The Century-Old Menswear Pieces That Still Look Good
Certain menswear pieces have so much history they’re impervious to trends. You may have to visit the V&A to get your knickerbocker and frock coat fill, but some of their fashion contemporaries look as fresh-faced now as they did on your great-granddad. And with designers raiding the archive to take this season’s pieces back to their roots, now you can dress like him too.
Consider this your archaeological wardrobe overhaul.
Then: Denim’s roots stretch back to the 1870s, when their hardiness made them a goldminer’s go-to workwear. Fashion caught up 80 years later thanks to James Dean and they quickly transitioned from outsider to ubiquity, courtesy of the kind of unflattering bootcuts and acid washes so palatable to your parents.
Now: Raw denim’s rule is fading – literally – as battered jeans prove ever more popular. So for a smart investment in the next few seasons, steer statement. Instead of random distressing, pick history with Levi’s Vintage Clothing, which has delved back into its archive to recreate this 100-year-old pair, complete with authentic patching.
Proof that a great pair of worn in jeans never dates.
The Leather Jacket
Then: Leather’s tough enough to protect you from high speed motorbike spills, and warm enough to ensure you stay toasty at altitude. Hence its original incarnations in biker and aviator jackets, and ensuing popularity with punks (handy for deflecting chucked projectiles), goths (deflecting the worst of the elements), and Tyler Durden (both).
Now: We’ve reached a saturation point with the biker jacket. Once the rebel’s uniform, your grandmother probably owns one nowadays. Opt instead for the flight jacket, ideally with a shearling lining, which originally stopped WW1 pilots freezing in uncovered cockpits.
Since you probably don’t need quite that much protection, Coach’s take slims the traditional silhouette for something as warming, but with less bulk.
Budget won’t stretch? High street leather specialist AllSaints is offering a slightly more affordable (remember, quality shearling costs) option this season:
The White T-Shirt
Then: The T-shirt, like the best menswear, is a triumph of form. Easy to launder and cheap to produce, it was handed out to servicemen who quickly made it the bedrock of their off-duty looks.
As with so many staples, it soon moved from military to counterculture – Brando remains its most iconic wearer – before earning ubiquity. And its current level of abuse.
Now: Believe today’s high street and you’d think a T-shirt now needs fitting with leather panels, mesh, or hems that finish just above your knee. Or, incomprehensibly, should be a canvas for comedy slogans and casual misogyny.
These trends won’t last. A crisp white crew neck tee is the ultimate wardrobe staple and looks as modern today as it did a century ago. Try Uniqlo’s HEATTECH version, which incorporates temperature-regulation technology so you stay feeling comfortable while looking effortlessly cool.
Then: Those punch holes in your office shoes aren’t decoration. Originally designed for crossing Irish bogs, the perforations ensured the water poured back out again when you reached dry land. Although we can’t help think that putting holes there in the first place is a touch counter-intuitive.
Now: You don’t mess with a classic. Though the basic design endures, it’s construction techniques that have developed, with premium leathers and Goodyear-welted soles aimed at keeping the water out entirely.
Even traditional manufacturers now dabble in camo and bright colours, but Grenson’s Archie triple-welt version gives traditional styling a 21st century update.
Then: The hoodie is arguably the only object on earth to boast the Norman conquest, Medieval monasteries and Sly Stallone among its influences. The hood was originally part of a traditional monk’s robe, landing on English shores care of the Normans. But it was Rocky’s grey training top that made the hoodie a sportswear staple.
Now: No longer just for the gym, every designer on the planet offers their own, often luxe take. But to rep the OG, look to Champion, which produced the first hooded sweatshirts in the 1930s as a defence for labourers against the cold.
Then: The training shoe of choice for your 1870s athlete was fashioned from a rubber sole and canvas upper, with its name taken from the join between them, which echoed a ship’s plimsoll line. Because if water got above it, you got wet.
Rubber developments led to a change in moniker in 1892, as new, quieter rubbers enabled the wearer to ‘sneak’ around. Which sounds pretty creepy in retrospect.
Now: The trainer’s combination of comfort and performance has made it the world’s most popular shoe, and inspired designers like Raf Simons, Margiela, Balenciaga and Rick Owens to offer avant garde designs that look more to the future than the past.
But for a dose of tradition, look to Converse’s Chuck Taylor II, which this year updated a 98-year-old design with owner Nike’s Lunarlon sole.