Over the past few decades, fashion as a whole has undergone huge changes, flitting around in between the different trends that have proven most popular throughout different decades, social movements, pop culture trends, and political climates. Whilst the tendency seems to be to focus predominantly on how women’s fashion has been impacted by such aspects, there’s little focus placed on men’s fashion and its evolution over time. This often means that men are, as a whole, accused of being ‘boring’ in their fashion choices, often opting for the safest best and keen to blend in with what their mates find acceptable.
Ironically, however, a large proportion of fashion designers are, in fact, men, which belies the above assumptions and is backed up by the more out-of-the-box fashion styles witnessed on red carpets in recent years – particularly at the MET Gala and awards shows. This is particularly noticeable on men such as Billy Porter, Charlie Heaton, Ashton Sanders, Donald Glover, Anderson Paak, Timothee Chalamet, and Riz Ahmed, as well as a whole host of rappers both here and across the pond – A$AP Rocky, Skepta, and Slowthai, to name but a few.
With mainstream fashion for men becoming more daring and avant-garde, we’re going to take a quick, whistle-stop tour through the evolution of men’s smart-casual fashion – join us for the ride!
Prior to the stuffy age of the Victorians, men’s fashion in the UK was either based solely on the work you did or the part of society that you belonged to. The latter was particularly notable between the Middle Ages and the Georgian period, when certain materials were in short supply in the West (silks, for example, weren’t available in Europe until after the Renaissance) and the chasm between rich and poor was expansive.
Kings and noblemen used their day-to-day clothing to symbolise their wealth and status, adorning themselves in rich, thick garments in opulent colours that weren’t available to the rest of society. Their clothes featured jewels and gold/silver thread, in addition to boasting plush materials such as velvet.By the Georgian period, the disparity between rich and poor was huge – and continually widening. By this time, silk had made its way over to Europe, so many men began to don outfits in soft, pastel colours (which, at this time, were difficult to produce and therefore more expensive, making them far rarer), including baby blues and pinks. Large wigs were a further sign of wealth and prestige, with many wigs reaching wild heights to outdo others.
During the industrialisation of the Victorian period, practical clothing became the norm for the vast majority, and early versions of what we deem as a ‘suit’ began to be worn by even the most ordinary men. Rapid expansion, scientific discoveries, and a focus on ‘gothic’ elements of life spurred on a focus for darker aspects of life, including death, which was heightened by a quickly-growing poor sector of society.
Following the First and Second World Wars, materials were scarce due to rationing. Simple, darned shirts were worn by the vast majority of men, paired with trousers, breeches, and a blazer-style jacket. In the fashion world, though, there became a focus on ‘fun’ and ‘carefree’ experimental styles for men that mimicked the almost-worldwide euphoria at the end of WW2, whilst suits were remodelled for women’s figures to create ‘the new style’.
From this point onwards, men’s fashion began to evolve almost as quickly as women’s, following the musical trends and social movements of the times. Despite this, the generic suit was still the smart-casual option for men throughout the decades, albeit sans tie in later years. Eclectic patterns, heeled shoes, bright colours, and in-your-face styles that were modelled in the film and music scenes were copied by the up-and-coming generations of the time leading to Mods, punks, Teddy Boys, disco style, and the post-punk, New Romantic era.
Turn of the Century
By the 1990s, laid-back fashion that flew in the face of societal expectations and subverted standards of dress was the norm. Grunge led the way, which meant baggy flannel shirts purchased from charity shops, scruffy jeans, and beat-up shoes for casual wear. Ordinary work-wear and smart-casual wear contained the typical suit, but now it came in cheaper materials and was baggier than some of its predecessors.
The truly fashion-forward combined these elements of smart wear and casual wear to form something unique, giving off an air of nonchalance in their chosen style. Designers such as Alexander McQueen produced collections of clothes that highlighted this trend, combining baggy, casual elements in a range of materials with perfect tailoring, for the ultimate smart-casual vibe. Even now, when it comes to this type of style, you can’t beat this classic designer, whose clothes bridge the gap between modern aesthetics and traditional expectations. Retailers such as SSENSE contain a plethora of unique McQueen styles, in addition to a wide range of other famous designers whose clothes are pivotal in influencing men’s modern fashion!
Over the Shoulder
These days, much of men’s fashion is inspired by bygone eras, combining different elements of clothing and styles from different time periods. Currently experiencing a resurgence is the carefree fashion style of the 90s (albeit strictly curated by fashion-lovers today) combined with the zany shirts and pastel colours of 80s fashion, creating a fascinating mix of sombre and quirky.
Once again, charity shops and vintage items are lauded by fashion lovers, with men taking more time than ever carefully perfecting their own style whilst pulling off the effortless, ‘just-rolled-out-of-bed’ look.
The key to men’s fashion these days is daring to be different – wearing clothes that make you feel good, and look good without the need to align with societal expectations. Combining tailoring with sweatshirts, band tees, and Doc Martens has become the height of fashion – and now women’s fashion is following suit!