A brief history of menswear

As I have more than a passing interest in men’s fashion, I figured that my ‘brief history of‘ blog series should probably feature menswear at some point. The idea sat dormant for a while, until British brand T.M.Lewin – best known for their men’s and women’s smart shirts – sent me the infographic below. It highlights that lots of items that we know and wear today have been around for much longer than you might think, and spurred me on to write a little bit about menswear through the ages.

If you’ve ever watched a period drama, visited an art gallery or a museum of costume, you’ll know that men’s clothing used to be much more elaborate than it is today. Doublets were embroidered, slashed and embellished, eye-catching codpieces symbolised virility, hose and stockings clung to shapely calves. Fashionable men pretty much dressed like rock stars, with a swagger to match. By the eighteenth century, rich men were wearing long embroidered coats and waistcoats in bright colours with frilly shirts, powdered wigs and heeled shoes. John Malkovich is the embodiment of this particular masculinity as Vicomte de Valmont in Stephen Frears’ 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons.

At the end of the eighteenth century, inspired by Beau Brummell, men began to avoid brighter and more decorative clothing in favour of understated tailoring. This was such a huge shift in the way men dressed that it was referred to as ‘The Great Masculine Renunciation’ by psychoanalyst John Flügel in his 1930 book The Psychology of Clothes, when men ‘abandoned their claim to be considered beautiful’ and ‘henceforth aimed at being only useful’. After a century of dark colours and full-length trousers, that had become far less revealing in their cut, the Victorian era ended on a very sombre fashion note for men. At the start of the twentieth century, the fashionable silhouette was long and lean – very formal with long coats and tall hats – becoming more casual and athletic through the 20s and 30s. However, after the Second World War, young men really started to break from the sartorial traditions of their fathers and grandfathers.

The 1960s, 70s and 80s saw a return to more elaborate menswear which featured rich fabrics, bold shapes and bright colours. From the rebellious individuality of the 60s to the numerous style tribes of the 80s, fashionable menswear became fun again. After the 1990s where everything was almost as baggy as a zoot suit, but nowhere near as stylish, the start of the twenty-first century saw a return to slim fitting shapes in uninspiring colours. Thankfully we now seem to be past that, with smart and casual menswear that is either inspired by classic looks from the early twentieth century or something rather more eccentric. Now heritage style, American sportswear and the Gucci Effect play a large part in shaping the latest trends. Hopefully this is the start of a brighter future for fashionable menswear.

Image above, of John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons (1988), via The Red List. Image below via T.M.Lewin.

A brief history of menswear by T.M.Lewin

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