Today we are going to take a look at American vintage style, and the influence it still has on many men’s fashion trends and ‘looks’ today. First off, it is important you understand what I am labelling as American vintage. For the purpose of this article we are going to consider it as the style donned by our friends across the pond in the 1950s.
Post World War II, America and the Soviet Union emerged as the two major world superpowers. Though many nations resented America’s influence, they had little power to stop it. At the time, American movies, fashions, and consumer products were traded across the globe; with many embracing them into their lives.
Fashion in the West progressed from the neutral, trim and “proper” dress of the 1940s to the rebellious nature of the 1950s. After the nightmare of the Second World War, many people preferred the safety of conformism; looking and acting like everyone else, so as to feel comfortable in the way they presented themselves. Yet this concept of security eroded as rations and constraints from the war-time era were lifted – resulting in the birth of the teenager generation. Of course, teenagers were in existence before that, this is indisputable, but back then teenagers’ style began to resemble that of their peers instead of their elders.
A number of factors led to this mirroring of fashion across the pond, some of which I will be discussing in detail a little bit later on. Although we are going to be concentrating on 3 major influences and trends today, there are certain items of clothing, fabrics, and accessories that are the backbone of a wardrobe influenced by this iconic era. The images scattered throughout demonstrate this perfectly, but so it is clear for everyone I will list what I consider to be the key items of 1950s American fashion:
Madras may be a fabric many of you have never heard of, but the concept of the material is essential for pulling off the 1950s look. Its origin can be traced back to the Indian city of Madras (now called Chennai), where traditional Indian Madras fabrics were coloured with vegetable dyes. The nature of these dyes caused unstable patterns which would – somewhat intentionally – fade and merge after repeated washes, causing a distinctive and constantly-evolving look as time progressed. As fate would have it, Madras is a lighter material more suitable for the summer months than the vintage corduroys and wools on show in winter. In the 21st century, most Madras is now designed to be colourfast, although it still has the unique patterns, and is a breathable and lightweight fabric – just like its predecessors.
Madras has long had ‘Preppy’ connotations, and is even referenced in S.E. Hinton’s novel, The Outsiders (1965), as being preferred by the rich kids. This is where the connection with America can be made, and it is a material that can still be seen in abundance each year in true American clothing collections such as Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch and Banana Republic.
Considering everyone has their own tastes and opinions (and isn’t the world a more vibrant place for it?), today I am going to be breaking down 3 of the key trends/looks that developed from the exporting of American products. Hopefully all of you will be able to take away some inspiration and little touches which will influence your current, modern day looks.
Thanks to Elvis and the Everly Brothers, the birth of rock ‘n’ roll had some very charismatic people fronting such entertainment, appealing to people across the Globe, never mind just here in England. The dancing that evolved as a result of the music led to a certain style that became synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll, and thereby a hit on streets up and down the country as the music was shipped across the Atlantic.
Dark wash jeans, black lace-up boots (hopefully you will already have this item to accommodate the current military trend), a white t-shirt and a leather jacket was the staple look for every rock ‘n’ roller. Think John Travolta in Grease; he typifies this look. Side tracking just a little bit, the affectionate term ‘Teddy Boy’ was given to those rebellious teenagers that toyed with socially respected clothing (suede crepe shoes) by combining it with wide blazers and huge hair. This was a look that was created by the Brit’s, and for that we can be proud, if only for the rebellious nature of those that were so intent on looking and feeling good.
When we think of the key items in reproducing rock ‘n’ roll inspired outfits, we can see that most of them have become timeless pieces that every male should have in their wardrobe; white tees are a basic staple, dark wash jeans have the ability to adapt to any current or future trends, whilst a leather jacket has become the outerwear of choice for men who want to ‘toughen up’ a look in an instant or create something slightly more edgy. Even black lace boots are dominating most current fashion trends throughout the year these days. The rock ‘n’ roll look is definitely one that can be used for men of all ages as a casual, easy to wear, everyday outfit – which has even be endorsed by the majority of women in Joseph Aaron’s article on what women want.
Perhaps the 2 key aspects of rock ‘n’ roll style that have heavily influenced men’s fashion in 2011 are the blazers and hair cuts. Although the Teddy boys were known more for their overly wide blazers, this smartening up of the traditional rock ‘n’ roll look can be seen on the catwalks, and the streets of major cities worldwide right now. Men’s fashion has steadily become more refined, and the blazer now takes pride of place within wardrobes of males all over the globe. Although the fit has become slimmer, we are seeing a rise in popularity of a modern Teddy Boy look, playing with the smart/casual boundaries on a daily basis. Blazers with tees, blazers with jeans, blazers with trainers and boots have all become the norm and we only need to look back a couple of generations to see how they were juxtaposing edgy rock pieces with more formal attire to create a whole new individual look for themselves.
The popular hair cut for men right now has to be The Quiff and big hair in general. Robert has already broken down the rise of the style for FashionBeans here, but it is not hard to see where this style originated from in the past. Just take a look at the look book above and notice how big hair was seen on everyone from Elvis, to the Teddy Boys and John Travolta in Grease. Elvis in particular influenced a Rockabilly era – one of the earliest forms of rock ‘n’ roll which mixed Rock and Country music together – an era that was defined by their big slicked back hair (coined the Pompadour), edgy rock ‘n’ roll clothing and usually tattoos. Can you see any similarities with today?
The hairstyle itself may have been modified slightly for 2011; softer styling products are being used, a matte finish is the preference, and the back and sides have become shorter and more pronounced – but the essence of true rock ‘n’ roll style is there for all to see. This is the perfect hair cut to pair with your basic white tee and leather jacket combination.
What separates the Ivy League College style and more general American dress at the time are only very minor details, but such specifics gave them a more elegant and refined look over their peers. The Ivy League style dominated the American male dress code from 1955 to 1965, and was said to have originated on college campuses (hence its relation to Ivy League schools). Democratic, chic and relaxed, the Ivy look has held such an impact that modern day designers such as Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani and many others, emulate the Ivy style with just a few contemporary tweaks.
In the 1950s, dark hues – blacks, navy blues and charcoal greys – were often the colour of the single breasted, two button Ivy blazers, promoting a simple and understated look. Small fashionable alterations that were less obvious were also evident in the Ivy League blazer. At the time it was the standard that the average American owned blazers with the absence of a vent. However, the Ivy League incorporated a single cut vent into their jackets, which gave them an identity separate from mainstream cultural fashion at the time.
True Ivy League style jackets are generally difficult to get hold of, although if you are lucky you can pick up vintage examples on eBay or opt for a more modernised take through the latest one vent high street collections. The vintage jackets will not be a slim-cut like you will no doubt own at the moment, however you can quite easily take them to a local tailor, in order to create a one off item that is bang up to date in terms of fit.
Some impressive names bore the Ivy look; from the button-down hip of Paul Newman and the sharp suits of Jean Paul Belmondo, to the preppy elegance of the Kennedy brothers (see Paul McGregor’s related JFK inspired style article). A common factor for all of these household names was the faith in the true cool of the Ivy look. By piecing together your existing clothes (an integral part of one’s wardrobe is for it to be flexible and accommodating), and purchasing some vintage class, in this day and age there is no reason why you cannot look just as indie-vidual.
The Cowboy look has always been the epitome of manliness and has a very rugged aesthetic. The key item that cowboys are renowned for is denim; whether that be shirts, trousers or jackets. Denim was perfect material for the manual work cowboys completed on a daily basis, whilst its hard wearing nature endeared itself to the great outdoors. We all know that jeans are an integral part of any successful male wardrobe, so there is no need to emphasise this to the fashionable readership of this site. However, the cowboy look is still very prominent today, and there is inspiration to be taken for our modern day outfits.
Fundamental to any cowboy is the hat and tough leather or suede boots with stirrups. However, neither England’s urban environment nor the moor’s of the north require such specialised accessories. Nevertheless, the high street offers some great alternatives that are far more appropriate for our culture. Boots have become a major player within the footwear market over the past couple of years, and are now considered an essential for most men. You can take inspiration from the cowboys of old by looking for distressed leather and suede varieties. Both add an extra dimension to your typical outdoorsy boots that are popular at the moment – whilst neither will restrict you in terms of your favourite style. You could invest in an amazing Chelsea style boot in a suede ala Ed Westwick below [middle row right], or something much more cowboy like, such as a brown distressed leather version [bottom row right].
The key point is that you don’t have to actually wear cowboy boots in this day and age in order to take inspiration from the era. Picking styles, materials and finishes are all ways you can integrate this style into current modern looks that have evolved since the 50s.
In addition to the boots, cowboys often wear boot-cut jeans that give them a little bit more flexibility. Here at FashionBeans we stress that the fit of your clothing is paramount to successful style, which is why the cut and silhouette created by the slim double denim combinations showcased on the Dolce & Gabbana runways [below top row] is much more appealing to the modern male; portraying an image of someone who knows how to dress.
Double denim is recognised as integral to Cowboy influenced style. It is hard to pull off, and many have failed, but that doesn’t mean it should be disregarded in your current wardrobe. In fact, due to the amount of variation, washes and styles we have available to us these days, it means it is much easier to create a look that has the rugged, manly connotations a Cowboy conjures up, whilst still looking great. Take a look above at how Usher, Pharrell and Ed Westwick have brought the look bang up to date.
Usher [bottom row middle] has utilised accessories such as a trilby and pocket square to take inspiration from the cowboy era whilst at the same time hitting trends that are current and fresh. Ed Westwick [middle row right] has combined a double denim outfit with an essential Breton stripe tee, again just bringing the look into the 21st century and hitting the current nautical trend at the same time. Pharrell [bottom row left] has managed to pull off the most modern and edgy take on the look; combining a light wash pair of jeans with red trainers, whilst opting for an asymmetric denim jacket and wayfarer glasses. An up to date and cool casual look which can be thrown on in an instant.
The Zara look book outfits [middle row left & centre] show that this is not a style that is just restricted to autumn/winter either. Denim shorts with denim shirts or jackets can work if you get the tones right and make sure you utilise other layers to break up the outfit correctly.
With all of these elements combined, you might even be rivalling the sophisticated ruggedness of a certain Robert Redford.
Another key accessory in this whole inspired look is the brown leather belt. They came with garish belt buckles, but the modern fashion take would be to look out for versions with detailing on the belt itself (such as studs or brass buttons) or belts with larger but understated buckles:
What seems to be clear is that those stylish men of the 50s not only personify timeless style, but step out of the zone of conformity, starting new trends that can now be admired decades later. This juxtaposition of setting and following trends is a rare skill, but it is one that can be refined, after all, Steve McQueen was not born with Persol aviators!
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