No element of men’s style combines fashion and function quite like the wristwatch. Nor does any other male accessory inspire such devotion and interest.
Nevertheless, in recent times there have been those who believed the watch had finally met its demise in the smartphone, and would fade away with other sartorial anachronisms like monocles and sock garters.
And yet the popularity of the wristwatch persists. To understand why, we need to understand the history of this timepiece, how its past continues to inform its present, and why a man might consider wearing a watch in the 21st century.
History of Wristwatches
While the wristwatch has become a men’s style staple around the world, up until the late 19th century it was considered a piece of jewelry exclusively for women. Men preferred the pocket watch.
Before the 20th century, watches were extremely susceptible to the elements. Moisture, cold, heat, and dust could easily bungle the intricate gears and springs within a watch, causing it to lose its accuracy. As men were more likely to face these elements, and held positions in the military, business, and government that made accurate timekeeping more of a paramount concern for them than for women, care had to be taken to protect their timepieces and keep themselves on schedule. Function superseded fashion, so into the pocket men’s watches went, only to be taken out when needed.
As with most things in men’s style, it would take a war for patterns to change and for the watch to leave a man’s pocket and be placed on his wrist.Pocket watches required a free hand to use — you had to reach into your pocket and hold it while you checked the time. In the tumult of battle, a man needed all the hands he could get. So soldiers began improvising wristwatches by strapping their pocket watches on their arm with leather.
Just as GIs returning from WWII continued to wear their government issued tees and khakis as civilians, veterans of the Burma and Boer Wars likely continued using their leather wristlets when they returned home. Male civilians, seeing these rough and tumble war vets sporting what was once considered a lady’s accouterment, began following suit.
The trench watch wasn’t a government-issued piece of equipment (the pocket watch was still the officially sanctioned timepiece), so if an officer wanted one, he was expected to supply his own. Because there wasn’t a single watch company providing watches to the military, this opened up a vibrant and robust market with several competing companies making trench watches for officers. Consequently, you can still find a wide variety of trench watches from this era on eBay and various other auction sites as well as antique stores.
Like the veterans of the Burma and Boer wars who returned home to civilian life burnishing their leather wristlets, British vets of WWI came back home wearing their trench watches, thus setting a standard for civilian men to follow. By 1930, more wristwatches than pocket watches were being sold in the U.K.
After WWI solidified the masculine bona fides of the wristwatch, manufacturers began creating timepieces to be worn on all sorts of occasions. Yes, there were fancy dress watches, but most wristwatch innovation was driven by specific needs of men serving in the military and taking part in risky and dangerous activities like car racing and aerial barnstorming.