It is sometimes tempting to think of the history of fashion in terms of distinct units of decades, with a new era being ushered in with the drop of the ball in Times Square on New Years day of the first year of a new decade. However, this thinking tends to cloud the broad sweep of history, which takes shape as it unfolds from the trends and events of the past.
No discussion of the world of fashion in the 1950’s would be complete without examining the profound impact World War II had on the industry. Europe and North America had traditionally looked to Paris, the international capitol of fashion, for stylistic inspiration and guidance in this realm but with the German invasion of Paris, this link was severed and designers and manufacturers in the rest of the world were forced to rely on domestic talent.
There was also a shortage of fabrics and trimmings used in clothing during the war, and rationing systems that regulated the quantity of clothing, which could be purchased, were introduced in countries like Britain. This climate caused wartime fashion to become very functional, almost militaristic in appearance. The typical wartime outfit in Britain, for example, was the tailored suit with squared off shoulders, tapered waist and just-below-the-knee length skirt. Shoes and bags, and accessories were also functional, with the exception of hats. The materials for making hats were not rationed so large, bold designs in hats were characteristic. But generally speaking, the range of garments being produced was extremely limited. Little elegant evening wear was being produced, for example, because textiles like silk were needed to make parachutes. There was also a ban on the production of hosiery for the same reason. Hosiery was still being made from silk, as nylon was not yet widely available.
As British and American designers were not eclipsed by Parisian designers during the war, they emerged in the post war era with a much sharper profile in the fashion world. Both countries had made significant progress in mass-market clothing production, also known as “ready-to-wear” clothing, in part because of having to produce massive amounts of uniforms during the war.
After the war, women returned to the home and to a less active role in society. Femininity returned to the fashion styles of the day. No longer curtailed by the rationing of textiles and restrictions in buying, they wanted clothing with reams of fabric. Even make-up was heavy – many women went through their day with a full painted face compete with dark eye liner, colored eye shadow, mascara, rouge, to dark red lipstick. The cosmetics and fragrance industries boomed. Women reveled in their access to products that had been of short supply during the war, and perfect grooming was essential.
The silhouette of the day in the early to mid 1950’s leaned toward the formal, and the tailored. Women wanted to present themselves as mature, elegant, and sophisticated. It was important to look 'every inch the lady' from head to toe, and this was the female cultural norm that was conditioned in every girl from a very young age from her authority figures in addition to the movies she saw at the theater on Saturday night. Even the adventurous world of high fashion popularized on the runways and catwalks of the Paris fashion shows remained formal.
Watching the popular Hollywood “pictures” of the day can provide a fun study in 1950’s fashion styles. My favorite film from the era is “How to Marry a Millionaire” featuring sex siren, Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable. It is a visual feast of 1950’s fashion not to be missed! And the image of female beauty of the day was a curvy one with shapely hips and a prominent bust, although it was important that a women’s waist be small. Many women wore girdles, waist cinchers and shapers underneath their clothing to achieve this desired image. Women that collect vintage clothing today will attest to the fact that the waist dimensions of vintage dresses and skirts feel abnormally small when compared to that of the hips and bust.
Tailored suits, dresses with bolero jackets, twin sets, and shirt waisted dresses with full pleated swing skirts were worn during the day, and full-length cocktail gowns with elbow length opera gloves and bold statement jewelry were worn for evening wear. The 1950’s were a time of practiced etiquette – a time when every occasion demanded a studied attention to clothes and accessories. For example, the way you dressed when you went to have lunch with the ladies was different than the way you dressed when you went grocery shopping or attended your children’s school functions. A popular style for the 1950’s woman who wanted to appear provocative was the wiggle dress or tight-fitting, high-waisted pencil skirt.
The 50’s were time of prosperity. Families had more disposable income and, let’s not forget, lots of children! They don’t call it the baby boom era for nothing. As a result, a brand new market emerged catering to young people. Many teenagers wanted more relaxed clothing styles than those of their parents. Teenage girls favored tight sweaters and cardigans worn over pointy “bullet bras”, paired with full circle skirts with stiff nylon petticoats underneath for fullness. Teenagers across the world were dancing to the new American rock-n-roll music and the full skirt and petticoat combination made for quite a show as you spun around on the dance floor. Poodle skirts were worn with black and white saddle shoes at sock hops where teenagers danced to Elvis Presley. Many experts agree that it was in the 1950’s that the fashion and music industries became forever linked.
Tight jeans and pants were a popular fifties clothing style with both teenage boys and girls. Pedal pushers became e a very trendy style of pants for girls. “Good girls”, Annette Funicello and Doris Day popularized this fashion look for young girls in the 50’s. The “greaser look” for young men, also unique to the 1950’s, was distinguished by the white tee shirt and black motorcycle jacket, greased back hair and sideburns, popularized by James Dean and Marlon Brando.
From the mid 1950’s, tailored suits from Italian designers, in particular, began to represent “the ultimate in modernity” for the modern 50’s gent. Italian clothing was being imported to the United States and Britain in greater quantities than ever before. Even domestic menswear manufacturers and tailors were advertising their single-breasted suits with tapered trouser pants as being made “in the Italian” style. Striped ties were popular for men, and the love affair with Italian menswear didn’t end there, Italian leather shoes with pointed toes were extremely in vogue in the world of 50’s men’s fashion.
Toward the end of the decade, designers began to present less structured clothing. They began rebelling against the tight-waisted, tight-fitting, full-skirted styles of the post-war years. Chanel’s relaxed sweater suit designs for women were gaining in popularity. Fashion was trending toward more comfort and wear ability. The sack dress from the late 1950’s was the precursor to some of the shift dresses that became popular in the 60’s when hemlines went shockingly up! That, however, is another story. I, for one, will always be a fan of 1950’s clothing. It was a decade of vibrant fashion activity that celebrated some of the best qualities of the traditional gender roles, including all things feminine for women and a strong masculine archetype for men.
Article author: Tatyana Cathcart owns Babygirl Boutique, an online store in Portland, Oregon. Her boutique carries a variety of vintage reproduction, retro inspired, indie, and alternative labels including Stop Staring Clothing, Paper Doll Productions, Hell’s Belles Handbags, Sweet Romance Jewelry, Anne Koplik Designs, Retro Shoes, and an assortment of sexy pinup style lingerie for any time of the year! Local pickup available. Free Shipping.