When we look back at mid 20th Century style there is much to feel nostalgic about, which of course is why it’s still influencing us today. It’s sometimes hard to imagine that over seventy years have passed since the beginning of the 1950’s. Is it the pace of change that has got faster or the passing of time itself?
Poodle skirts were the icon of 1950’s clothing, but the fashions delve much deeper than an iron-on dog.
Since women are the subject of most fashion and diversity, they’re a great first stop. The aforementioned poodle skirts were just one installment of the new style of skirts. After World War II, the styles slimmed down, creating a more natural silhouette of the body.
The poodle skirts and other styles were knee-high or longer since showing leg was considered too racy for sophisticated women, and they tended to be full and round. The pencil skirt was introduced in this period, but tended to be overlooked. Wide belts over the waistline were popular as well because they made the midriff look smaller.
The shirts and jackets were fitted, even around the shoulders, and the dresses were loose-fitting and hung over the body very freely. Heels were higher than previous decades, and gloves were a popular accessory for women of all ages.
For men, think the 1955 movie Guys and Dolls, starring Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando. Their fashions were right on, since the movie was filmed with a “modern” setting to reflect the current time period.
Men were the breadwinners, and they spent most of their waking hours in suits. Plain colors were virtually the only choices they had (charcoal, black, dark blue), and the suits didn’t have much variety to them. A fedora was the hat of choice for businessmen, and no suit or dressy look was complete without one.
There was a more casual look for boys and younger men. A cardigan sweater was the look seen around most schools; the letterman sweaters seen in movies were accurately portrayed. Shirts didn’t need to be tucked in during a casual setting, and some men opted for the “cowboy” style of shirt instead of the classic plaid button-down.
The clothes of the 1950’s have made up one of the most reproduced looks ever. The styles have been immortalized in numerous movies, and have even made a few comebacks in retro collections.
Like most decades, the 1950’s have the signature shoe that defines the fashion of the foot. The fifties had the saddle shoe and introduced a few other styles to boot.
The infamous saddle shoe was a staple in fashion, and it can be best described as the black and white, stiff, heavy piece of footwear seen in pictures of sock hops and dances from that time period. Men’s dress shoes resembled the saddle shoe, typically with two tones, flat heels, and thin laces. The shoes had to be shined, not washed, if you wanted them to appear clean.
Women, similar to modern times, had many more options and styles to choose from than the gents. Stilettos gained popularity and women chose them to accentuate their legs when they wore skirts and dresses. Businesses were less than thankful, since they had to protect their floors from the scuffs and scratches of the pointy shoes.
More conservative shoes had thicker, shorter heels. Patent leather was a staple in a shoe maker’s business, and black was the usual color of choice. Rounded-toe flats and shoes with very short heels were worn by school girls because of their comfort and conservative appearance. Ballet flats and white socks were a popular style to wear with skirts on casual outings, and the socks have since been eliminated from the style.
The shoes from the 1950’s are still popular today, with the exception of the saddle shoe. The heels have been modified and expanded upon, but the basic style still has its roots in fifties footwear.
The 1950’s was a time of change all over the world. The 1950’s saw the end of a war and the birth of the original King of Rock and Roll. The war was over and the new optimism put a spring in the step of young people. Incidentally, it put a spring in their hair as well. Curly hairstyles dominated 1950s hairstyles and fashion, and most young women wanted naturally curly hair.
1950s hairstyles were all about curls and swirls, whether they were framing the faces of young girls or giving a busy housewife’s cropped cut some flair. The 1950s represented the reign of the poodle skirt and ponytail. This ponytail was often accented around the face with shorter layered sections of bangs that were styled into spit curls. Interestingly, there were no protected rubber bands like we use today, and girls’ rubber band ponytails wreaked havoc on their hair.
Housewives’ hairstyles were cropped shorter and shorter, in a pixie cut that framed the face in little curls. Cropped bangs were all the rage for mothers and teenagers alike. A popular goal of 1950s hairstyling was to give the appearance that a lady had naturally curly hair. Teenage girls popularized a hairstyle that consisted of short layers and waves, with brush curls accenting the bottom and sides of the do. This 1950s hairstyle was accented by short rounded bangs on top.
Another interesting 1950s hairstyle innovation was bleaching the hair with Ivory Snow Flake detergent and peroxide. The hair processing did not stop here, however. Perms were alive and thriving among 1950s hairstyles. How can we forget the poodle: the hairstyle where women and young ladies cropped their hair a few inches from their head, followed by a perm? This 1950s hairstyle gave the look of–you guessed it–the poodle!
The perm of the 1950s was a lot harsher than we enjoy today, and it used ammonia and cause a lot of damage to the hair. Young ladies also tried to dye their hair to match their favorite celebrities. Orange hair and strawberry blond hair were quite fashionable at the time.
Women in the 1950’s
The fifties were the bridge between the war and the lively sixties. Britain was leaving behind the war attitude and mindset in order to begin what would be a new colorful and liberated era. Men were coming back from the service and women, after all those years, were able to be what society at that time wanted them to be: the perfect wife and homemaker. The role of women in the beginning of 1950’s was repressive and constrictive.
Women had to fulfill certain roles such as the obedient wife and nurturing mother. These were the years when I Love Lucy was the main character of the most watched television show; a stay-at-home wife that got into trouble constantly and only her husband, Ricky Ricardo, could fix it and make it all better.
However, these were the years when women took important steps and led the way to the women’s liberation movement of the sixties. Not only did Rosa Parks sparked off the black civil rights movement when she refused to give up her sear to a white man on a bus but also showed the magnitude of a woman’s place in society.
At that time, the government agreed to equal pay to both women teachers and civil servants. Doris Lessing, today a Nobel Prize winner, and Iris Murdoch published their first novels and Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly became the audience’s sweethearts, playing strong roles in important and transcendent films.
Much was changing during the fifties. The “contemporary” style in architecture and design, which was being promoted after the war, had an effect in every aspect of society. These were the times when the people searched for a more colorful attitude towards life, and being that the rate of unemployment was at a very low point, there was enough money going around for people to paint the insipid house walls to pale blue and sandy gold, leaving behind the dull grays and whites; restaurants and lively hang outs were being inaugurated, and women had the opportunity to acquire dresses and accessories which vivid fabrics and styles came to life and made way for a new colorful beginning.
1950s Music is Still Fun
I love 1950s music! You just can’t beat jamming songs like “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets. Of course, 1950s also brought us Elvis Presley and such songs as “Hound Dog” and “Don’t be Cruel.” I miss the days not too long ago when you could put a quarter in a jukebox and select three tunes.
It’s fun to visit an establishment like a hamburger joint that has a 1950s theme. The waitresses all wear poodle skirts just like the ones that were popular at the time. If you’re lucky, you can arrive on a night when the waitresses get together for a fun dance routine. Your toes will be tapping and your body will be moving in time to the song that plays.
Besides poodle skirts, women also wore Rockabilly dresses that had daring necklines for the day and ended below the knees. Men would rock out to Jerry Lee Lewis singing “Great Balls of Fire” and other 1950s music wearing Levi’s denim shirts. Because westerns were so popular in the 1950s, men wore western styles that included long sleeves, a spread collar and pearl buttons on the front.
If I could think of one word to describe the clothing of the 1950s, that word would be modest. Clothes were not as revealing as they are today. Forget what you see in popular movies that idolize the 1950s such as “Grease.” The clothing the actors wear are an interpretation of what people wore in the 1950s and have little or no basis in reality.
One of the most popular female artists of the 1950s was Doris Day. She won an Oscar for her song “Whatever Will Be, Will be (Que Sera, Sera)” from the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Man Who Knew Too Much, which won an Oscar. You can learn a lot about 1950s fashion by watching James Stewart in his sharp business suit with a hat and Doris Day in a smart professional outfit.
If you’ll excuse me now, I need to do the Twist.
The Festival of Britain 1951
After the war-time austerity of the 1940’s, the Festival of Britain in 1951 marked a new era of looking forward to a brighter future. With a primary site on the South Bank of the Thames and other sites throughout England, this was an event that was said to be “tonic for the nation.” Structures such as the Royal Festival Hall and the ultra-thin Skylon evoked a definitively modernist sensibility and many visitors saw their very first television.
This was a time when the necessarily severe fashions of the 40’s had just begun to evolve into a more glamorous, feminine look. In 1947 Christian Dior took the fashion world by storm when he presented a ‘New Look’ consisting of a fitted jacket with a full, mid-calf length skirt. The jacket emphasized a fashionably small waist and the skirt required yards of fabric, shocking after the careful rationing of the war. Meanwhile, stars such as Audrey Hepburn with her plain black sweaters and gold flats became fashion icons.
This was the setting into which the 1951 Festival of Britain came; a time of new modernism and the beginnings of movement toward the feminine and glamorous in the fashion world. Visitors could see an array of textiles with bold, colorful prints on cotton, linen, or parachute silk. Their artistic, modern design was a whisper of things to come. Sadly though, the textiles were mostly destined for export as the British government struggled to rebuild a war-torn country. It was a time of political and economic uncertainty, yet women were ready for something more than bland, severe clothing. This event would usher in the late 1950’s and the 1960’s, with all of the flair and extravagance that was to come.