Rebel, Rebel - How 1950s Popular Culture Changed Menswear

Rebel, Rebel - How 1950s Popular Culture Changed Menswear

The 1950s were largely conservative times in America – from the era’s frighteningly real McCarthyism to the sci-fi paranoia of movies like Invasion of The Body Snatchers, conventional values ruled and difference was suspect. This was evident in men’s fashion, which was, for the most part, restrained and formal, with plain fabrics and muted shades the norm. Up until then, teenage fashion had mostly followed the dictates of adult styles. Parentally approved dress attire for teen boys consisted of loose-fitting slacks, shirt and tie, sports jacket and polished loafers. Hair was worn short and neat. The viable alternative was the preppy look: tan chino pants and V-neck sweaters, with white buck shoes or Top-siders. But not unlike the alien spores in a sci-fi movie, a big change was in the air.

With movies, television and the record industry sweeping popular culture, an entire generation was growing up with a new breed of heroes. The relative affluence of a middle class hugely expanded by the post-war boom meant teens had more pocket money than ever to spend emulating them. Teenage fashion quickly grew into major business, wielding influence that would eventually cross generation borders.

Among the most iconic film figures to influence young males during the early 1950s were Marlon Brando as a motorcycle punk in the The Wild One (1953), and James Dean in Rebel without a Cause (1955). Both wore snug-fitting jeans and T-shirts, and boots. Brando brandished a leather motorcycle jacket and cap, and Dean a bold red McGregor Drizzler jacket with the collar turned up. Their styles came to signify youth rebellion and, in turn, fashion rebellion, and soon teens everywhere were copying them. The signature red McGregor jacket became known simply as a “James Dean jacket,” a best-selling style knocked off by manufacturers to this day, while the T-shirt went from being merely underwear to becoming a wardrobe staple.

Equal, if not greater, was the influence of rock ‘n’ roll, and especially of Elvis Presley. Up until the early 1950s, blues had been classified as "race music" and was marketed to African Americans. Rock ‘n’ roll incorporated its soulful sound into a new kind of music geared to white teenagers, with songs that celebrated their enthusiasm for music and dancing. Symbolizing everything rebellious, romantic and sexy about rock ‘n’ roll, young, surly, hip-swiveling Elvis Presley became its king. Young men began sporting his slicked “duck tail” hair style and long sideburns, as well as wearing brighter colors and flashy suits with unbuttoned shirts and again the upturned collars. Towards the end of the decade, many young men adopted the more tailored, British Teddy Boy style, comprising narrow drainpipe trousers, long jackets with contrasting velvet or satin cuffs and lapels, brocade waistcoats, slim ties and long, pointy shoes. The Brits had recycled an originally American look, bringing to it their own Edwardian inspiration. This was just the beginning of British fashion trends that would soon rock the world at large, and which we’ll look at next time.

Regardless of the specific look or line of influence, accepted norms of dress irrevocably changed throughout the 50s. Teenage boys were now pervasively wearing tight-fitting blue jeans and white T-shirts, their hair longer and showier. Even white bucks gave way to blue suede shoes thanks to a popular Elvis song. For men in general, the bold changes in teen fashion marked a transition to freer, informal styles, with it gradually becoming more acceptable for males to dress more expressively and body-consciously. For men and men’s fashion there was no turning back.

“Well, you can do anything,
But stay off of my blue suede shoes”

 Next week: London and the Swinging 60s