Women’s Fashion Transformation Continued: The 1950s
1950s – The Story Continues
In part one of our overview on the 30 years that transformed women’s fashion, we looked at the 1940s and what women wore in a decade that was dominated by World War II.
Well by the start of the 1950s, fashion and styling had well and truly moved on and was heavily influenced by Dior’s ‘New Look’. For women the new designs provided a refreshing contrast to the austerity and constraints of the 40s. They were now dressing in styles with rounder, fuller skirts, pulled in high waists and fluid silhouettes with lots of fabric and embellishment in contrast to the functional and economical look of dresses in the 40s.
This photo of a dress by designer Cristobal Balenciaga from 1950 illustrates this new softer, feminine style.
Bright patterns, florals, polka dots and colors along with lots of cleavage (think all those halter necks, off the shoulder and strapless gowns) also became favorites for women.
Hemlines dropped from at the knee to mid-calf, a fact which to us now seems to go hand in hand with the conservative mood of the decade but believe it or not, caused a lot of complaints from women when it was first introduced by Dior as part of his New Look collection in 1947. Many women saw it as a step backwards after the relative freedom of shorter skirts. There were also complaints about wastefulness and excess due to all the extra layers of fabric used.
The circle skirt
One of the fuller, rounder styles which became a big trend in the 1950s was the circle skirt. It was an easy to make design where a literal circle of fabric would be cut from material to form the skirt itself. It created a voluminous skirt which was often made even bigger by wearing it with a petticoat underneath. A circle skirt typically fell to a mid-calf hemline and the look of it was usually varied by adding all kinds of patterns or appliques, including the famous poodle!
The poodle skirt
One of the most iconic fashion trends of the 1950s, as we mentioned above, the poodle skirt was a type of circle skirt invented in 1947. The first poodle skirt was created by the actress and singer Juli Lynne Charlot as a variation of a Christmas themed circle skirt which she had made of felt when she wanted something fun to wear to a party. The original skirt was so popular that soon she was creating a variety of designs to put on the skirts, all with a unique story to tell. The poodle skirt became the most popular and widely known of all the motifs and soon the idea was being copied by designers everywhere who began adding all types of appliques to circle skirts. Here are just a few examples:
And here’s another dog breed:
And just for something different, here we have the Eiffel Tower, a telephone and for something straight out of Tom & Jerry, a mouse stirring a cocktail!
Sheath and wiggle dresses and skirts
Despite the popularity of circle skirts, the other look we associate with the 50s today was its opposite. The sheath skirt or dress, also known as the pencil dress and the wiggle dress, or skirt, were a less conservative look that hugged women’s curves. The curvy, hourglass figure was considered the ideal for women at the time (think Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield) and the wiggle and sheath dresses were styles designed to highlight those curves.
The wiggle dress, as the name suggests, was a type of dress which forced women to ‘wiggle’ rather than walk properly due to its narrow, tapered skirt. The dress below is a classic example of a wiggle. You can see the tightness and the narrowness through the legs must have made the dress quite difficult to walk in. By the way, this is the legendary 1950s actress and sex symbol, Gina Lollobrigida.
Here is another example of Jayne Mansfield n a wiggle – see how long and narrow the skirt is through the leg? Definitely not made comfort or distance!
But the 50s were not just all about skirts and dresses. In the 1940s women had begun wearing pants for practicality and out of necessity. By the 1950s though, pants really came into their own as a fashion choice and a standard part of women’s wardrobe. The wide leg, tailored trouser of the 40s gave way to a new style of fitted pants and with the addition of 3/4 length, the capris were born. For the first time too, shorts began to make an appearance as a fashion choice mainly for young women.
The most iconic capri pants wearer was of course Audrey Hepburn and she really made the look her own.
The other 1950s – youth culture
While the womanly hourglass look was the distinctive look of the 1950s, it was also quite a mature and didn’t fit everyone’s style. Every decade has its own youth counter culture and the 1950s were no different. Among the social changes of the 50s came the emergence of a very new and specific youth culture with its own corresponding fashion style. The idea of ‘the teenager’ as a defined group was born in the 50s and with it a number of sub-cultures, the biggest among them all of course being rock and roll.
Every sub culture and counter culture has its own identifiable fashion and style and those of the 1950s were no different. So let’s take a look at some of the main ones and their impact on women’s fashion in the 1950s.
Greaser guys in 1950s
In America, the core rebel youth culture of the 50s was the Greaser. Men had slicked back hair and a tough James Dean rebel look with lots of rolled up jeans, tight shirts and leather or bomber jackets. Some of the ladies were also a little ‘tough’ looking; leather jackets, pants and big hair. Rock & roll music which was itself a new trend in the 1950s was a major part of this culture. Although it was made in 1978, the movie Grease depicts the greasers and their style perfectly.
Believe it or not, as this next picture shows, there were even some all girl motorcycle gangs!
But not all girls who hung out with the ‘bad boys’ in leather jackets dressed this way. Many simply wore a version of the teen 50s ‘uniform’; circle skirts or swing dress with a cinched in waist and some kind of blouse or knitted top.
Although there is a little bit of crossover between the Greaser and Rockabilly cultures, the core difference is that the Greasers were more about the general idea of rebelling against tradition and conservatism. Rockabilly culture on the other hand was centered on a love of the music style itself.
Rockabilly is also the fashion culture we most associate with the classic polka dot swing dress or skirt, short bangs and red heels. Because of a revival in rockabilly fashions in 1980s and 1990s, its also become the stereotypical look we think of for the 50s and has somewhat blended with the 50s pin up look for women. Just think of Betty Page and you get the idea.
For a more traditional rockabilly look from the 1950s though, here’s a photo of rockabilly singer Janis Martin, billed in her day as the ‘female Elvis’. She looks like a pretty sweet rockabilly girl here.
The Swing Dress
The appeal of rock & roll and rockabilly dancing created the popularity of the classic 1950s style swing dress. The full skirt, typically combined with a petticoat or a more fuller crinoline underneath, was perfect for swishing and swirling beautifully while dancing, as we can see here.
Another youth sub-culture that emerged out of the 50s, this time in the UK, was the Teddy Boys and Girls. The Teddy Boys were a British group of young working class men who wore clothing that harked back to the Edwardian era but despite this more conservative look, the group was also very much about making a statement and rebelling against their times. The Teddy Girls were an offshoot of this group, and as you can see they wore quite similar clothing to the men with tailored suits and old fashioned, high collar blouses.
As a youth subculture, the Teddy Girls and Boys had a fair bit of longevity and with various revivals along the way, surprisingly enough, lasted well into the 1980s.
So all in all, women’s fashion of the 1950s was surprisingly mixed with styles ranging from the conservative to the rebellious and from the very glamorous to the quite plain. A big contrast to the relatively narrow range of styles worn by women in the 1940s. It was the variety of styles worn in the 50s which reflected society during that decade – conservative and traditional but with an emerging youth culture and counter culture that was all about rebellion and rock & roll.
The variety of fashions worn in the 1950s paved the way for what was to come in the 60s when women’s dress and fashions in general underwent even more dramatic changes. Hope you enjoyed this post on the amazing fashions of the 1950s. In our next and final installment of this series, we will check out the dramatic transformations that happened in women’s fashions in the 1960s and look at what caused them.
In the meanwhile, if you’ve been inspired by the variety of gorgeous dresses of the 1950s, check out these vintage style beauties from our collection.
Whether you’re after something a little sexy to spice up date night or need to add a bit of vintage glam for a special occasion, you’ll find that cute little frock to bring out your inner retro goddess.
And we haven’t forgotten about Rockabilly lovers either with plenty of polka dot and swing dresses, just perfect for dancing!