From indecent to beautiful

Men’s fashion changes quickly. Every new season brings in a new look or a different twist on an old trend. The high street chain Zara barely keeps clothes on the rack for more than 2 weeks before they replace them with new garments. The rate of change is so fast that the camo t-shirt you bought to go with your indigo jeans might be out of favour by its 10th wear. 10 years ago people were wearing boot cut jeans and now most people wouldn’t be seen dead in them. I find this change exhausting and the rise in popularity of men’s sites like and that emphasise timeless classics indicates other men are exhausted too.

In 1937 the fashion historian James Laver devised a timeline also known as Laver’s law that described how attitudes towards a fashion changes over 150 years.

10 years before – indecent

Five years before – shameless

One year before – daring

In fashion – smart

One year after – dowdy

10 years after – hideous

20 years after – ridiculous

30 years after – amusing

50 years after – quaint

70 years after – charming

100 years after – romantic

150 years after – beautiful


The fall of boot cut jeans fits neatly into this schema – Jeremy Clerkson in boot cuts does indeed look hideous. But fashion trends do tend to come ‘back in’ just as fast; look at how the turtle neck has made it back from the hideous abyss following it’s hey-day in the 60s and 70s. Looking down Laver’s scale shows how clothing styles go on a journey of decreasing then increasing acceptability after their time of being in fashion. By his calculation we should think of 80s clothes as amusing and 40s clothes as charming. I think this accurately describes my opinion of these fashion decades, but what do our 21st Century tastes think about 150 year old fashions? Do we think they are beautiful as Laver’s timeline suggests? Let’s take a look at this fashion plate from around the 1860s.

Fashion plate

I think that all these chaps do look ‘beautiful’. In recent years there has been a trend for men to wear suit separates in contrasting colours. as this article at illustrates, It was the de-facto way to wear a suit in the 1850s. I’m not suggesting that this is coming back into fashion because it has been 150 years; some outfits such as the morning suit have often featured contrasting coat and trousers throughout this period. The timing is however curious in the context of Laver’s timeline.

What is interesting about this picture is that the clothes are quite familiar – a three-piece suit comprised of trousers, jacket and waistcoat. It’s the details, such as the length of the jacket and the accompanying neckwear and shoes that mark it out as being from a different era. Does this mean that there are in fact timeless classics that have always been in fashion and will never go out of fashion? Look at this painting of Thomas ‘Sense’ Browne from around 250 years ago:

Thomas Browne

This painting made in 1775 shows the elements of jacket and waistcoat are still there although it’s hard to see his shirt and the waistcoat is very long going down to the thigh area. He’s wearing knee breeches and stockings on his legs which were completely normal wear for a man for a number of centuries up until this point. The only way we can relate to this with our modern minds is to see these as shorts and long socks – more like something a man might wear when going out for a run rather than at a formal event. He’s wearing a wig (or periwig as it was known), which was also completely normal for this time. So the further back we go, the less familiar fashions become and the less we are able to relate to them.

Men’s fashions changed remarkably in the 1670s when men started to wear the three-piece suit. In the middle of the 16th Century we can see that there is no sign of the three-piece:

Henry VIII Holbein

This famous painting of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein spectacularly demonstrates how fashions can change over the course of nearly 200 years. Henry’s clothes are completely unlike anything we know. It’s hard for us to discern any type of recognisable clothing apart from his stockings and shoes. His codpiece poking out from what looks like a skirt (actually a long ‘tunic’) would now be thought of as indecent. The tufts of white fabric sticking out of slits in his sleeves and doublet (what he’s wearing on his torso) appear very peculiar to the modern eye. The King’s doublet is fitted to follow the contours of his body. Fitted clothes came into fashion in the late 13th century when people used buttons as fasteners rather than ornamental objects.

There is no sign of fitted clothes in this painting of Henry III during his coronation in 1216.

Henry III

/Henry III.jpeg

Undoubtedly dressed in finery of the highest fashion in a display of immense ostentation, he appears to us to bewearing little more than rags. In 1216 this is what respectable nobleman and royalty were wearing. What looks like a dress to the modern eye was known as a tunic (different in style from Henry VIII’s tunic)- a piece of clothing that would more likely be worn by a woman in 2017. The garment drapes rather than follows the contours of Henry’s body. It certainly doesn’t fit in the same way Henry VIII’s doublet fit him. The tunic had been a common form of dress for hundreds of years prior to when this picture was made and would remain so for another few hundred years or so. The pace of change in fashions since the battle Hastings and before that even, was glacial – slower even than Laver’s timeline posits.

There is plenty more to say about the clothes portrayed in these four paintings, but I’ll save those for future posts. The paintings demonstrate just how much men’s fashion has changed over long periods of time and that perhaps garments said to be ‘timeless’ (a common term said about much modern clothing) are only timeless for a hundred years or so. Will we have another big change like when the doublet replaced the long tunic as standard wear, or when trousers replaced breeches and hose? Who knows, but if James Laver’s timeline is any indication, top hats are definitely due a revival and I for one am keen to get on board with this!

I’d love to hear what you think about the clothes in the four paintings in this post. Which items of clothing would you like to come back into fashion? Do you agree with James Laver’s timeline? Will it make you have a wardrobe clear out? Put your thoughts in the comments below.

All pictures from Wikimedia Commons except the 1860s fashion plate – origin unknown but most likely a photograph of a fashion plate held at the V&A.


Byrde, P. (1979). The male image: mens fashions in Britain 1300-1970. London: Batsford.

Laver, J. (2002). Costume and fashion: a concise history. London: Thames and Hudson.

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