From Sack Coats to Trucker Hats: 100 Years of Men's Fashion

Singer John Mayer rocks a Nehru jacket.
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It may seem like guys have been wearing jeans, khakis and button-downs since the Stone Age, but men's fashion has changed considerably in the past 100 years. Polyester has gone the way of the dodo, top hats are a rarity and T-shirts are now an accepted form of public attire.

There are, however, some recurring trends in guys' garb, including (surprisingly enough) baggy pants, which have come into vogue in one form or another several times over the past century. Slip on your knickerbockers, button up your Nehru jacket, or just throw on your favorite T-shirt and read on to learn about the history of men's fashion over the last 10 decades.


1910 to 1919

Most modern men would be lost in the second decade of the 20th century, at least when it comes to fashion.

A gentleman's casual attire typically consisted of a three-piece suit, which included cuffed trousers and a stiff, detachable collar on top of a sack coat, which was a loose-fitting, single-breasted jacket. Consider the sack coat the forefather of all our modern suit coats, from the tuxedo jacket to the sport coat. Bowler hats and bowties were all the rage, and this was also the decade that wristwatches made their debut.


1920 to 1929

Nobody was anybody without a top hat and tails in the '20s.
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The Roaring '20s was a decade of excess. A top hat and tail coat were typical attire for a night out on the town for any respectable male, and knickerbockers ( "knickers" for short), trouser-like shorts that came in plus-fours, sixes, eights and tens -- the numbers signifying how many inches below the knee they hung -- were extremely popular. In fact, knickers were in such demand that they brought into vogue the first-ever baggy pants fad.

Oxford bags were extremely wide trousers that Oxford University students wore to get around the school's ban on knickers. Students would put on a pair of knickers and then don the oversized pants to slip over and conceal the forbidden garb. The trend started with a handful of rebellious undergraduates at the prestigious English university, but it soon developed into a widespread fad on both sides of the pond.


1930 to 1939

Gary Cooper introduced aspirational fashion in the '30s by wearing suits men couldn't afford.
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You might think men's fashion in the 1930s would echo the struggling economy, but the Great Depression actually made luxury suits more popular. Prominent movie stars, such as Cary Grant and Gary Cooper, could be seen on the silver screen dressed to the nines in attire that most men could never afford. Suits like the English drape were cut to accentuate men's shoulders and chests and often featured pants so high that belts couldn't be worn with them, making suspenders a necessary and in-demand item.

Lacoste introduced the original line of polo shirts, though it would be several decades before the style really took off.


Opulent suits and collared shirts weren't the only fashionable attire: Shirtless sunbathing came into vogue for the first time, and swim trunks made their related debut.

1940 to 1949

The war rationing of the 1940s forced men's fashion to trim up a bit. To conserve cloth, manufacturers stopped making double-breasted suits; trousers became slimmer, jackets shorter. Dark, somber colors seemed to mourn the thousands fighting in Europe and the Pacific, and wartime restrictions forbade the sale of any unnecessary extras, such as vests and patch pockets (exterior pockets that are sewn onto the outside of a garment).

But not all men's fashions in the 1940s invoked doom and gloom. Tropical Hawaiian shirts were actually new and cool, and men whose name wasn't Indiana Jones wore fedoras. Zoot suits bucked all the trends of the decade with bright colors, wide coats and baggy, high-waisted trousers. The style's disregard for wartime rationing made the suits illegal, though they remained extremely popular with African-American and Mexican-American youths, who wore the suits to express their cultural identity.


1950 to 1959

Underwear became outerwear in the era of James Dean.
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The United States was now a superpower, but you wouldn't know it by looking at U.S. men's fashion for much of the 1950s. Fear of being labeled a "red" caused guys across the country to stack their closets full of conformist brown, gray and black business suits, though by the end of the decade, cardigan sweaters, rolled-up sleeves and open collars had become quite popular, especially with teenagers and young men.

This was also the decade that the T-shirt moved from undergarment to article of clothing, in no small part thanks to James Dean's white tee and leather jacket combo in "Rebel Without a Cause." Many adults found the idea of wearing one's "underwear" in public to be profane, but plenty of guys did it anyway.


1960 to 1969

Early '60s clothing was still fairly conservative (plaid and button-down), but by mid-decade, the teenage baby boomers had all but abolished the stuffy, single-toned style of the previous decade.

Vibrant, brightly colored clothing was all the rage, as were bellbottoms, polyester pants and turtlenecks. Nehru jackets, which were single-breasted jackets with banded collars (think Dr. Evil from the "Austin Powers" films) became quite popular with the counterculture movement. They offered a stylish alternative for guys who dismissed the conservative garb of their parents but weren't prepared to lounge around in beaded necklaces and tie-dyed shirts all day.


1970 to 1979

The height of disco fashion can be seen on the screen in "Saturday Night Fever."
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If you've ever seen the movie "Saturday Night Fever," you have a pretty good idea of what men's fashion looked like in the 1970s, at least in regards to the disco movement. It may seem hard to believe now, but disco was more than music -- it was a lifestyle. Polyester pants, shirts and three-piece suits were all common, and the fabric really stood out on the dance floor. It was often combined with stretchy, clingy materials like spandex and Lycra for the most tightly fitting pants this side of Daisy Dukes.

The music wasn't the only loud thing in this era. Bright colors and patterns covered the wide lapels and wider pant legs, which were like bellbottoms-plus. Ladies and the rock group Kiss popularized platform shoes in this decade, but disco-bound guys also added a few inches to their height by way of footwear.


Punk rock was also a major player in the '70s. With the musical movement's studded leather jackets, torn clothes and patches galore, punk was a shocking and controversial countercultural movement that had a profound and lasting effect on both music and fashion.

1980 to 1989

Stephen Pearcy, lead singer of Ratt, models two major '80s trends: tight and bold.
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The 1980s was perhaps the loudest and most garish decade of the 20th century. Neon colors, bold patterns and leather pants were totally in vogue, and Michael Jackson gave legions of guys an excuse to sport one-handed gloves and wear sunglasses at night.

Rock 'n' roll's flamboyant turn made it acceptable for men to don brightly colored or animal-patterned spandex pants -- at least in glam-rock circles. Rock fans who weren't into pop-metal (or who chose to leave some things to the imagination) promoted their style through ripped jeans, often with multiple holes or tears (see Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me" video to get an idea of what we're talking about).


However, not all men's '80s fashion was about excess. Don Johnson's wardrobe on "Miami Vice" led to a unique (and still cool) trend of wearing pastel colors and mixing casual and formal wear, making it chic for guys to wear T-shirts with sport coats and loafers sans socks. Polo shirts, argyle sweaters and khakis were also quite popular.

1990 to 1999

Kurt Cobain, the godfather of grunge
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The ostentatious excess of the 1980s couldn't last forever, so, not surprisingly, men's fashion in the following decade was comparatively subdued.

Grunge became the rock'n'roll music and look of choice for many men in the early '90s. It was the antithesis of the 1980s: Instead of trying to look like flamboyant rock stars, grunge embraced -- if not reveled-- in normalcy. Jeans, long-sleeved flannel shirts and muted colors, such as green and brown, were everywhere.


Baggy clothing was also quite popular and could be found in everything from more loose-fitting button-downs at the office to the ridiculously saggy, derrière-revealing jeans donned by many men in the latter half of the decade (they were like bellbottoms that began at the backside and went all the way down). In fact, we got so tired of looking at men's boxer shorts in public that many local laws were passed across the country banning baggy pants.

2000 to 2009

In 2010, Justin Bieber clings to new millenium trends: tight jeans, a hoodie and sneakers.
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The first decade of the new millennium brought with it many adjustments to men's fashion. The decade started slow, with several carryovers from the '90s (most notably baggy jeans), but, like the 1960s, color came back into the mainstream. Indigos, browns and blacks and were replaced by vibrant, shiny shades of almost any color, including pink.

Large hooded sweatshirt ("hoodies") remained popular, as did trucker hats, which are mesh and foam baseball caps designed to appear low-budget and blue-collar.

In the latter half of the decade, skinny jeans (imagine the tightness of '80s spandex combined with denim) and classically styled high-top sneakers such as Converse Chuck Taylor and PF Flyer shoes became the height of men's casual attire.

Lots More Information

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  • Cosgrove, Stuart. "The Zoot-suit and Style Warfare." History and Workshop Journal. Vol. 18, pp. 77-91. Autumn 1984. (Sept. 21, 2010).
  • Esquire. "The Evolution of Men's Style: 1933-2008." Aug. 14, 2008. (Sept. 20, 2010).
  • Fashion Encyclopedia. "Oxford bags." 2010. (Sept. 20, 2010).
  • --- "Men's Suits." 2010. (Sept. 21, 2010)
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  • Goodwin, Susan and Becky Bradley. "American Cultural History: 1960- 1969." Lone Star College, Kingwood. Aug. 2009. (Sept. 25, 2010).
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  • The Solis Company. "The History of Men's Fashion: 1900 - 1920" 2010. (Sept. 20, 2010).
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