Overcoats from the Fifties

50s Clothing – Men’s Overcoats & Suits

In the past, we have written elaborate pieces on many kinds of overcoats, and today I would like to present to you a very special set of vintage French fashion illustrations from the early 1950s that not only will show you the men’s  fashion at the time but will also show you how proportions and aesthetics were manipulated long before Photoshop.

Fashion Illustration & Proportion

Today, magazines spend a lot of money on skilled photo editors who walk a fine line between pure illusion and enhanced reality. Back in the day, fashion illustrators simply drew the models so they would match the Zeitgeist in a more simple “one-step” process. As such, many things were over-exaggerated – the 1930s gentlemen in Apparel Arts were famous for their V-built, broad shoulders and long legs. While ideal proportions have changed over time, they have always remained an idealistic view of what men should look like.

If you look at the illustrations from GIROUD & RIVOIRE Lyon-Paris, you’ll notice that all men have a slim waist, a masculine upper body with manly shoulders and long legs. It seems like tall thin models have always been en vogue and if you think about Victorian times, taller footmen earned more money than their shorter counterparts. Obviously, society has been in favor of tall men for a while and that was reflected in the illustrations. Of course, the clothes these models were wearing enhanced this very effect. While this was a general tendency in men’s fashion advertisements, this set of illustrations is over the top. The heads are surprisingly small, especially compared to the shoulders, while the shoes are huge and the midsection reminds me of the dresses women fancied in the 1920s. The chap in the trench coat inspired overcoat looks almost like he wears a corset and the shoulder-to-waist ratio is enormous.

50s Clothing – Overcoats

That being said, let’s  look at the stylistic elements of the overcoats:

Ulster Overcoat Varition

Ulster Overcoat Variation

Ulster Variation & Trouser Length

First up is this interpretation of a classic ulster coat. Unlike the typical 8×4 button front, it only features a 4×2 front, which emphasizes the length of his torso. The large scale, grey herringbone pattern is very classic and could be easily worn today, just like the soft brown felt hat with a folded brim. The club stripe tie adds a colorful accent to the ensemble. Also, note the cut of the trouser hem: because the leg is rather narrow, the trousers are cut rather short and only feature a light break that reveals a bit of the socks. At the moment, most fashionable men like to wear narrow trousers, yet more often than not, they wear the trousers too long. With a narrow hem, it is impossible to have the back hem touch the heel of the shoe because it is just too narrow. Instead, wear cuffs and go for a shorter look.

Red Windowpane check 50s overcoat

Red Windowpane check 50s overcoat

Checked Single Breasted Overcoat

While I like the red windowpane overcheck of this coat, I am not too fond of the cut. First of all, it has a sack style which is in line with the overcoats of the time, but I don’t think it is very flattering for a slim person. On the other hand, if you are a big guy this is perfect. The angled slit pockets are not my favorite and overall the buttoning point seems low due to the super long torso. Also, the head is too small, and the hat doesn’t fit the wearer properly. Note, the wearer does not wear black or brown gloves, but a very dark shade of beige. Back then, men wore all kinds of different colored gloves, which adds a unique note to one’s outfit.

Wrap Coat in Camelhair

Wrap Coat in Camelhair

Wrap Coat

The wrap coat is rarely seen anymore. The last time I came across one was at Chris Despos. It is in fact the predecessor of the polo coat, and personally, I think it is a great addition if you already have the basic styles covered. Here it was paired with a large, striped scarf, reddish fox brown suede gloves, a grey felt hat, cuffed light grey flannel trousers and brown derby shoes. Overall, a decent classic color selection which is unique because of the green blue striped scarf. So, even if you wear a very classic fall outfit, one signature item is enough to make the look your own, so experiment with your outfits and see what you can come up with!

Unnatural proportions

Unnatural proportions

Full Cut Coats & Contrasting Socks

As highlighted before, the man on the left wears a trench coat inspired overcoat with a belt, Ulster collar and vertical pockets. His shoulders seem at least twice as wide as the waist. On the right, we have an overcoat with raglan sleeves. Once again, the gloves are never black but brown or grey and surprisingly, the derby shoes seem to feature a double sole and are brown, which reminds me more of Austro-Hungarian shoes rather than contemporary French shoes. Just like in the other pictures, the trouser hems are narrow, cuffed and short enough so you can always get a glimpse of the socks, which are contrasting shade of grey in this case.

Double Breasted Overcoat in 50s Fabric

Double Breasted Overcoat in 50s Fabric

The Paletot Variation

It seems like the Ulster collar was very popular back in the fifties because it is shown on almost every overcoat. Apart from the full cut, the most interesting detail here is the subtle half circle pattern of the overcoat fabric. 50s clothing often was tailored from rather heavy, mottled cloth that draped well and was very different from what you can find today. One of the most respected fabric weavers back then was Reid & Taylor. Although the name is still in existence today, the fabrics back then were of a different caliber. Personally, I am a big fan of yellow gloves and in combination with the sunflower yellow and red polka dot scarf as well as the orange socks, this outfit is certainly among the more colorful ones.

Diagonal Twill Guard Coat

Diagonal Twill Guard Coat

Diagonal Twill Guards Coat

A Guards Coat is a very dapper overcoat, yet it is rarely seen anymore today because it features a belted back. This version features a bold diagonal twill fabric in mid grey that is even rarer. I have been looking for a fabric like this for a while, so if you know where to buy it, please let me know in the comments. In my opinion, the diagonal twill is more subtle than a glencheck or a houndstooth, yet more refined than a solid sharkskin.

50s suit silhouette

50s suit silhouette

1950s Suits

On the left we see a dark suit in a 4×1 silhouette, which is sometimes also referred to as Kent Fasson, named after the Duke of Kent who popularized that style in the 1930s and early 1940s. Overall the proportions seem off due to the unnaturally long torso. Generally, the buttoning point for this silhouette is below the natural waist but choosing the exact buttoning point can be very challenging because it really changes the whole look. Sometimes, you see dinner jackets with a 4×1 silhouette and a shawl collar, which can also look very debonair. The suit on the right features a typical 50s suit silhouette. The gorge is much lower than today, and hence the lapels are shorter and about 3.5″ wide. Front darts were either not as pronounced or were absent altogether, and the front quarter were rather closed. Also, jackets were worn longer than they are currently. Personally, I don’t find this suit style very pleasing, although I am very fond of the solid dark brown tweed fabric with dark knobs because this kind of fabric adds texture to an outfit and makes an ensemble more casual. If you ever have the chance to get your hands on a fabric like this, make the investment because you likely won’t run across it again. Considering that texture in men’s outfits is very popular once again, I am hopeful that a weaver will pick it up.

What do you think of these fashion illustrations and the 50s clothing silhouette? What details would you like to incorporate to your outfits?

15 replies
  1. Paul Pinkham
    Paul Pinkham says:

    I look to the late 30′s-early 40′s for the suit silhouettes that I feel are the most flattering to the real male form. We aren’t all 6’2′ and 185 lbs. This doesn’t mean we can’t look stylish. I do believe that the textures and colorations of many of the 50′s fabrics were exceptional. I especially like the salt and pepper and other multicolor weaves that have since disappeared from the weavers inventory. If fashion moves in cycles as many say, we may see the return of these more substantial and colorful weaves.

  2. Daniel Gerson
    Daniel Gerson says:

    A lay figure as a christmas gift for the artist wouldn’t have gone amiss. When the proportions are gone haywire like this, I have a very hard time figuring out how these cuts would actually look on a human being.

    The “trenchcoat” wearing man is the worst offender, in that his right leg should be his left and the other way around, because right now his legs can’t be attached to his hip as it is turned with tis right side towards the “camera”.

  3. John Harbourne
    John Harbourne says:

    I agree with the poster above — a little bit more realistic proportioning would’ve helped. The draughtsmanship is wonderful, but why do they all look as if they’ve got shrunken heads?

  4. Hal
    Hal says:

    Presumably this odd exaggerated style of illustration was intended to emphasise the cut of the garments – showcasing the fullness of cut and long smooth lines of the 50s cut. In fact, for me at least, it largely illustrates what I dislike about the overly full often baggy and unflattering cuts of the 1950s. I can’t help feeling that the end of wartime restrictions led to a style that celebrated abundance, sometimes at the expense of elegance.

    That said, elements of this – and other 50s fashions – particularly in the quality of the cloths and in more restrained style have a lot to show us.

  5. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Having inherited an uncle’s 1950s-vintage gray leather gloves, I’ve come to think of them as a subtle, unexpected, sophisticated alternative to the various brown and black leather gloves I’ve collected through the years. They don’t call attention to themselves and look great with black-and-white plaid suits, grey suits and even mid-to-dark blue suits. They seem to be coordinated, rather than haphazard, accessories.

  6. Nik Ismail almurtadza
    Nik Ismail almurtadza says:

    Sven,
    As always,it’s inspiring post.This time I choose the Kent Fasson.
    Quote:Generally,’the buttoning for this silhouette is below the natural waist but choosing the exact buttoning point can be very challenging because it really changes the whole look.’
    I am tempted to try this silhouette for quite sometime but when thinking of the buttoning point ,
    which in my opinion would exaggerate the lapel line,I had to postpone,until I could gather some information/veiws on where the right buttoning point would be place.Can I say rising the button slightly up but not reaching the natural waist would be right ?.
    I hear call upon you and other members of this forum to give me some insight.and thanking you in advance.

    Nik

  7. Gernot_Freiherr_von_Donnerbalken
    Gernot_Freiherr_von_Donnerbalken says:

    At first I want to express my thanks to you, dear Mr. Schneider, for this insightful article and for sharing these illustrations with you readers.

    I must admit I’ve never quite warmed to the fashion of the 50s on the whole, the sack style of some coats being one the most unflattering elements of it.
    Yet there are some elements one might consider to incorporate into one’s outfit. A wrap coat and differently colored gloves would be great, but the weaves are certainly the most remarkable element.
    I’ve once been lucky enough to find a vintage suit from the 50s on e-bay whose cloth is a mere dream. Heavy navy wool cloth with a subtle, small light-blue windowpane.

  8. w. adam mandelbaum esq.
    w. adam mandelbaum esq. says:

    If you look to the Fellows’ illos of the 30′s you see the same kind of proportion distortion. In reality these guys would be eight feet tall with shrunken heads. Great illos, but what is the point? Why not market to your market instead of a group of giraffe men?

  9. Thomas R. Leslie
    Thomas R. Leslie says:

    1950′s was not the sophisticated era of the ’30′s. The clothes look frumpy and dull to me. Glad that era is over.

  10. Simon
    Simon says:

    I think the diagonal you are searching is different from the H&S mentioned above. I saw something very similar at the musella dembech, maybe you should try ask them about it – as far as I can remember it was something from the old harris tweed production..Simon

  11. Carmelo
    Carmelo says:

    These particular french artist that drew also for “Adam magazine” in 40s and 50s was abominable.
    Proportions were all wrong,and clothes ugly.
    Said this 1950s was not a good period for French male fashion.
    I don’t think that these sketch are representative of the early 1950s style.

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