A Century of American Style

Fashion, like history, chases its tail. Which is probably why your dad is surprised to see you roll in sporting the same thick black glasses he stopped wearing the minute they became synonymous with dweebs. In this month of style, we are compelled to look back in order to look forward. So here are a few themes and looks that have made an impact over the past hundred years. For better or worse, each one has shaped what we wear in America today.

The Brothers Brooks Having outfitted all but five Presidents, no other clothier is as essential to American style through the ages as Brooks Brothers. It’s been around literally forever (well, OK, since 1818) and despite having something of a stodgy rep these days, the apparel giant was an innovator in its day. Some highlights: the first ready-to-wear suits, the introduction of madras to the States, corduroy and seersucker suits bearable in hot summer months, and—as recently as the 1990s—the phenomenon that is the no-iron cotton shirt.

Men With and Without Hats Fine headwear was all the rage for much of the century, but when gas shortages led to smaller cars in the ’70s, we stopped covering our heads so much, and people retired the Homburg, the bowler and the pork pie (well, except for Walter White). The fedora, however, has proven to be something of a clinger, trotting out through the decades to rest on the heads of Prohibition-era gangsters, our hero Indiana Jones, Michael Jackson (circa Thriller) and trilby-wearing blowhards everywhere.

Waist Overalls Not ringing any bells? We’re talking about jeans. There was a time few of us can remember, when dungarees were the exclusive province of cowboys and factory workers. Then James Dean came along and inspired a generation of kids to become rebels with a denim cause. Now? There’s such a thing as “dressy” jeans, which you’d pair with blazers and OCBDs. And if you give even the slightest indication of interest, we’ll talk geeky to you about our collection of designer selvedge.

The T-Shirt Originally developed as undershirts for U.S. Navy uniforms, T-shirts suddenly became the focus of an American love affair. We can thank Marlon Brando for that (Stellaaa!). It’s a love affair that continues to this day, but don’t even get us started on graphic tees. True story: Two guys walk into a Nordstrom Rack, and one says to the other, “Most of the stuff in here is crappy, but every once in a while you can find an Ed Hardy shirt for $50.” Let’s get back to Brando.

The Rise of the Yuppies The Gordon Gekko imitators. Alex Keaton on the cover of Esquire. The toothy, maniacal grin of Patrick Bateman. Beginning sometime in the ’80s, a young professional’s financial status manifested itself through certain sartorial embellishments. Lots of white collars, suspenders, and pinstripe suits. This particular fad seems to wax and wane with the health of the stock market, so if we can ever dig ourselves out of the current hole, maybe we’ll see it again.

Pleats You could make the case that, if nothing else, pleats at least serve a purpose. They provide a looser fit and leave plenty of room to keep it breezy for those with meatier thighs. Still, we’ve got only one thing to say to pleats, and that’s “GTFO.” For the stylish modern man, it’s all flat front, all the time.

Fit In the mid-aughts, we Americans finally took a tip from the Europeans and started tailoring our clothes to, you know, actually fit our bodies. Thanks to the work of J. Crew and many others, we no longer have to walk into stores and ask for extra-large shirts when we’re actually only big enough for a medium.

Details And now that we’re finally wearing clothes that are the correct size, the key is in the details. We’re seeing a resurgence of the following touches: pocket squares tucked into breast pockets, streamlined tie clips, whimsical lapel pins, beaded bracelets. Extra points if you actually take the time to affix a fresh boutonnière to your blazer. (Just be careful that you don’t get busy with all of these at once.) It’s 2013, men. Go forth and be attentive!