Clothing for Men

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Editors: Judith S. Baughman , Victor Bondi , Richard Layman , Tandy McConnell , and Vincent Tompkins
Date: 2001
American Decades
From: American Decades(Vol. 9: 1980-1989. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Bye-Bye, Leisure Suit

In the 1970s the emphasis for men, as for women, was on leisure; but the 1980s man returned to work. The open-necked shirt and wide-lapelled, loosely tailored suit of the previous decade reflected a leisurely lifestyle and relaxation of roles for men. In the 1980s gender roles for men and women were changing as more women contributed financially to their families and gained power in the professional world; the traditional housewife and male provider were relics of the 1950s. But rather than reflect these changes, 1980s menswear suggested a reaffirmation of traditional values and gender roles. The 1980s suit meant business: suit lapels and obligatory ties were narrower; trousers were straighter; and colors were subdued blacks, grays, and blues. The style reflected a return to 1950s masculinity—a conservative, professional man with no time for leisure. Even men's hairstyles became more conservatively short after the longer, more androgynous hair of the previous two decades. Neat and clean shaven—unmistakably masculine—was the desired look.

Hello, Power Suit

By 1980 the quintessential 1970s leisure suit had nearly disappeared. In 1975 John T. Molloy had written in his book Dress for Success that the suit is "the central power garment." In the 1980s yuppies applied this idea, and the "power suit" became both a fashion statement and a value statement. Work shirts and cardigan sweaters were associated not only with former president Jimmy Carter's relaxed wardrobe but with his liberal politics and working-class associations as well; the 1980s male style, represented by President Reagan's expensive morning suit at the 1981 inaugural, paralleled a new esteem for corporate life, the upper class, and tradition. Even Reagan's jeans and plaid shirt—his ranch clothes—echoed the traditional masculinity of the cowboy and the good old days of the West. There were deviations from the standard suit, but these borrowed from history as well: for instance, high-waisted pants worn with suspenders were revived, as were the easy-fitting suits of the late 1930s. By the mid 1980s the suspenders were being produced in colorful striped and jacquard patterns, but overall, the mood was still conservatively classic.

Preppy Style

Men (and women and teenagers) dressed on the weekends in what was called a "preppy" style, which, like their business clothes, reflected the 1980s conservative values and the importance of appearing to be wealthy. With classically styled jeans, khakis, or long shorts, they sported the quintessential preppy shirt: the polo shirt (also called a tennis shirt), with a three-button placket, ribbed collar, and a small logo—polo player, alligator, or royal crest—on the left breast. The ubiquitous logo—which altered depending on what brand shirt a man bought and, therefore, how much he spent on it—became one of the many status symbols of Americans, who were so concerned with emblems of their financial success that a plain shirt was difficult to find. The preppy style, which also included the popular tennis sweater (a white V-neck with blue-and-burgundy trim on the waist and neck) and leather moccasins called dockside shoes, echoed pastimes of the upper class such as sailing, golf, and tennis. The style also recalled collegiate or preparatory-school clothes: tan khakis; rugby shirts; turtlenecks; white, pink, or pale blue button-down oxford shirts; navy blue blazers; and penny loafers, perhaps worn without socks as The Official Preppy Handbook (1980) suggested. But though the preppy look suggested affluence, because it was accessible to almost any consumer in mall stores such as J. C. Penney or The Gap, it lost some of its impact. Shopping by mail was common in the 1980s, and catalogues such as those of J. Crew and L. L. Bean also stocked the preppy staples for those who could not or did not want to spend the money on an "authentic" polo shirt from Ralph Lauren's collection.

Sportswear Influence

In the midst of the 1980s conservative wave, 1970s-originated sportswear and fashion from the street in general still influenced menswear. For instance, the jogging suits of the 1970s were still worn in the early 1980s, and men wore sheepskin jackets, flight jackets, and duffel coats, as well. The 1970s trend of unstructured clothes, such as looser jackets with lower buttons, became standard. The permissive, relaxed spirit of the 1970s led to a creative black-tie style that gave men the option to go to semiformal parties without a tuxedo jacket, or to accessorize with colorful cummerbunds, vests, bow ties, and socks. (Women at such parties were also less dressed up than in earlier decades, often wearing costumy outfits designed by Calvin Klein or Yves Saint Laurent.) Instead of formal leather shoes, men and women could wear cowboy boots or tennis shoes.

Mix of Styles

Some men's styles blended the sensuality and expressiveness of the 1970s with the elegance of the 1980s. Despite the conservative trend, the growing gay-rights movement and an emphasis on youth allowed for a new freedom to experiment with style. As one fashion writer put it, men could "flirt with fashion without encountering disapproval." The Italian designer Giorgio Armani's popular double-breasted, slightly droopy suits were an example. Reflecting changing social roles of the sexes, Armani was less gender-specific in his choice of fabrics and styles, using, for instance, fabrics such as wool crepe, which had previously been associated with women's attire, for his men's suits. The double-breasted suits, which hearkened back to the styles of the 1930s, were seen as a mark of success, especially among the wealthy, the suits signified the confidence and power to rise above the constraints of the typical, single-breasted yuppie suit. Double-breasted suits, after all, held associations with the elegance of stars from old movies, such as Clark Gable and Cary Grant, and more recently with the television star Don Johnson. Johnson and his Miami Vice costar Philip Michael Thomas reinforced this trend, though Johnson preferred a Versace suit paired with a T-shirt—his fashion statement from the street. Armani borrowed from the street as well, pairing the rough, urban rapper look of hooded sweatshirts with suits.


Farid Chenoune, A History of Men's Fashion (Paris: Flammarion, 1993);

Richard Martin and Harold Koda, Jocks and Nerds: Men's Style in the Twentieth Century (New York: Rizzoli, 1989);

Jane Mulvagh, Vogue History of 20th Century Fashion (London & New York: Viking, 1988);

Blanche Payne, The History of Costume (New York: HarperCollins, 1992);

Doreen Yarwood, Fashion in the Western World: 1500-1990 (New York: Drama Books, 1992).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3468303033