In the 1950s, women’s Fashion was a complicated combination of conservatism and glitz, girl-next-door freshness and seductive femininity. Women who had been poor during the Great Depression and World War II could now buy new clothes and wear them all, from shorts and pants to elegant, long, flowing skirts.
The look of the 1950s was based on the shape of an hourglass. The style was grown-up, with waists pulled in and hips and busts that stood out. Even though most big designers were going for a mature, conservative look, women started wearing more pants, shorts, sportswear, and sundresses that showed their shoulders.
Typical Features of 1950s Fashion
- A shape like an hourglass was most common.
- Skirts with crinolines or skinny pencil skirts were very popular.
- More and more women wore pants.
- Dresses with a shirtwaist were popular.
- Always worn for the dress and professional attire are hats and gloves
The historical context of the 1950s style
In the 1950s, the economy improved, leading to a new consumer-driven society and making it possible for a family to live well on one income. During World War II, women who worked in factories quit or were fired. As people tried to live in a simple, conservative way, the housewife became the ideal woman of the time.
Even though the suburban way of life might seem shallow and limiting for women, it’s important to remember that people had been afraid of poverty for 20 years and had just returned from World War II.
Fear of the nuclear bomb, the changes caused by the Civil Rights Movement, and the maybe exaggerated threat of communism took a back seat to a desire for the simple, ideal life shown in mass media. Television changed entertainment and news, influenced trends, and showed what stylish homemakers looked like.
A New Look
In 1947, Christian Dior came up with the “New Look.” The New Look, with its tight, cinched waist, billowing skirt, and pronounced bust line, brought back styles from the mid-19th century and set the tone for the next ten years. Dresses made of nylon mesh were needed to hold up dresses with big skirts. From the 1850s, hoops or crinoline cages were brought back.
Sometimes, dresses had pretty color trims that went below the hem of the skirt. Due to wartime restrictions, clothing styles during the war were dull, with squared shoulders and little fabric and decorations. The New Look showed a new kind of luxury and a new way to be a woman.
Huge skirts and pencil skirts
Tailored suits gave off a feminine look with their tight waists and emphasis on the hips. Even though Coco Chanel made a more comfortable, almost boxy suit with a blouse with a pussycat bow, the long, slim look of a waist pulled in, and a narrow skirt was still popular.
Wide skirts were worn without big crinolines for a soft, draped look during the day and other casual events. One common alternative to the more outlandish styles was the shirtwaist dress, often worn by homemakers on TV. Halter-top dresses were a more casual option for the beach, cookouts, and parties in the summer.
Popular prints from the 1950s
After the somber colors of the 1940s, there was a big comeback of prints. Stripes, florals, and other patterns were often colored on a white background.
- Like the one above, wild floral skirts were paired with a plain-colored, short-sleeved knit top.
- There were all kinds of stripes, from bold black-and-white stripes to thin black or dark blue stripes on a light background. 3/4-length sleeves were often worn with these stripes.
- Polka dots were seen in opposing colors, such as red on white (and vice versa), dark blue and white, and white on white with nubby or textured dots.
- Near the bottom of a wide skirt, you could often find embroidery and appliqués. A felt poodle appliqué became the most recognizable sign of the style of the 1950s, and people still wear them to 1950s parties and on Halloween.
The 1950s fabrics and technology
New advances in mass production made it possible to make more clothes and more of them than ever before. As the production speed went up, clothes got cheaper, and off-the-rack manufacturers rushed to copy haute couture designs.
Types of Fabric
Nylon became a fashion staple when it was no longer needed to make parachutes for the war. It is now used to start making hose, lingerie, blouses, and sportswear. Even though cotton was still common for summer clothes, Dacron and rayon fabrics that didn’t wrinkle made ironing less of a chore. With the new drip-dry clothes, it was easier to do the laundry.
Some new fabric blends were made of two-way stretch materials that helped swimwear keep its shape. Synthetic fibers and blends reduce the market share of the wool industry while liberating consumers from troublesome moths that may ruin wool items stored in the closet in the past.
Women in Pants
During World War II, when women wore pants to work in factories, they found a new kind of freedom and comfort. Pants became more popular among women, from soft hostess pants to tight-knit slacks and short shorts. The side zipper was a popular way to close jeans because it left the front smooth and looked more dressy than the front zipper.
Straps on the hems of slacks pulled out any wrinkles, giving the pants a smooth, tapered look. At home or the beach, women wore shorts with blouses or shirts that were tucked in or tied at the midriff. Pedal pushers stop just below the knee, while Capri pants do end at the lower calf casually and stylishly.
Accessories from the 1950s
- Gloves. Unless it was casual, a well-dressed woman always wore gloves and a hat outside. Long gloves that reached the elbow were worn to formal events and evening parties with short-sleeved dresses or gowns with no straps. In the warmer months, short gloves were worn with suits or long-sleeved clothes.
- Hats. The New Look was first seen with garden-style hats with wide brims. But for most of the 1950s, people wore small hats. People liked cute little hats with veils on them. They came in many colors, but spring and summer pastels were the most common.
- Glasses, especially the cat’s-eye style with flared, pointed edges, became a fashion statement. There were a lot of different colors of frames.
- The jewelry was simple and classic. Necklaces from the 1950s were often made of pearls or fake pearls. Pop beads made of plastic were a popular part of costumes. Thin watches, understated rings, and clip-on earrings were classy and traditional.
- Shoes. Dressy high heels had round toes and often had holes in the front where the toes went through. But over time, women’s shoes became more comfortable. People liked to wear espadrilles to the beach and on vacation. Tennis shoes were worn around the house and garden. They were simple so that they were as comfortable as possible. In the 1940s, saddle oxfords were popular with younger people. They were often worn with short socks called bobby socks.
A well-dressed woman wore a bra and pantyhose, among other things. A bra supported the bust and helped women get the hourglass shape that was popular at the time. Slips were made to wear under pencil skirts, and dresses helped New Look-style skirts keep their shape. Garter belts held up nylon stockings. Socks were worn with pants for everyday wear.
Teenagers wore skirts in the New Look style with short socks called Bobby socks. Women wore girdles to keep their waists small, which was important for most styles. A girdle could go a little bit above or right at the waist. Some girdles went all the way to the leg. Dresses, skirts, and pants were worn with girdles to make them look smooth and slim.
- For formal events, young girls with long hair would pull it into a ponytail or a French twist.
- The short, loose curls of the Italian cut gave the hair a stylish but carefree look.
- The bangs were short and curled. They were worn with both short and long hair.
- The page boy’s hair was sleek and about middle-length, with the ends turned under.
- Black and white women with curly hair often used chemicals or hot combs to straighten their hair.
- The bouffant and bubble cut were puffy hairstyles kept that way by backcombing and hairspray.