THE SWINGING 60s –
How Men’s Fashion Exploded
The 1950s saw a nascent rock ‘n’ roll culture first influencing young men’s fashion. This shift from conservative norms would explode full force in the 60s, with the fashion industry giving the youth market unprecedented attention.
From landing a man on the moon to civil rights, feminism and the Vietnam War, the 60s was a decade of tremendous change that challenged past conventions on every level, and inevitably those of fashion. Today, people whose main reference to the 60s has been “Madmen” may think of men’s fashion of the period as a singular, iconic look. But the reality is that the decade introduced a variety of trends as diversified as the social movements in the background. As significantly, the changes in men’s fashions were as radical as were those in women’s fashions, marking a new kind of men’s liberation.
With the exception of the rockers, men in the early 60s basically wore slightly modified versions of late-50s styles. Around 1963 things started changing drastically, and it’s the fashions from here on for which the decade is most remembered. A major catalyst, no doubt, was The Beatles. Appearing on British television in 1963, they were seen by six million viewers, and their U.S. tour in ’64 extended their style influence on a vast scale with their trademark tailoring, mod haircuts and British flair. The “Mods” (short for “London Modernists”) were already pervasive in London at the time, where they permanently changed young British men’s fashion. Unlike the rockers’ motorcycle jackets and greased pompadours, the Mods emulated classy high-fashion French and Italian design, opting for tailored suits, slim-fitted pants and shirts, topped by anoraks that suited riding their Italian scooters. In fact, the Beatles had gotten their signature mod haircuts from a French cutter. They would continue leading the way, their style morphing through the decade, most notably with their Sergeant Pepper and Indian-inspired periods.
Meanwhile, London had become the epicenter of swinging 60s fashion. On Carnaby Street and The Kings Road men paraded in wide-belted stovepipe pants, and extra-wide ties in paisley prints against floral shirts. Mod soon gave way to Edwardian dandyism: double-breasted suits in crushed velvet and striped patterns, brocade waistcoats, frilled-collar shirts, capes and hair below the collar bone. Boots, poor-boy hats, scarfs and ascots all became fashion accessories de jour. Peacoats and double-breasted jackets were ubiquitous. Everywhere men were wearing bright, swirling colors, pop- and op-art prints. Even older men were sporting plaid bellbottom pants. All of these would have been unthinkable just a decade earlier.
Known as “the summer of love,” 1967 saw the Beatles release their “Sergeant Pepper” album and the hippie look flourish. Unlike its mod predecessors, hippie counterculture largely emerged from the U.S. West Coast, spreading from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury to New York’s Central Park, and drawing stylistic influences from Eastern (notably Indian), Native American, and African motifs. Men grew their hair longer than ever, often with beards, and wore flared hip-hugging bell-bottomed jeans, tie-dyed and work shirts, vintage military garb with epaulets and brass buttons, headbands and sandals. Belts and lapels got wider, collars longer and wider, influences seen even in relatively staid men’s fashion catalogues of the time, with the modified version of the bellbottom called "flared" becoming standard, and synthetic fabrics such as polyester growing widely popular - often in lurid psychedelic prints derived from counterculture style. Authenticity became a hippie point of contention, denouncing the “plastic” people as opposed to the “natural” look of the Woodstock generation.
Much as the Mods influenced 60’s fashion, so did the decade leave its mark on men’s style to this day. Certainly, part of the appeal of television’s “Mad Men” has been its evocation of the period’s style. The show recycled elements of 60s menswear to create an elevated retro-modern look that has in turn also influenced contemporary men’s style. But as we have seen, there was much more to the 60s than the impeccably well-groomed Don Draper. Behind many of that decade’s trends, was a signifying impulse prompting men to express themselves more freely than ever before. In this sense, there’s no turning back from the 60s.