The Menswear in Back To The Future (1985)

It’s time to talk about the vintage style in one of my favorite movies of all time:  Back to the Future.

**Notice:  This is a full blog post of a bonus podcast episode! If you’re interested in listening to the full thing, be sure to become a Patron, where you’ll get access to an extra pod every month (like this one) as well as our awesome Discord server where you can talk menswear with other SaDheads!

Introduction

Back to the Future (1985) is a fun movie. It’s something I can routinely go back to, like when I’m sick or having a bad day, and get caught up in an adventure that is quite a bit different than Star Wars or Indiana Jones. It could be see the small-stakes situation, the time travel/soft sci-fi plot device, or the rather great menswear.  It’s the last point that earns it’s spot as worthy of my long form essays.  Plus it’s just a wholesome, enjoyable film overall.

Despite having a fantastically done costuming for the era it’s set in, it actually didn’t affect my own style of dress. As you know, I got my start with wearing/collecting 1930s-1940s wear, which was mainly inspired by illustrations and photographs rather than films.  However, I know that a lot of casual vintage enthusiasts love the film and take some ideas from it, so why not write about it?

And honestly? Yeah. The clothing is superb. It doesn’t feel costume-y or try hard like The Great Gatsby or Gangster Squad; in BTTF, the period looks are natural yet interesting, feeling cool but dated, which is similar to the vibe I get from Sherlock Holmes.  Unlike SH, this film was made in the 80s, which meant that the period they were parodying (1950s) wasn’t that historical.  It was like (literally) looking at pictures your parents wore and checking local thrift stores for clothing ideas. This all probably contributes to why Hill Valley in 1955 feels real and not filled with some wise-cracking gangster with a down-on-his-luck shoeshine kid.

Clearly, there is a huge difference between menswear in 1955 and 1985, but there are just things that make the 1950’s stand out when compared to other eras. I’ve talked about it briefly before here (which honestly could use an update and a proper pod episode), but the 1950’s was a remarkably different than the 1940s.

In this post war time, you had the first inklings of true casual style.  Instead of sportcoats as sportswear, you had dedicated garments like Hollywood jackets. Shortjackets with point collars and bomber styles were extremely popular to wear when you were off work or just a youth.  Jeans and converse were the new go-to for casual pant/shoes, though a few still wore pleated Hollywood waist gab slacks and derbies. And let’s not forget the explosion of prints (tiki and atomic) and tone-on-tone variations that made sportshirts truly “sporty”.

People today call it the Bold Look for tailoring (due to the heavy shoulder pads and dropped button stance) and Rockabilly for casual style.  Either way, it’s pretty cool.

Good examples of the fun casual shirts in the 1950s.

Short jackets of all kinds were common, this time done with fun details.

Great shirts and an epic trouser to boot.

Ties in the 1950’s were more about abstract vertical designs.  Some were slim, others were wide.

Leisuire jackets were all the rage.

BTTF gets all of this right, presumably by the use of true vintage (since the patterns and designs are really specific) as according to the wiki, they only used whatever was in Universal’s costume warehouse.  However, warehouses could definitely still make good reproductions!   We’ll never know what is true vintage or not, but I’m leaning on the use of true vintage pieces  since would only be 30 years old and wouldn’t be hard to source and get in decent condition.

Marty McFly

We all know Marty McFly’s epic 1985 look. Denim jacket on slim high waisted jeans, with a solid colored crewneck under a button up shirt; we also can’t forget the puffer life preserver and white/red Nike Bruin sneakers.  It’s a classic outfit that isn’t actually out of place today, since you could wear it at a Halloween costume or as a generic dude in LA (maybe lose one of the layers though).

Like I said in the 70’s article, that period paved the way for “non-traditional” garment mixing that ushered in the current way we approach casual style. Since this is only 15 years from the period of overalls with oxfords or puffers and military chinos, it’s no surprise that wanna-be rocker Marty McFly would also wear something as weird.

However, as we saw in the movie, he stuck out like a sore thumb when he was accidentally sent back in time to 1955.  Luckily with a rich heir like Doc Brown as a friend, Marty is able to get some period accurate clothes and fit into this iteration of Hill Valley.

Marty’s first look for a new day in 1955 is a damn good one: every piece is so great.  Firstly we can see the two-tone leather-gab(?) jacket with a point collar.  As you guys remember from my leather jacket essay, two-tone jackets were popular as youth novelty wear.  I’m pretty sure the one in the film is a reproduction, but if you found that as vintage it would be worth a lot.  And I’d wear that shit everywhere.  Don’t forget to note how the jacket ends at the natural waist!

Underneath the jacket, Marty has a block motif sportshirt that he’s rolled up his sleeves a la James Dean. Patterns like this are what make this era’s shirts so much fun, though I’m not a big fan of how short the collars are.

He has white socks and penny loafers!

With the shirt, he finishes this perfect 1950’s casual-youth outfit with (presumably) pleated hollywood waist slacks that seem to be made of some silk or rayon blend.  I had rayon trousers from the 1950’s and they were common for this time, providing crunchy/shiny texture that fits in with the era’s obsession with patterns and atomic themes.

Overall, it’s a great uniform to do: sportshirt + high rise trousers + casual jacket. Marty wears the look well, with everything fitting perfectly. In fact, this vibe not only informs some of the looks you can see at Inspiration LA, but I’ve seen more and more guys get into it in the bigger menswear community (like with Bryceland’s).  It may not be atomic or tiki, but alohas are certainly in full force in today’s spring/summer.  Even the thin belts are coming back.

They need to make prints like this again!

When Marty gets into the epic skateboard chase (also a great cue btw), he retains the two-tone jacket but brings in a new shirt and pant combo.  The shirt, now a red/blue piece with a wild diagonal stripe mixed with oversized squares is an EPIC one.  Like I said before, it’s not an aloha but it is a bold pattern, which again makes the 1950’s unique in it’s choice of casual patterns. It just has that retro appeal that I think would look great under a sportcoat, if there were just makers that had it (since a true vintage one would no doubt be expensive).

Note here that he’s now wearing some straight cut blue jeans. It’s different than his slightly acid-washed ones from the 80s, mainly in how it drapes. They’re not overly wide, but moderate, ending with a cuff.  They look how I want my jeans to fit with proper drape. Again, Marty kills it.

At some point, Marty swapped his Corteze with black converse. Looks very 50’s when worn with cuffed blue jeans.

Another fun gab sportshirt that is worn untucked with a white undershirt base layer.

Note the two-tone coloring. Very 50’s.

His last major 50’s look is a sportcoat-trouser combo, worn to the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. We don’t really get a good look at the full cut or details, so we’re left wondering if this is a true 50’s jacket (or designed like it) or something from the 1980s that they tried to pass off. What we do see is that it has a slightly lazy (or fishmouth) peak lapel (not quite a Tautz one imo) and has a bold black/grey weave that isn’t quite houndsooth or guncheck.  A slim red vertical-abstract design tie is done with a white point collar (spearpoints grew out of favor by the late 40s) and a fun tie bar.

The choice of odd trouser, a charcoal grey fleck (or is it salt&pepper?), is what what intrigues me.  Again, this was a time of exploring fabrics and cuts in the realm of tailoring, and while illustrations may keep everything clean, photographs from the era showed that the youth always had a mishmash of things.  It’s probably because they didn’t have dozens of trousers to begin with.

The wide cut may be inspired by the zoot suit (Marty does reference it in the film, but zoot suits were more of a 40s thing IIRC), but he rocks it all the same.  Since you get to see it in full force (along with white socks and black two-tone derbies) while he’s playing the guitar, perhaps it’s his way of exuding that rebellious rocker chic in 1955. He certainly stood out amongst the crowd!

Doc Brown

We don’t really get to see much of Doc Brown’s attire until Marty goes to visit him in 1955; Doc is just in a white jumpsuit in the Twin Lone Pine Mall.  When Marty visits him, Doc seems to wearing a variation on what we’d expect a well-to-do heir would wear at home.  A pink shirt (the 1950’s loved color, if you couldn’t already tell) and a white single stripe tie are fun nods to the fact that he’s an adult, but you get the affluent charm with an epic silver dressing gown. With a scale-esque texture and it’s moderate black satin peak lapels (echoed by the pocket piping), it definitely has that post-war fun vibe.

When Doc goes with Marty to Hill Valley High to check out Marty’s parents, Doc has on a very typical “casual man” outfit.  The tiki shirt is a no brainer at this point, but note the cool gab jacket he has on.  It’s definitely some form of leisure jacket with modest lapels, patch pockets, and a fun little monogram on the patch.  Jackets like this were casual but they clearly took after the classic sportcoat design; it looks smarter than simply wearing a leather jacket or gab short jacket.

Also take note of his straw fedora (I don’t think it’s technically a panama hat). Instead of the traditional black band, he instead has an abstract design as a ribbon, which was a common trend in the 1940s-1960s for straw hats.  It also just makes the hat much more casual, which is one of the reasons why it’s hard to wear fedora-type hats often.

Flecked trousers. The 1950s loved fleck.

A checked asymmetrical sportshirt with a yolked pocket flap.

Look at Doc’s weird shirt! Super cool and novelty style that was popular in the late 40s-50s.  Finding one today would be rare and expensive.

Doc Brown’s last outfit in 1955 is hard to make out, as he wears an balmaccan style rain coat for the climax, but his polo-style shirt deserves some recognition.  Like so many other pieces we’ve seen, the shirt features a fun print, consisting of red and black squiggles. The shirt has a contrast collar/placket and cuffs, which again fits in with many of the stylistic choices of the era.

I’m not sure if I would wear it today, but more brands should definitely take a page out of the era and make something “new”!

Since this is technically from 2015 and beyond my understanding of clothing, I won’t even comment on this.

George McFly

Oh George.  What a loser.

Marty’s dad, at least this version of him, dresses like a dweeb because he is a dweeb.  It’s supposed to be 1985, where RL and other mall clothes are in full swing, and yet he dresses like a caricature of a 1960’s accountant. Short sleeve shirt, repp tie, pen pockets, and browline glasses, all contribute to it.  I mean I’ve worn socks and shorts together, but I don’t think it looked this bad.

I mean, it makes sense since the film is portraying George as someone who is unlucky, who gets bullied, and gathers no respect.

A flecked short jacket.

In 1955, George McFly actually dresses pretty decently! He’s not exactly sticking out like a nerdy sore-thumb. Like Marty, he wears a few different sportshirts and short jackets, though in comparison, they’re much more plain.  George could also benefit with a better fit, but it’s not terrible.  At least in most cases.

What George does make a habit of doing is wearing his sportshirts fastened all the way to the top. Now this was done back in the day, but based on photos and illustrations, sport collars were definitely best worn open.  It’s a nerd thing to do that came back in the mid 2010s as the “air tie” and always results in the wearer looking “closed up”.  And since George is a nervous guy with no friends or confidence, it works perfectly.

I like the checked cloth and red buttons.

In one scene, George actually wears a two-tone Hollywood Jacket! Like with Doc’s ivory jacket, these are meant to be a casual-yet-tailored approach to casual wear.  You’ll see that the cut and design are similar to a chore coat’s, just with shoulder pads and “formal” cloth.

I’ve talked about hollywood/leisure jackets before (since I own a rather plain), though not as in depth. The two-tone ones, especially if they incorporate a pattern, are super cool!

George’s brown gab short jacket has shoulder pads and is a size or two too big for him. Also see how he’s got his shirt buttoned all the way up.

An interesting cotton short jacket with a wider collar and hand warmer pockets.  Very cool.

George goes all out for the dance, mainly because it’s his big moment to “save” Lorraine.  A white dinner jacket and black tie is hard not to separate from James Bond (or Casablanca), and its actually the first time George wears something that fits him well.  It’s still in the 1950’s aesthetic, so he has padded square shoulders, a low button stance, and  closed quarters.

When we return to good ol’ modified 1985, accounting-nerd George has been replaced by a true chad version. There are no short sleeve shirts and browline shades here.  Instead, he has a very 80s biz-caz outfit consisting of a moleskin blazer, vibrant red polo, and pleated slacks.  It’s not bold, but since this is a “normal” outfit, it contrasts against George’s first appearance.

I also love the aviators for max 80s cool.

Biff Tannen

Biff.  When we first see him, his commandingly bold 70’s outfit just screams like a guy who peaked in high school and still bullies others.  Which is definitely true.

It’s such a weird look that actually has some prep vibes to it, mainly with the use of a navy brass button blazer and plaid odd trousers; I think I may even see a white braided belt.

1985 Biff actually dresses rather “normal” for the era, though he stands out for his boisterous character and sheer Kingpin-like aura. It’s all just sportshirts, white crewneck tees, and jeans, nothing to write home about.  I definitely prefer it when he wears the checks or tiki prints, but with it just being done with jeans and sneakers, it feels boring, mainly because its an easy way to do a 1950s look. It’s easy to replicate, but don’t forget that a sportcollar makes a world of difference; a regular standing collar wouldn’t achieve the same effect.

I guess the point is that Biff is just a regular old bully, contrasting against George’s plain looks that utilize jackets and Marty’s much more interesting take on the era.

Biff’s jacket of choice is a bomber style one that has black contrasting collar and cuffs. Can’t you see how popular two-tone clothing was in those days? Like Marty’s leather jacket, this one also ends around the waist, but instead of it just being a plain bomber design, Biff’s jacket has decorative front pleating.  Don’t ask why, it’s just for show.

Like with the shirt patterns, I wish we also had more vintage-inspired jackets like this!

A black shirt and bold tie? I guess stereotypical prom style was a thing even in 1955.

Others

Great costuming is done elsewhere in film as well. It’s one of those movies that doesn’t have “MC Fashion issues” like Fantastic Beasts. Just look and see how cool the attire is for the other characters.

Strickland has a bowtie and suit, but if you look closely, the suit is very 80s with wide shoulders, open notch and low buttoning point.

In 1955, he has a suit that clearly has more weight and features a fun shadow stripe, a common thing for vintage suits.

Ivy style isn’t really in the film other than the committee deciding on the band.  80s ivy is just like 70s ivy tbh: just a more exaggerated and bold version of 60s ivy.

Goldie Wilson also wears a bar motif sportshirt, though with the wide collar, it might be from the 40’s. That makes sense, since he might not have access to current fashions.

Lorraine’s dad wears a car coat (an overcoat with a shorter length). He has a fedora, which gives him an “adult” look. Not sure if the trouser fit is right though.

As can be expected, Lorraine’s dad has a gab sportshirt.  The shorter collar points and higher buttoning point is period accurate to the 1950s.

So much great stuff here, from the faded, cuffed denim and saddle shoes to the absolutely epic novelty knitwear.  I’m very glad that the youth have a variety of style!

Striped shirts are what kids wore back then, not flat caps, plus-fours, and suspenders.

Biff’s gang all have variations on casual style.  Is that a knit tee I see? Wish we could see the ribbing!

More variety in style here and it all looks period. Love the kid’s pastel blue pleated pants, the red sweater, and what I think is a Cub Scout uniform. Check out that tiny brimmed hat!

Marvin Berry and the Starlighters all wear 50’s silk dinner jackets with their quintessential square shoulders and low button stance.  Instead of bowties, they have matching continental bow ties.

ncli

Great short jacket.

Conclusion

BTTF is a great example of a movie that makes 1950’s clothing seem accessible and easy.  There isn’t a big focus on tailoring, which probably makes it much more palatable. Instead, we see casual 50’s, rockabilly-esque style, which informs a lot of the heritage-Americana that is so easy for guys to wear. Sportshirts and cuffed jeans should get you through the most of it.

The real way to make it interesting is by checking out how Marty does it. Instead of plain shirts, he wore fun patterns that made his attire stand out among the others.  It might be vintage and dated, but I certainly love the personality they bring to an outfit, especially since today you can refine it by wearing with loafers or a sportcoat instead of on its own.  Bonus points for those epic two-tone jackets (or leather jackets in general). I’m not sure if the world is ready for the return of hollywood jackets, but after the rise of chore coats and safaris, maybe there’s room for it.

Overall, I think a lot of guys who are searching for a more interesting way to dress can take some cues from this.  BTTF did a great job and since it didn’t go too crazy (note the lack of flat caps, which if included would just be inaccurate), it comes off as classic and actually wearable.

I love this movie and I hope you enjoyed this dive into the costuming, as well as the podcast episode. If you weren’t able to listen to the podcast episode, definitely consider becoming a Patron! Lots of extra content for you guys, from these bonus movie reviews to access to our Discord.

And yes, BTTF II and III will also be done as bonus episodes, though as full blog posts, I’m not sure.  I don’t think I’m ready to write about double ties and self-drying Nike shoes just yet.  Technically, 2015 in the past now…so maybe we’re closer than we think.

Always a pleasure,

Ethan M. Wong

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