Men’s Fashion

In her book Stiffed (1999), Susan Faludi has an interesting take on men, using the fedora hat as a symbol:

“… a crucial difference between those fedoras and the ball caps of today would strike me. The fedora was the haberdashery of a man in a position to give, an adult man with some sense of his value and purpose in a civic society into which he blended seamlessly.

The (baseball) cap was the garb of a boy, a man-child still waiting for his inheritance, still hoping to be ushered in by the male authorities and given a sign, a badge, perhaps a fedora, to indicate his induction into adult society.”

The Fashionable Male of the 1940s

The 1940s are heralded as the last decade of elegance when it comes to fashion, particularly for men.  Tradition still held sway over most people, although there were some more flamboyant styles by the latter half of the decade.  Great events overshadowed the first half of the decade as the Great Depression ended and the nation was plunged into the second World War.

The Well-Dressed Man during World War II

Prior to the war, Paris and Italy reigned over the fashion world, but when war broke out in 1939, this leadership was cut off.  With Italy, in particular, being the enemy, it would have been deemed unpatriotic to wear Italian fashions.  Once America entered the fray in 1941, clothing designers had to focus on what was sturdy and practical, more than style.

Wool, long used for men’s fine fashions, was unavailable as it was needed for the production of uniforms for our military.  Extras, such as pocket flaps and cuffs on pants, were eliminated in a bid to save on material, as well as to cater to a sense of austerity that those not in the military were proud to bear.  This austerity also led to the widespread popularity of darker colors for men’s suits, such as navy, charcoal and black.

Jackets and trousers became more tailored during the war, in an effort to save on material.  Suit coats were not often seen in the traditional double-breasted styles and lapels were more narrow.  Suits became 2-piece as the vest was deemed an unnecessary extravagance with wartime shortages.  Trousers had narrow legs and lost the pleats so popular prior to the war.

In the end, the 1940s truly birthed the American design scene.  Prior to the war, Europe led the fashion world with their long-time designers.  Being cut off from European designers allowed American designers to grow in popularity.  This also led to improvement in American design standards that had been rather ignored prior to this time, so this decade saw sizing standards take effect, as well as other innovations.

Top to Bottom in Style with Accessories

Shoes and hats didn’t see much change at all during the 1940s.  The classic wingtips, that had been popular since the 1920s, remained what the well-dressed man was wearing on his feet and the much-loved fedora remained the head wear of choice.  After the war, cap toe shoes with two-tone laces became an alternative to the classic wingtips.

Accessories were crucial to the dapper gentlemen throughout the entire decade, but the emphasis changed between during the war and after.  During the war, accessories that helped make the outfit stand out were things like suspenders, used more and more as belt leather became unavailable.

Ties were worn throughout the decade, but during the war, they were more subdued and narrow.  After the war, the tie widened again, but also some bolder styles became popular.  Ties came in a rainbow of colors, and there were even hand-painted ties with all sorts of scenes, including pin-up girls.

Zoot Suits

The zoot suit arose out of the African-American musical sub-culture, but was quickly picked up by the young Italian and Mexican men and was popular throughout the 1940s with the more rebellious elements.  The high-waisted, wide-legged trousers that pegged in at the bottom, along with the wide lapels and shoulders of the long coat, made this style require a lot of fabric.

Not only was it considered by most to be highly unpatriotic due to the over-abundant materials used, the zoot suit was often adopted by the gangsters of the day.  The suits, while frowned upon by the majority, were considered by those who wore them to be extremely comfortable and the style was really popular with young men for dancing the jitter-bug in the nightclubs.

The Swinging Man After the War

Once the war was over, not only were Americans in a celebratory mood due to the victory, but the end to rationing brought an end to having to be frugal with materials.  As a result, the fuller cuts and fancy extras came back quickly, but that wasn’t all.  American men were not content to just get back to pre-war fashions, but they went on to experiment with color and style as never before.

After the hardships and concerns of the long war, men were ready to have some fun and no where was that made so clear as with the clothes that they wore.   Color was one area where men began to express their individuality and their new relaxed and leisurely lives.  While white shirts remained a staple in the business world, shirts in all colors of the rainbow began to be acceptable and widely worn in the off-work hours.

Suits gained all the extras from pre-war days and then some, including wider shoulders, more buttons and wider, notched lapels.  Trousers got back their cuffs and pleats, and the legs became wider and more comfortable again.  Suspenders, although not needed once belt leather became available again, remained an accessory to the well-dressed man.  These could come in a rainbow of colors and dress up the new styles even more.

Another trend that became popular in men’s fashion was the colorful, Hawaiian-style shirts that previously had only been seen on the beaches of California, and of course, in the islands.  This shirt has remained in use to this day, although perhaps never as popular as it was after the war.  With designs of fish, flowers or even fruit, these bright shirts were comfortable along with being cheery – just what the 1940s man wanted after the dark years of World War II.

The 1940s saw fashion leads go from the older generations to the younger, as it continues to today.  By the end of the decade, American designers had become a force in sportswear design, no more to bow to European tastes.  No other decade in American history signifies the change in men’s fashion that the 1940s ushered in.  Men were finally free to experiment with cut and color – formerly mostly the realm of women.  The war had changed our societal gender roles forever, but not only did women get more clothing freedom, men were able to cut loose, too.

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