The nonchalance of 1940s and ’50s menswear

The 1940s and ’50s revival is all about subtle-but-savvy takes on icons of cinematic style, says Tom Stubbs

The Gigi linen/cotton/silk jacket, £545
The Gigi linen/cotton/silk jacket, £545

Great new fashion trends often hark back in time for inspiration, seeking a version of the sartorial past that can be reinterpreted for the modern wardrobe. This season it is mid-20th‑century menswear that has captured the imagination of designers. These are no slavish tribute looks; they’re modern, subtle-but-savvy takes on 1940s and ’50s smart-casual wear. The gentle vintage tones and textures of the fabrics – almost as if seen through a sepialens – and the relaxed ease of their cuts are the hallmarks, and the result is a genuinely effortless sense of style. 

From left: Thom Sweeney wool suit, £1,580. United Arrows cotton/silk suit, $1,000
From left: Thom Sweeney wool suit, £1,580. United Arrows cotton/silk suit, $1,000

Bottega Veneta offers the prime example of retrospectively informed but thoroughly contemporary style. “The whole collection is inspired by the 1940s volume silhouette,” affirms creative director Tomas Maier. His fabric choices are the epitome of modern luxury: neutral, fluid silks and cotton gabardines interpreted in tailored jackets (£1,530) and ultra-roomy trousers. Bottega’s wide-pleated trousers are particularly good, in walnut moleskin (£570) or white cotton (£430) with fat four-inch turn-ups that look hip with Bottega’s two-tone suede saddle shoes (£830). Other flowing trousers (£590) in gabardine look dapper with a double-breasted gabardine coat (£1,900) – itself a strong 1940s signifier. 

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This new trouser silhouette is potent stuff. Take Dashing Tweeds’ wide trousers (£450) with 19in bottoms – cut from the house-designed Martin Grid cloth and woven in the Scottish Borders – that come with a neat shawl-collar jacket (£800). Dashing Tweeds founder Guy Hills says the trousers are cut to be worn high on one’s natural waist, with a generous 2in waistband in the manner of 1940s matinée idols. Its yellow-striped merino-wool suit (£1,250) also channels that silhouette. 

Ermenegildo Zegna Couture cotton/linen gabardine trousers, £850, and cashmere crewneck, £630
Ermenegildo Zegna Couture cotton/linen gabardine trousers, £850, and cashmere crewneck, £630

Giorgio Armani captures this trend with a deconstructed “straw” linen jacket (£1,250) teamed with loose-fit trousers (£430) in ivory marl twill, while at Emporio Armani there’s a longer double-breasted jacquard jacket (£630) in a red/beige weave. Paired with linen grisaille trousers (£360) with a deep side pleat, it’s a classic midcentury silhouette executed in super-modern fabrics.

From left: Dashing Tweeds merino wool suit, £1,250. Richard James cotton poplin shirt, £135, and cotton/linen trousers, £245
From left: Dashing Tweeds merino wool suit, £1,250. Richard James cotton poplin shirt, £135, and cotton/linen trousers, £245

“I love Italian post-second world war neorealism – those Visconti, Rossellini and De Sica films from the late 1940s where men carried off the cuts and volumes with nonchalance,” says former Boglioli owner Pierluigi Boglioli, who now trades as The Gigi. The fabrics of the new Gigi collection are all in-house exclusives and include a striking madras check in indigo, orange and ecru, used for a casual soft jacket (£545) with patch pockets. Other jackets denuded of linings and facings that stand out include a linen/cotton number (£495) with a patented ribbed texture. Gigi trousers (£195) have a dart sewn in below the waistband for added American-inspired attitude.

Giorgio Armani cotton/linen jacket, £1,250, and cotton trousers, £430
Giorgio Armani cotton/linen jacket, £1,250, and cotton trousers, £430

Midcentury Italian cinema was also the inspiration at Ermenegildo Zegna Couture where the muted palette contributed to the sense of nostalgia. I wanted in from the moment I saw how good its splendid cotton/linen-gabardine double-pleat trousers (£850) looked with short casual jackets, though the trousers work equally well with Zegna’s own fine‑cashmere crewnecks (£630). 

Bottega Veneta cotton gabardine jacket, £1,530, cotton trousers, £430, and suede saddle shoes, £830
Bottega Veneta cotton gabardine jacket, £1,530, cotton trousers, £430, and suede saddle shoes, £830

United Arrows always has a gamut of great, very wearable stuff that appears plucked straight from a past decade (and is how co-founder Yasuto Kamoshita himself famously dresses, often looking as if he’s just stepped off the set of Singin’ in the Rain or Sunset Boulevard). “The California of the 1950s, particularly the open-collar shirt of that era, represents the new relaxed look,” Mr K told me. Case in point: UA’s pink bowling shirt ($320) and double-breasted rayon/cotton Moca jacket ($1,300; with trousers, $550), which despite its generous lapels and long cut remains contemporary thanks to its fluid softness. So, too, UA’s signature double-breasted knitted-cotton cardigan ($650), and the white-striped cotton/silk suit ($1,000). 

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An exuberant attitude-drenched strut through Cuba, circa 1958, was more the look at Richard James, where much of the collection embodies high-summer tailored resort style; witness embroidered shirts (£135) in aqua, apple and peach poplin with period flower motifs, or pale-blue linen military trousers (£245). A blue/ivory jersey bomber (£715) encapsulates the look perfectly, as do seersucker shirts (£195) in baby and navy blue. Dressier linen hopsack suits (£815) come in pink, pale blue or peach, with the standout a wool/linen/silk mix in iridescent “greige”. 

And finally, the vintage prompt that inspired Thom Sweeney is the 1950s Italian Riviera look of The Talented Mr Ripley. “The palette of the time was a major inspiration. The tones are softer with a dusty finish, which allowed us to bring in colours such as orange and green without them being overpowering,” co-founder Thom Whiddett told me. “We took the styling and interpreted it in our own way,” – namely, shallower pleats and softer-shouldered jackets. A terracotta suit (£1,580) in lightweight wool manifested the aesthetic perfectly. And a crisp double-breasted herringbone silk/linen/wool blazer (£1,185) with a seersucker shirt (£235) and cotton trousers (£395) was a killer number that would have suited a scheming Tom Ripley to a T – preferably with Alain Delon interpreting the role in 1960s Plein Soleil (Purple Noon), which to my mind beats Anthony Minghella’s remake for sheer style. Though I salute the inspiration he took from the original – like I do the fresh spins these designers have put on the threads of an iconic era. 

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