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A History of Men’s Fashion and Style

May 2nd, 2017

An abridged historical timeline of how men’s fashion and style came to be

Since the dawn of mankind, fashion has been prevalent. Once used for protection from the planet’s harshest elements, it has transformed over millions of years into a system of style capable of showcasing rank and fortune, void of the substance that once surrounded the hallmarks of true sartorialism.

In a world where prehistoric beasts roamed the land, and savage elements ripped winds, snow, and rain down on the Paleolithic nomads as they scavenged for food and shelter, they adapted to the conditions by using the skins of animals, leaves of trees and nature’s fibers to craft clothing and footwear to help them win the war against mother nature.

At this time, experts believe that fashion was expressly functional and had nothing to do with confidence or appearance. Although some historians contend that the leaders of clans would reserve the very best hides for themselves, it’s believed that this was strictly due to the harsh climate and terrain, and not for the purpose of distinguishing themselves as being the ruler of their tribe.

For many centuries, men’s fashion didn’t change significantly despite our own evolution. As nomads turned into settlers and began to harvest crops, new forms of dress emerged. Animals were herded and no longer did the patriarch have to rely on basic hunting techniques. Now, these men had the ability to be far more selective based on what they bred and what they were able to trade.

As groups of settlers began to flourish in flocks, villages were formed, and leaders surfaced. Whether elected by the masses or dictated by force, leaders took charge of their community, and like the caveman reserved the very best goods for themselves and those in their family. Soon, the style would begin to form, and leaders became known by a uniform of sorts. Rank and fortune became prevalent, and just as gold is favored over tin, it became relatively easy to distinguish a peasant from a potentate.

Ancient Egypt was probably the first indisputable sign that men’s fashion had overtaken the fundamental purposes of clothing. Egyptian rulers reigned over their subjects like no other. Style was quickly adopted as a weapon to intimidate and influence those beneath him. Uniforms were created for soldiers and all officers serving under the Pharaoh. Jewels and precious materials became obvious advantages showcasing social status, and the use of artifacts adorned to clothing became a clear indicator of royalty, leadership, and wealth.

As the kingdom evolved from old to new, the most wealthy noblemen adopted knee-length tunics and kilts they would accessorize with armlets, bracelets and custom shin coverings. These accessories were reserved for those who could afford such privileges, and the more powerful and wealthy the man, the more bold and precious the materials.

This continued into Ancient Assyria, Greece, Rome and the Middle Ages. Commoners wore what they could acquire, but members of royalty and those who served under them would wear clothing made from the finest materials available and crafted by the most experienced and skilled couturier.

For those visiting from afar, one could easily discern a man’s rank and status by his attire. The same way we can tell someone is a priest by his clerical collar; a judge by their robes; or a construction worker by his hardhat and safety vest. For many centuries, the purpose of clothing was now two-fold:

1. To protect the wearer from the elements.
2. As an overt symbol of rank and fortune.

Shortly after the beginning of the 1700s, clothing began to take on a more substantial purpose. Although trade was still very prevalent, the need for currency was more important than ever before. Without it, the ability to feed, clothe and house your family was nearly impossible. Professions were now a hallmark of social status, and it was important to fit in amongst your peer group in order to develop relationships that could potentially further one’s status within the community.

Villages were expanding into much larger communities, and those who lived in them were classified into peer groups based on their profession, their land, their wealth, and now, their sphere of influence. In other words, you were only as good as those you surrounded yourself with.

In a further effort to separate the aristocrat from the laborer, forms of etiquette and manners were introduced. Men’s fashion became a part of this revolution, and the code of dress was often adopted from the highest ranks of the local military, as those officers were considered members of this blue-blooded class of patricians.

By the 1730s, fashion took on a whole new meaning as the English created a more comfortable option for the working man. The frock was a simple coat that was far more comfortable to wear while riding compared to other apparel.

| FROCK COATS | On the left, a suit ca. 1735 from the National Museum of Scotland; on the right, a frock coat from Italy ca. 1710-1720.

Despite horses being common throughout history as vehicles of war and trade, the frock was introduced due to the enhancement of comfort, convenience, and speed during equestrian sports. These activities were becoming more and more popular throughout England since King George III was a lover of horses and sporting events. Because of his interest, hunting and other equestrian activities quickly became a popular pastime amongst the elite.

history mens fashion style

| THE KING’S FIT | King George III

The historical precedent of peacocking was beginning to slow down as the century came to a conclusion. By the beginning of the Regency Era, the tailcoat had been adopted as the proper form of dress for fellowship in the evening hours. Elaborate cutaway coats slowly turned into a more understated and elegant coat as etiquette became more important within social groups.

Then came a man named Beau Brummell. He was a middle-class gent who dreamed of a life of luxury. At the close of the 1700s, Brummell moved to London and penetrated the fortress. Although he didn’t have the financial means to dress as well, nor was it considered appropriate to try, his ingenuity and sense of style allowed him to modify less opulent apparel and turn them into exquisite outfits that were not only accepted but even mimicked by those who would otherwise not engage with a man of his stature.

| BEAU KNOWS STYLE | Portrait of Beau Brummel by Robert Dighton

He quickly became a close friend and confidant of the young Prince of Wales; the future King George IV. He was instrumental in replacing the bright and vivid opulence of clothing previously adopted from the French with a more refined and understated form of dress that is now synonymous with British bespoke style. The style was predominantly monochromatic and yet still quite in vogue. It focused on fit rather than trend and accentuated the gentleman’s masculinity by highlighting his physique rather than his accessories.

By the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution became one of the most important events to influence men’s fashion. Men wanted to appear as serious and solemn as possible. This required that those in the top ranks maintain a very classic appearance void of all embellishment and personality, not only at night but now during the day as well.

People were seen to be valued the same as we value businesses today. Based on what they could do for us, rather than honor or virtue. It didn’t matter if they gave an apple to a starving orphan. What mattered was if they owned a bank, if they could introduce us to a new prospect, or if they required a product or service we provided. The minimalism of a gentleman’s work attire was there to mimic his behavior at work and value. And his value as a man was based on the value he or his business could provide to others. Therefore, casual attire was reserved only for the privacy of his home, and he now wore his finest attire during the day, as well as at night.

History also gives us another important glimpse into how fashion developed in the 1800s. Throughout England, Freemasonry had grown from a small group of the most distinguished working masons into a fraternity of speculative masons who rapidly attracted the most elite members of society and even members of royalty. As a key practice, Freemasons would relinquish their social status at the door of the Lodge and, when meeting, would consider each other as fraternal brothers; as equals. To them, they all held the same status and class regardless of his rank and fortune outside of Masonry. What began at the door of the Lodge continued in the outside world.

Evening wear was a uniform of sorts, a standard outfit consisting of matching tailcoats that we know today as the white tie dress code. The tailcoat became the great equalizer and was adapted into the outside world. Etiquette was now prevalent not just as forms of chivalry towards women which existed for many centuries. But it was now a kind of common courtesy afforded to men within your inner circle. It required men to dress up when in the company of others. Attire was no longer primarily used as a means to peacock but was now a symbol of gallantry used to show others that their company was important enough to warrant a gentleman’s finest apparel.

Historically, much of popular style was influenced by kings and imitated by his subjects. He was a man who could have anything he wanted in the world. And like today’s musicians and Hollywood celebrities, world leaders were revered and their styles imitated as the ultimate form of flattery.

With the invention of the automobile and the new ability to travel, for the first time in history, American fashion found its way to England. With it, came the dinner jacket, or tuxedo. Although the tailcoat and morning coat were favored by traditionalists, a younger and more modern generation was coming out of the woodwork and getting ready for the jazz age and the roarin’ twenties.

The tailcoat, which was initially reserved as the required evening attire, soon became formal evening attire. The dinner jacket was introduced for casual outings which were now far easier thanks to the motorcar. Now that a gentleman could come and go at his leisure without much regard for planning and having to pack luggage, convenience and comfort soon took center stage in many other aspects of everyday life.

Soon, like styles from the past, the tailcoat was replaced by the dinner jacket entirely. The jazz age had begun. A new generation of men was rebelling against the aging traditions of their fathers. They were drinking, partying and womanizing like never before. As their fathers sipped brandy in the sitting room and talked about how good things used to be, these rebels were spending their free time in the company of friends and dancing the night away to the new music.

America was now the center of the fashion world. Although much of the clothing inspiration still came from England, Italy, and France, those who created the styles were focused on the idea of what was of interest to Americans.

The world accepted to comforts and conveniences of modern fashion. The apparel of the country gentleman soon turned from hunting jackets into business suit jackets. The tuxedo was the jacket of the night, but the suit was now the jacket of the day. It became more and more contemporary, and as America embraced advertising and the 1950s rolled in, America fell in love with the idea that men no longer lived to work, but rather that a man worked to live.

In the hallowed halls of the Northeastern Ivy league campuses, new trends emerged beginning with the trad style. Like the tuxedo, the trad style adopted the traditional style of the suit but was an effort to allow young men to rebel against the strict dress codes they viewed their fathers as having. Despite these dress codes being far more relaxed than anything throughout history, the Ivy league students felt they needed to revolt.

However, it was done slowly so that on the way out the door, their fathers wouldn’t stop them to ask what the hell they were wearing and make them go back up to their room to change. This trad style slowly trickled into ivy league style which became even more brazen, followed by the prep style movement which got rid of the suit as a casual outfit entirely.

Despite this, since the banks and big business was still owned and operated by the traditional fathers of these rebellious young men, the suit remained the uniform of choice for American businessmen.

Then, in 1962, a new movement was created by the Hawaiian Fashion Guild. They wanted to push the popular Hawaiian shirt by introducing it into the mainstream workplaces of New York, Washington, and Los Angeles. The 1940s and 50s saw suits as the norm, but with the new counterculture revolution, they had hoped young businessmen would begin to adopt it in the same way sailors did during Aloha Week in 1942. In a series of strategic advertisements, they introduced what we now know as “casual Fridays.”

It became a fun day where offices started to allow their staff to wear these shirts to work. For many companies, the Hawaiian shirt was the only exception. If you even thought of wearing the clothing reserved for weekends with the family, you’d likely be sent home to change. Still, this, like many other movements, changed what men considered the norm for office attire. Until the 1980s, that is.

Wall Street was buzzing with excitement. It was the new Hollywood. While there was barely a chance you could make it big in Hollywood as an actor, if you were good with people and could sell, you could strike it rich on Wall Street.

| POWER & EXCESS | Michael Douglas as the infamous Gordon Gekko from the film Wall Street.

Although many of the big firms required a college degree, there were more and more boiler rooms popping up where young hotshots without a college education realized they could make a small fortune in a short period of time by bending the rules or breaking them altogether. Wall Street wannabes, these boiler rooms copied the trading floors right down to attire. The new trend of the eighties was the sharp-dressed man. A guy who drove a fast car, had a blonde bombshell off the pages of Playboy, and wore bold suits with even bigger cell phones. It was all about image, and the Wall Street trends quickly spread across the nation.

Men’s style has continued to evolve. However, one thing is certain: Trends come and go. Many of them develop into newer trends that take parts of the past to propel the future. However, they are all temporary. What rarely changes is the classic style. From the 1930s until today, the cut of the suit has been modified a hundred ways, but we’ve still consistently worn suits. The trick to being an international man of style is to stick with the standard principles at the core and forget the new and modern trends.

If you purchase quality attire that’s timeless, you will wear it for much of your adult life. If you stick with what’s popular, you’ll spend far more money trying to keep up with new trends. That’s why the disconnected undercut has remained a popular haircut for decades, whereas the mullet has not.

Thanks for reading.

Stylishly Yours,

J.A. Shapira
He Spoke Style

Photo of J.A. Shapira

J.A. Shapira

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