Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Basics of Men's Retro Style

Over the coming posts I'm going to delve into much more detail about specific styles and items of clothing but for this first 'proper' post I thought I'd start at the beginning with:

'Lesson One: The Basics'

Most peoples routes into the world of retro fashion and vintage clothing are varied and their style has grown and evolved over time but everyone has to start somewhere eh?

For me, it started with the hair, then the shoes and the rest filled in as I went along. This may be the way to go for you too but you could equally start with the clothes and match the rest up at a later date.

Now, according to a recent article in 'that magazine I might have mentioned before' all you need to "get... into the 40s and 50s vintage scene" is some tweed, button braces and a pair of black rimmed glasses. Now I'm not saying that's wrong... no, wait... okay I am! Seriously?! A bit of tweed and your suddenly vintage? I think a lot of upper-class country gents out there might have something to say about that.

Personally, if I could offer some simple advice, it would be to find the style you are most comfortable with and explore that for a bit, either through hairstyles, shoes and accessories or specific items of clothing, getting more and more detailed as you go.
Pick a favourite vintage or repro piece and try and match it up to an era or style or if you are yet to delve into the retro scene or just starting out then perhaps look at someone who's style you would love to emulate and work out where their style comes from.

I will be delving more deeply into the specifics of each of these items in later posts but for now, to help you along the way here's a quick and simple guide to creating basic, easily identifiable, clothing styles:

Collarless 'Granddad' Shirt
Collarless (or granddad) shirts were a mainstay of the 20s, 30s and even 40s and work well either with collar and cuffs attached and worn with a waistcoat for a smarter 20s/30s look or without and with a tank-top for a 'homefront' 40s look.

Dinner shirts (also called dress shirts) are timeless and coupled with the correct suit can fit equally well with a 20s formal dinner look or a 50s/60s Vegas lounge style 

Loose collar shirts (that's any standard shirt these days) started to increase in popularity during the 20s and have been pretty similar in design ever since. Wear with a tie and waistcoat for a smart 30s look or open collared over a suit jacket for a de-mob 40s look.

Camp Shirt
'Camp' shirts (these also include Hawaiian or 'Aloha' shirts and Guayabera) are an open collared short sleeve shirt often with no top button which came to popularity thanks to G.I.'s during World War II so are definitely 40s or 50s. Worn with the collar over the top of a jacket collar brings a late 40s style whilst bright garish prints are more in the Aloha style and fit with the 50s Tiki and Polynesian kitsch style.

Polo shirts were introduced in the 40s and when made of wool and in the autumnal colour range will work in an 'on the continent' 40s look or in darker colours and synthetic fabrics for a 50s look. Should be worn done all the way up and tucked into trousers (for fear of looking like a car salesman).

T-shirts... in my opinion these should be worn as intended... as UNDERWEAR! But if you insist on wearing one with nothing over the top then a tight fitting white t-shirt works for a 40s working man or off-duty soldier look or in black as part of the 50s 'Greaser' uniform tucked into turned up jeans.

Remember, the most important rules about shirts are:
A) the larger or more pointed the collar the more likely the shirt is from the 70s so if that's not the look you are going for then steer clear
B) if the shirt has shaped 'tails' on it then it should always be worn tucked into trousers, shirts with squared off bottoms such as the Camp style shirts are designed to be worn outside the trouser. 

Double-pleat Trouser
High-waisted, single pleat or double-pleat trousers with cuffs work well with any 20s, 30s or 40s look, especially in the brown, black or khaki colour range and should always be worn with button braces if no waistcoat is present. Flat fronted, tapered trousers with no cuffs are a more late 40s and 50s British look due to the ration on fabric, but the prosperous American's still wore the more voluminous and cuffs version into the late 50s, worn with a belt.

Jeans and Dungarees work as part of a 30s or 40s look but only as an American working man such as a farmer, grease monkey, hill-billy or prisoner. Denim really took off in the 50s and, in the States at least, became a main stay of the 'Greaser' uniform of jeans and t-shirts. British Men in the 50s continued to wear suit or leisure trousers well into the 60s unless they were deliberately copying the American style. Remember jeans remained full and straight in the leg until well into the 60s.

Spectator Shoes
Brogues, Oxfords or Derbys were the main-stay of most men's wardrobes until well into the 50s. Brown or black to match with trouser colour or two-tone (also called Spectator shoes) for a more 'showy' outfit.

Many more styles of men's shoes came into fashion during the 50s, most notably the crepe soled 'Brothel Creeper', the Saddle Shoe and the Loafer.

Trainers or 'Sneakers' were only worn during sporting activities until well into the 1950s when the Converse all-star came to notoriety and became a main-stay of the American teen-age look.

It would seem from looking at photographs of the inter-war years that every man worn a hat. If this is strictly true or not I couldn't tell you, however, due to the almost complete absence of hat's (apart from god-awful baseball caps) from men's wardrobes in these modern times a stylish hat can instantly add a little retro-ness to an outfit.
Trilby, Fedora, Boater, Bowler, Topper, Newsboy Cap, Ascot or Flat-cap all work well with an inter-war outfit. Rule of thumb though... in general the shorter the brim the more modern the hat.

Jackets & Coats
Possibly the largest variation in men's clothing over the decades was in jacket and coat styles so I won't go into too much detail here.

In Suit and Sport jackets the clues to look for are in the lapel size and style. Earlier styles had wider lapels and were often 'peaked' (the lower half of the lapel pointed upwards) until the ration on fabric caused the lapel to shrink and be 'notched' once more. During the 50s lapel size decreased dramatically and the shawl lapel became popular again (especially in the British Skiffle and Ted scenes).
A general rule of thumb is that the number of buttons increase and the size of the lapel decrease as you near the 1960s. 

Harrington Jacket
Items such as Pea coats, Duffel coats, and Trench coats were retained by many men from their days of military service and were often dyed darker colours to match civilian clothing.

New styles such as the Harrington, Varsity (or letterman) jackets in U.S. and Biker jackets came into fashion during the 50s but often these get associated with more recent fashion trends so one needs to be careful what they are worn with.

Interesting styles to look out for are; Box jackets - a squarer cut jacket with suit lapels and Gab jackets - another square cut jacket but with a short coat collar; both styles work well in a late 40s or 50s outfit  especially in two-tone colours.

The variety of different styles of knitwear men used to wear is again one of those things that has declined over the years and fallen into a much more standardised style.

50s Style Cardigan
As the decline of the waistcoat spread during the late 30s and 40s knitwear became more popular as an alternative and the Tank-top and the Cardigan came to be synonymous with the 40s and 50s. Again mostly in the autumnal colour range these varied vastly in style and pattern, mostly down the the fact that these were home-made or short-run and often not mass-produced items. More garish colours and patterns availed themselves as the 50s progressed but by the 1960s the popularity of knitwear was starting to wane again.

Coupled with the correct Shirt the same knitwear can be used to create a variety of different styles from the both the inter- and post-war years so get experimenting!

and Finally...

An important fact to note about men's hairstyles is that until well into the 1950s both British and American men were involved in some form of military service, either through conscription, national service or career.
This means that the stock grounding in retro men's hairstyles is the Short Back and Sides which is based on the fact that during military service anything that could be seen not covered by a cap or helmet was required to be keep short and neat.
The top of the hair could be any length and most often kept in place with Pomade. This lead to many men experimenting with the tops of their hair, creating the iconic styles we associate with the various decades. The slicked back look of the 20s and 30s, the sweeping Brylcreemed look of the 40s and the grown-out wild Quiff of the 50s.

So that's about it, I hope some of this has been useful. Feel free to leave me a comment to tell me what you think or if you have anything to add!


  1. Ha ha! I love this and completable agree, throwing on some tweed does not suddenly make you vintage!
    I think as you pointed out, with modern pieces but ear correct hair and shoes you can completely change a look.
    I'd also love to see more people (guys in particular) exploring their own style rather than rolling in bunting, tweed and cup cakes and stepping out 'vintage' rather than perhaps looking at some of the cultural, counter and sub cultural references which shaped the way people dressed and continue to be a massive influence to this day.
    Rant over ;)

  2. After reading your blog post i come to my point of view that your blog post idea is look very fresh and unique.
    vintage and retro clothing


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