Anyone born in the last twenty years may regard fashion from the 1950s as something totally unrelated to today's styles, but look closely and the connections are clear to see. The origins of our social and style attitudes can all link back to this period. The expression of individualism through fashion started then. It was one reason why rock and roll became so established. Fashion driven by young people? Hard as it might be to believe, it is common knowledge in cultural history that the 1950s was the first period when children didn't copy the fashion styles of their parents (things have almost come full circle in that parents frequently try to pull off the fashion trends of younger generations). Even the word "teenager" originates from the Fifties. The war was over, rationing and austerity were disappearing, spirits were high, and the world was starting to get itself back on track.
As ever, the fashions of the day are a fairly good indicator of social factors too. And few expressions of the spirit are as obvious as those of the dresses and skirts women wore in these years of increasing prosperity and general happiness. The dull, dark, straight silhouettes of the previous decade were replaced by items of expression with flowers, sequins, lace and hints of glamour. These styles now look quite dated when viewed from today's perspective, but in comparison to the years that preceded the 1950s, they would be influential for many years to come.
While female fashion just preceding the 1950s was certainly not over skimpy, the new dresses were altogether more revealing, with arms frequently left bare and décolletage and bustier dresses appearing for the first time. The bust, waist and hips of the classic vital statistics measurements were important to all the styles, with hints of French aristocracy and fashions previously reserved for more wealthy people. The structures that would keep the skirts and dresses in shape were robust too, with layers of fabric or even sometimes solid frames within the dresses to create the form.
Naturally the images we see in paintings, photos and films of the period are more likely to be the dresses worn during leisure activities or pastimes such as holidays, picnics and evening parties and gatherings, as opposed to the clothes worn day to day. The types of dresses and skirts that would be seen on the 1950s housewife or office worker were a little more utilitarian, workman-like and less jaunty with the only real differences to today's styles being the materials they were constructed from. There were few technical, man-made fabrics then, these were still in their infancy (although we all know about the popularity of "nylons" in the post-war years, and the lengths women would go to get hold of a pair).
It is still possible to find some original 1950s dresses and skirts from vintage clothing stores, and good ones command high prices, especially those with designer origin. While some styles of the era are only suited to nights on the town, the common styles of the street and the home seemed new yet practical, with visions of Mad Men (remember, the 60s had a delayed start, with the first four years seeing little change from the decade before) providing you with all you need to know. It was not just the base garments but what you did to personalise them and add your own sparkle.
Jane Wilson has written about vintage and retro fashion for over ten years. She provides advice, styling tips and pricing guidance for sellers and purchasers of these items. Her latest report looks at vintage 1950s dresses and other 1950s retro clothing items.
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