1950s men’s tuxedos, eveningwear, and formalwear entered a new age of color, texture, and casual style. That is not to say that formality was gone, it certainly was not, but that relaxed fashion was moving from day to night, adding color, cut, and lightness to traditional evening attire. For the man in the 1950s, there were fewer rules governing how to dress for certain formal occasions. Weddings and political gatherings called for the most formal morning suits or black tie dress. Dinner parties, theater, dancing, and general evening attire turned to semi-formal black, white, or colored dinner jackets in the new relaxed fit.
Whether dressing for your own wedding or going to a 1950s themed formal party, the following should help you understand the history of 1950s men’s formalwear and guide you in choosing an appropriate evening or wedding outfit. Let’s begin with the most informal of the evening looks.
1950s Semi-Formal Evening Jackets
The 1940s formal look for men went through a reduction in both layers and tailored fit as a result of Wartime austerity. The new look had a natural shoulder, long jacket, loose one or two button closure, and lighter materials. This fit continued into the 1950s with an even wider shoulder, more straight fitting jacket, and wide high waist trousers. Replacing a matching vest with a cummerbund increased the comfort level of this semi-formal look. The result was an effortless, easy-going style.
Men wore a tuxedo to nearly every after six occasion including prom and some weddings. Severs, wait staff, musicians, TV hosts, and movie stars all donned semi-formal attire too. It was the signature look of the well-dressed 50s.
In 1952, Esquire noted men should be wearing single or double-breasted evening jackets in black or midnight blue. This was the standard look for most of the 50s:
- Jacket: Single or double breasted dinner jacket in black or midnight blue
- Waistcoat: Single or double breasted in black or midnight blue with a V front. Cummerbund of blue or black for dinner was OK.
- Trousers: Tuxedo pants in black or blue to match.
- Shirt: White pique with single cuffs or pleated shirt with double cuffs. Either wingtip or straight collars. Shirt cuffs and cufflinks in pearl, gold, black, or colored stone.
- Necktie: Bow tie. Mightnight blue or black in either wide butterfly or narrow shape.
- Shoes: Patent leather formal shoes or lace up Oxfords.
- Hat: Homburg hat in blue or black (hats were optional).
- Gloves: Grey leather or cotton gloves.
- Accessories: White or black suspenders. White silk scarf draped around the neck (taken off with the topcoat), a white handkerchief (kept in the pants pocket), and a white or red carnation boutonniere pinned to the jacket lapel.
1950s Summer White Jackets
The white evening jacket, although not a new trend, was a welcome summer semi-formal option in men’s evening wear. White jackets were made of lighter weight worsted wools, making them much more comfortable than the heavier tuxedo and dinner jackets. For cruising and resort wear, silk shantung jackets were an even lighter choice. They also introduced the nubby texture to eveningwear, a common occurrence among all men’s 1950s fashion.
White jackets with shawl collars hung loosely on the body. Paired with dark tuxedo trousers and a black bow tie, the black and white look was very modern and fresh. Even past summer, many hotels kept wait staff in white jackets. Prom-goers in the mid ’50s and beyond are almost always pictured in white jackets. Black was too old and stuffy for the new generation.
- Jackets: White shawl collar dinner jacket.
- Waistcoat: Black cummerbund.
- Trousers: Black or midnight blue with braid/stripe on sides.
- Shirt: White straight collar dress shirt in either smooth front or pleated front.
- Necktie: Blue, black, maroon, striped, or plaid bow ties in either full or skinny shape.
- Shoes: Black patent leather formal shoes or lace-up Oxfords. Black and white wingtips are also stylish.
- Hat: Straw hat with coordinating band.
- Gloves: Grey leather or cotton gloves.
- Accessories: White suspenders. White silk scarf draped around the neck (taken off with the topcoat), white handkerchief (kept in the pants pocket), and a white or red carnation boutonniere pinned to the jacket lapel. Optional- pocket watch or keychain. Lighter (for smokers).
While shawl collar white jackets remained standard for the duration of the ’50s and ’60s, a new trend in the mid 50s for “parfait” colored jackets and accessories made an appearance. These colorful jackets reflected back onto the 1930s Art Deco age where formality was briefly fun. For example, a black dinner jacket was worn with a raspberry-red bowtie, cummerbund, and cufflinks or a strawberry red jacket with grey bowtie, cummerbund, and jewelry. Ivory with gold and deep blue with light blue were some other options. There was also a trend for red and tartan plaid jackets with or without matching cummerbunds. Seersucker also experienced a revival in summer attire, especially for daytime events.
In 1959, fashion turned again away from color and back into traditional formality with a slimmer silhouette. Mohair dinner jackets with peak lapels, satin piping, and braids in black or grey were worn with matching bow ties and cummerbunds in jacquard, checkerboard and honeycomb designs. Lapel facings, pocket flaps and trousers stripes were also increasingly trimmed with embroidered or jacquard silk. Most lapels were sill shawl collars with velvet or satin facings. This was to be the classic style going into the 1960s.
Men’s 1950s White Tie Formalwear
With most men wearing semi-formal attire for evenings and events, there was little need for him to own a formal tuxedo. The exceptions were attire for upper-class weddings, galas and balls, political parties and inaugurations, and other traditional events. In Britain, the use of formalwear was more prevalent than the casual American trend.
- Jacket: Black or midnight blue tailcoat with a tailored fit.
- Waistcoat: Single or double breasted in white pique with a V front.
- Trousers: Braided trim tuxedo pants to match the jacket (Satin stripes will be fine too).
- Shirts: White starched wingtip collar first with single cuffs. No pleats! Smooth front shirts only. Pearl button studs or other precious gems and matching cufflinks.
- Necktie: White bow tie in pique (matte not shiny).
- Socks: Blue or black to match the suit.
- Shoes: Patent leather, low heel formal shoes.
- Hat: Tophat in silk.
- Gloves: White leather or quality cotton gloves.
- Accessories: White suspenders. White silk scarf draped around the neck (taken off with the topcoat, white handkerchief (kept in the pants pocket), and a white or red carnation boutonniere pinned to the jacket lapel.
Fred Astaire and other Hollywood leading entertainers were more inclined to wear formal tailcoats and tuxedo jackets. They paired well with the elegant ladies’ gowns worn in dancing numbers. Fred wore them with ease. He never looked uncomfortable, and perhaps if it wasn’t for his frequent appearance in them, the white tie look would have suffered an earlier death.
Morning Suits – Formal Wedding Groom Attire
Morning suits were considered formal business suits at the turn of the century. They lost favor in the 1920s and onward except for weddings and some political events. Since most weddings were still held in the morning, a morning suit was a fitting look. It was, however, becoming only something wealthy grooms were wearing. Only men who frequented upper-class events owned their own morning suit. The average man who choose to wear one for a wedding had to borrow or rent the suit.
The Morning suit included a grey or black cutaway coat (morning coat), grey and black striped pants, white wingtip collar dress shirt (smooth, no pleats), ascot in silver grey or black with pearl stickpin, grey waistcoat, grey gloves, white carnation, white pocket square, black socks, and black patent leather dress shoes. A black silk top hat completed this traditional look. In some cases, an ascot was replaced by a standard black necktie.
Fathers, fathers in law, and groomsmen may also have worn the morning suit. Some casually minded grooms wore a dark dinner jacket over solid grey pants. The look was remarkably similar to business suits, with only the mismatched colors giving away its unique purpose. Indeed, grooms who could not or did not want too include the expense of buying or renting formal wedding clothes opted to wear their best suits — usually dark blue or grey — to a simple church wedding.
Formal Neckwear Varieties
Neckties for semi formal wear had some variations worth exploring a bit more. Bowties had always been worn with formal suits. White silk for white tie attire and black silk or black tie. The 1950s continued the use of the bow tie, but offered it in shapes that were classically ’50s.
The Butterfly bow tie was an extra full or fluffy bow tie. It was the traditional look.
The narrow /skinny / thin bow tie was the new modern design. Also called a batwing bow tie. It could have had square edges or points.
The Continental tie was a late 50s/early 60s fad. It was neither a necktie or bowtie but a wide ribbon of black satin or silk that crossed over at neck and was held together by either a pearl snap or pin. The V-shaped version with flaps tucked under is often called a Bulldogger tie today. After the ’60s, it continued as a popular look with Western wear suits.
Your 1950s Formal Suit
Now that you can see the options, what style are you going to wear? Most men will turn to a rental house for a tuxedo. Thankfully, the white dinner jacket with shawl collar is back in style so finding one to rent will not be too difficult. Morning suits and traditional tailcoats may be trickier to find, but they too are coming back in fashion. You can add some color to your looks like a matching cummerbund and bow tie, or opt for a solid colored jacket instead (avoid contrasting black lapels).
If you want to buy yourself a nice formal, suit I suggest shopping at Jos A Bank first. They have a nice shawl collar dinner jacket, tuxedo pants (with a high waist!), shoes, shirts, and bow ties to create your look (Oscar wears their suit above). They also have traditional notch lapel tuxedos, tailcoats, and suits for rent. I would avoid two-tone jackets (i.e. white jacket with black lapels) or any suit with a skinny fit. Stick to classic cuts and you can’t go wrong for the ’50s.
Here are some more options online: