Part two of our look at men’s 1950s clothing and fashion leaves the dull grey of the workplace behind and enters the vibrant casual clothing world. Read part 1 about men’s 1950s business attire here.
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.
1950s Men’s Clothing: Sport Coats
Even though men no longer wore formal business suits outside of the office, they still wore suit coats that mimicked the design. Sport coats and blazers had the same natural shoulder, straight hanging fit, two-button single breasted fronts, and flap pockets with side vents. Most 1950s sport coats also came with four-button cuffs, an element seen on business suits as well. What was different was the variety of colors and materials. For business, sport coats came in dark colors and small patterns like checks and subtle plaid. For leisurewear, the colors exploded into hunter green, burgundy red, slate blue, and charcoal grey in winter or bright blue, emerald green, silver grey, ivory, tan, teal blue and mustard yellow in summer.
Solid colors were hardly ever just solid. They usually had subtle patterns of stripes, plaid, or check. Others had rough textures of nubby tweed, blanket cloth, or corduroy. Corduroy was a major trend in the mid ’50s. Everything came in corduroy, and it came in every color imaginable. By 1957, subtle patterns were out and big patterns were in. Large plaids, big checks, deeper textures — suits got loud. Contrasting leather elbow patches, buttons, and collars were also added. Even the inside of the jacket was not ignored. Sport coat linings were often big plaids and bright colors. Something flashy was part of every sport coat design.
Another popular material in the mid 1950s was the jersey. Its smooth finish contrasted nicely with textured pants. It offered quite a bit of stretch as well, making them remarkably comfortable. Jersey could be worn year round, but the most popular option for summer was Indian madras. It was a very lightweight, breathable, loose cotton weave made in colorful plaid prints (the print is on both sides of the fabric). It has a slight wave texture as well. Texture + plaid was the perfect pairing for 1950s summer. The materials was used heavily in sport coats but also pants, shorts, shirts, and ties. Authentic madras was not inexpensive. Cheaper cotton and synthetic blends came in printed plaids that imitated real madras.
1950s Men’s Clothing: Casual Pants
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 smooth sport coat. The same with colors. Patterns on top meant solid color on the bottom and vice versa. To 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 polyester, linen or a light wool. They had no pleats and were close-fitting at the natural waist so that no suspenders needed to be worn. They zipped up the front with a button closure at the top. A single pressed line down the front created an illusion of height. They were slightly slim in the leg, more so than suit pants anyways, and often tapered a little bit at the bottom. They had side welt pockets and usually small cuffs at the hem.
While most pants had belt loops and were worn with a thin leather belt, some styles had a continuous waistbands. These loop-less designs extended straight up the pant. While no belt was needed, they were prone to falling down. Some slack varieties had belt backs or bits of elastic on the sides to cinch in the waist and keep them up. Remember, they fit quite high on the waist, too, just under the ribs, where a little belly helped keep them in place.
By the late 1950s, men’s slacks narrowed in the leg even more and also lowered on the waist to the level of the belly button. The sharp crease down the center of the leg was still present but much softer. Pastels were popular summer colors.
1950s Men’s Shorts
“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 in flannel shorts worn flannel shorts to dinner paired with a sport coat, shirt, and tie, especially in seaside resort towns.
Short lengths changed little for most of the decade, but some specifically designed for athletic wear were even shorter. I call them men’s short shorts. : ) They hit about mid thigh, worn without a belt and made of a sturdier cotton twill. The 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 was another swimsuit option. Read more about men’s 1950s swimwear here.
1950s Men’s Casual Shirts
I have already written a detailed article on men’s shirt styles here. There were so many different styles of casual shirts for both winter and summer that they need their own article. In general, men’s casual shirts came in a few varieties: button down, knit shirt, T-shirt, Hawaiian shirt, and shirt jacket.
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, also a button down style of 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 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. The overall look was again inspired by men’s western wear. We will look at men’s and women’s western wear in a future article.
1950s Men’s Sweaters
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 non-shrinking. 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 (but worn by post collage age men as well), the letterman cardigan sweater or V-neck pullover called an “Award Sweater,” “Letter Sweater,” or “Varsity Sweater” was an 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. Shop letterman sweaters and jackets.
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.
1950s 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 bush jacket 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 hunters 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, gaberdine, and synthetic blends. Color choices were endless, although brown was preferred over all choices.
A similar jacket without the belt was the 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 full zip up the front, classic collar and two or three large patch pockets. 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.
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. Gaberdine was the best choices for a light jacket. They are still highly collectible today especially in mixed fabrics or as a varsity jacket with contrasting color ribs. They were the perfect jacket for the casual man who needed a light jacket for spring or heavier suede jacket for fall.
Leather 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 is the style to wear.
1950s Men’s Casual Shoes
The final two bits of 1950s causal men’s fashion are in his accessories: shoes and 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 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. Read this article for more information.
1950s Men’s Casual Hats
Men’s hats were mostly worn with business attire and dressy summer clothing. The fedora hat was the most classic with a narrow brim tapered down in the front and up at the back. Similar shapes such as the pork pie (round crown), Panama (center crease), and walking hat (a bucket hat) all had the same ’50s tilt and wide, usually contrasting, hat band. Newer band styles in the late ’50s were thin felt or leather bands.
There was not much difference between formal hats and casual hats. In summer, all major hat styles came out in a straw version but with a slightly wider brim. In the 1950s, the hat band took on more personality with printed fabrics in tropical themes. Madras plaid, silk shantung and striped prints made their way onto straw hats.
The sportiest hat was the cap. It was casual, light and simple. Popular on collage campuses as well as with mature men, caps came in the classic slightly floppy shape or the more oval shape with stiff brim. All textures were made into caps such as nubby tweed for winter, wool plaid for fall, smooth silk for spring, and breathable cotton for summer. Some even had contrasting trim on the edges and brim.
1950s Men’s casual outfit ideas:
Top row: Three looks from Collectif menswear 1950s and 1960s clothing line of shirts, jeans and jackets.
Bottom row: Outfits Oscar wears using a mix of genuine vintage and reproduction 1950s clothing.
This concludes our look at 1950s men’s clothing for casual dress. I will be expanding on some of these topics over the next few months, so subscribe to our blog and follow along.