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The Tribute

Style Tips From The Fifties

Prepare to unleash your inner Mr Elvis Presley (or Sir Cliff Richard) as spring takes on a distinctly retro flavour

  • Mr Elvis Presley in the recording studio. Photograph by Everett Collection/REX Shutterstock

Received wisdom says the 1950s were a style desert, a buttoned-up decade of rigid post-war conformity, in which even the maddest of men were trapped in grey-suit lockdown. Well, we at MR PORTER would say, “wisdom schmisdom”, if it didn’t make us sound like we’d had one too many of those cocktails they were so partial to at Sterling Cooper, because the most cursory of glances at the era’s tastemakers shows that the great loosening up of male dress codes, usually carbon-dated to the 1960s, was already well under way.

This, after all, was the decade of the Beat poets, the abstract expressionists and the nascent rock ’n’ rollers, and a time when some of today’s wardrobe staples – the turtleneck, the knit polo, the corduroy jacket – were starting to come into their own. Even tailoring was given a retro-futurist spin, and 1950s innovations such as the bowling shirt, souvenir jacket and tropical print continue to cut something of a countercultural dash more than half a century later, particularly when given a modernist tweak by the likes of Saint Laurent, Valentino and Dries Van Noten in their current collections.

So if you want a little of that 1950s-inspired action, you are advised to channel the spirit of then-hepcat Sir Cliff Richard’s 1958 hit, and move-it-and-a-groove-it to the era’s key style tenets, as enumerated below.


  • Mr Arthur Miller photographed at his home, Brooklyn, New York, 1952. Photograph by The New York Times/Getty Images

Mr Marlon Brando got sweaty in his as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire; Mr James Dean brooded in his as Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause. The 1950s was really the era when the unvarnished white T-shirt made the journey from military-issue undergarment to loud-and-proud, standalone outerwear. “It became a kind of visual shorthand for rebellion,” says Mr G Bruce Boyer, fashion journalist and author of True Style: The History And Principles Of Classic Menswear, who was a teenager himself in the 1950s. “It represented the appropriation of blue-collar clothing for those who refused to buy into corporate society.” But it wasn’t just the uniform of method mumblers and youthful insurgents; intellectuals embraced it, too, as this study of Mr Arthur Miller makes clear. And why wouldn’t they? Perhaps Willy Loman, the tragic hero of Mr Miller’s best-known play, Death Of A Salesman, wouldn’t have met such an untimely end if he’d added this endlessly adaptable, triumphantly utilitarian, now timeless menswear staple to his portfolio.

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  • rag & bone Standard Issue Garment-Washed Cotton-Jersey T-Shirt

  • Garrett Leight California Optical Milwood Round-Frame Acetate Optical Glasses


  • Mr Elvis Presley in the recording studio. Photograph by Everett Collection/REX Shutterstock

There’d be no checking in to Heartbreak Hotel for Mr Elvis Presley in this ensemble. In fact, his interpretation of summer tailoring – perfect for taking you from Sun Studio to a Graceland gazebo – has us “all shook up”. Rockers such as Mr Presley blazed a 1950s trail in loosening formal dress codes for men, replacing hats with quiffs, ties with button-downs, and fusty flannels with featherweight fleck-linen jackets. “The early rockers borrowed heavily from the zoot suits that the jazz musicians of the 1940s wore,” says Mr Boyer. “It was a colourful, exaggerated take on tailoring.” The smart-casual results telegraph contemporary cool for an age when formal-informal strictures are equally in flux. We particularly like Mr Presley’s potent deployment of accessories; the pocket square is as elaborately coiffed as the man himself.

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  • Loro Piana Ecru Woven Wool, Silk and Linen-Blend Blazer

  • Brunello Cucinelli Silk and Cotton-Blend Pocket Square


  • Mr Lucian Freud in his studio, Paddington, London, 1952-53. Photograph by The John Deakin Archive/Getty Images

Masterpiece. That’s the only fitting description for this avant-garde outfit modelled by the painter Mr Lucian Freud in his Paddington studio in 1953, which perhaps ushered in a revolutionary 1950s sartorial movement: maximal minimalism. It’s there in the cap-sleeve vest, worn with impressive insouciance over a long-sleeve shirt, and the generous width and turn-up of the flares. In fact, the whole lopsided, slightly-off-in-the-right-way look beats any Shoreditch/Williamsburg normcore hipster to the punch by a good half-century. “I like starting things,” Mr Freud apparently once opined. Here, he set in train a strain of aesthete-chic whose reverberations are still being felt today.

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  • Steven Alan Masters Slim-Fit Cotton-Flannel Shirt

  • Incotex Four Season Relaxed-Fit Cotton-Blend Chinos


  • Pelé at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Photograph by Offside Sports Photography/L'Equipe

Mr Edson Arantes do Nascimento, aka Pelé, looks pretty pleased with himself as he takes five during the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. And why wouldn’t he have felt like he had the world at his feet? Not only was he making his debut for Brazil at the age of 17, he was also to score two of the five goals that sealed their win in the final against their Swedish hosts. But here we also see a sartorial legend in the making. It may seem odd in the age of athleisure, but the prodigy’s modelling of sportswear off the track was then considered rather radical, not to say – with a nod to Pelé’s prime position on the field – fashion-forward. This is a look that would grace any cutting-edge catwalk today, from the washed-out stripes of the T-shirt to the military side stripe detailing of the tracksuit bottoms. “The head talks to the heart and the heart talks to the feet,” he once averred, but his clothes also had plenty to say.

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  • J.Crew Slim-Fit Striped Washed-Cotton T-Shirt

  • AMI Striped Jersey Sweatpants


  • Mr Montgomery Clift in From Here To Eternity, 1953. Photograph by Columbia/Kobal Collection

If anyone can maintain a dark and brooding demeanour while modelling a shirt emblazoned with tropical palms, it’s Mr Montgomery Clift, who’s blazing a trail for the popularity of the exotic print in this still from the 1953 movie From Here To Eternity. “That film was set in Hawaii in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbour, and many servicemen returned from the island after WWII laden with native ‘aloha’ print shirts, which had been made there since the 1930s,” says Mr Boyer. By the time Hawaii became the US’s 50th state in 1959, Mr Elvis Presley and President Harry S Truman had both sported Polynesian-inspired print, and tropical motifs were well on their way to becoming an instant-colour-pop mainstay of the male wardrobe, though few have pulled it off with the pensive panache of Mr Clift. Of course, this is also a key reference for designers this spring – with everyone from Marc Jacobs to Saint Laurent to Sandro, Gucci, Valentino and more offering exotic print shirts. Pick one, and look like a movie star.

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  • Gitman Vintage Camp-Collar Crane-Print Cotton-Poplin Shirt

  • Baxter of California Tortoiseshell Acetate Pocket Comb


  • Sir Stirling Moss films his sister Ms Pat Moss-Carlsson winning the Ladies’ Invitation Race at Goodwood – the first women's competition to be held at the circuit, 26 March 1955. Photograph by Mr Jack Garnham/Picture Post/Getty Images

Sir Stirling Craufurd Moss OBE, may have been hailed as “the greatest driver never to win the World Championship”, but he made up for that with his peerless command of outerwear, as seen here at Goodwood in 1955. This was an age when drivers were flaneurs – “travelling round the world, meeting girls, going to parties,” as Sir Stirling said himself – and sported a rakish wardrobe to match. An imperishable jacket, built to withstand trackside rigours, such as this one – which could have sprung, newly minted, from any of the heritage workwear-inspired brands operative today – was a key piece. Today’s Formula 1 may be more corporate than collegiate, but a coat this covetable will always bring down the chequered flag.

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  • Mackintosh Shell Hooded Raincoat

  • Leica + Leica M240 Camera


  • Mr Jackson Pollock in his Long Island studio, New York, 1949. Photograph by Mr Arnold Newman/Getty Images

Because of the all-over splatter technique he deployed on his canvases, the legendary abstract expressionist painter Mr Jackson Pollock became known as Jack the Dripper. When it came to his clothes, however, he created something of an artistic-rebel archetype by favouring stark denim jacket and jeans combos with plain black T-shirts and indigo overalls. “He wasn’t interested in belonging to any establishment academy,” says Mr Boyer. “A lot of artists in the 1930s and 1940s dressed like accountants. Jackson and his peers wanted to look like the antithesis of that.” Mr Pollock’s own blue period, chiming as it did with an era where jeans were equated with countercultural subversion, thanks to their popularity with newly turbulent teenagers, has continued to influence those who want to look the creatively iconoclastic, if not the tortured-genius, part.

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  • Faherty Indigo-Dyed Cotton-Ripstop Field Jacket

  • Levi's Vintage Clothing 1955 501 Selvedge Denim Jeans