes, weaves, plaid and contrasting colors. The new 1950s fad was for knits to be woven with fancy designs of Americana life – cars, tropical vacations, sports, and exotic women (tasteful). They also added in Western and Hawaiian shirt design elements on some styles.
The T shirt, made common in the 1940s during WWII, was not well advertised as a sport shirt. It was designed for active sportswear and to be worn under a sport shirt, never by itself in public company. It was, after all, initially a part of men’s underwear. Marlon Brando gave the T-shirt its public debut in the 1951 movie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and again in the 1954 movie, The Wild One. Fellow actors James Dean and Elvis Presley also wore the look in the 1950s. The T-shirt and jacket look (usually leather jackets) became a fashion fad among high school youth. These young rebels always wore white T-shirts (as tight fitting as possible) and dark denim jeans, rolled at the cuff.
Post-rebellious age men enjoyed the snug fit of the T shirt, which showed off their muscular physique. They did not, however, wear white. A solid color T-shirt with contrasting rib neckband and single chest pocket was about as casual as they would wear a T-shirt. The lack of good ‘ink printing’ kept T-shirts plain throughout the ’50s. By the end of the decade, a flocked school letter was added to most college sport shirts. That was it for decoration, until the printing processes were improved in later decades.
1950s Men’s Western Shirt
The 1940s and 1950s were obsessed with American Western life. Ranching, horses, campfires, and singing folk songs were all part of a spirit of American pride. The singing movie cowboys of the 1950s such as Roy Rogers or Clayton Moore‘s Lone Ranger introduced a new western look to the masses. Young boys grew into men who still wanted to be just like Roy Rogers. The western shirt became the best way to wear the cowboy fashion. Button down shirts, knit shirts, jackets, and some pants featured elaborate bib and yokes, contrast piping, “western prints”, and embroidered roses and fringe. Fancy dress shirts had mother of pearl buttons too!
Men’s 1950s Hawaiian Shirt
Another form of button down shirt, these were not worn tucked in. Its collar also did not button all the way up, but was left open so the large point collar could lay flat. It came by many names – Camp shirt, pool shirt, Cabana shirt, and Hawaiian shirt. They were the ultimate in casual, pool or beach-side wear. Since pool parties or “Tiki” parties were extremely popular house party themes, it was the ideal shirt to wear in the summer. They came in solid colors as well as vivid prints depicting American life, tropical inspired motifs, sporting scenes, and cars. Authentic “Aloha” shirts are made in Hawaii, often with coconut or wood buttons. They were expensive to buy in the ’50s, but there were plenty of knock offs that gave men the same tropical look.
Hawaiian shirts are the most widely worn style of 1950s men’s shirt today. The ’50s “bowling shirt” encompasses the same style as the camp or Hawaiian shirt, but with funny team names and a team embroidered logo. I don’t think men wore these except for when bowling in the ’50s, but that is certainly not the case today.
Shop Men’s 1950s Shirts
Search this list of vintage reproduction clothing brands and you will find a plethora of men’s ’50s shirts in the camp/bowling shirt style. For fun bowling shirts, try bowlingshirt.com. Hawaiian shirts can be found anytime during the summer. For vintage Hawaiian shirts, look at VintageTrends.com.
For a classic button down shirt, you can wear a modern dress shirt IF you can find one with two pockets (not easy). Pocket-less shirts are more common today, but they don’t look ’50s enough. Knit shirts? Even harder to find, but are coming back in style in 2020. A modern polo shirt with a bold pattern can look ’50s enough for most uses.
Here are a few of my online favorites:
Shop more 1950’s style shirts here: