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Fashion | History and Culture

Fashion Throughout the Decades: the 1950’s

March 24, 2019

In many ways, the 1950s was a period of both modernity and history. During World War II while the men were overseas, women back home gain a degree of personal and economic independence that was rarely seen before the war. They left their homes to work in offices and factories, earning and managing their own money. By 1950, the men had returned home from the war and their jobs,  so women also returned to their homes as wives, mothers, and homemakers. There was a migration to newly-built suburbs where life was supposed to be picture-perfect and traditional. Society became very conservative, and there was a rise in affluence. With old routines back in play, former fashion trends also returned. But with all old comes something new. In this post, we will take a look at all the biggest women’s fashion trends of the 1950s and how they’re returned to designer’s collections today.

Women had become a custom to their independence — both in work and in fashion - and weren’t going to give it up completely. After the hardships of the war, people were ready for a change. Although the new clothes used excessive amounts of fabric, needed constant maintenance, and required a complete coordinated accessory collection to be “perfect,”  by the start of the ‘50s, everyone was wearing the New Look. The New Look: The full look of the 1950s was mature, glamorous and very put-together. Dresses, skirts, and undergarments were constricting, but a wide range of new ‘leisure clothes’ allowed people to dress casually at home. Women were expected to be impeccably dressed and groomed in public or when their spouse was home, always with coordinating hats, shoes, bags, belts, gloves, and jewelry. In privacy, women dressed much simpler, more comfortable. Eventually, the new sense of freedom allowed women to dress more casually in public as well.

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Fabrics used for evening wear were luxurious with velvet, tulle, silk, and satin being the most popular.  Cotton and wool were the choice for daywear along with new synthetic fabrics. Polyester and rayon were used for all kinds of clothing, from blouses and men’s shirts to dresses and suits. Nylon and elastic, conserved for the war effort, began to be used for a wide variety of clothing, especially undergarments. These fabrics were made into delicate underwear, nightgowns, and stockings. Nylon did such a good job of replacing silk stockings that they’ve been known ever since as simply ‘nylons.’ These new synthetic fabrics were seen as ‘miracle fabrics.’ They could be washed and dried easily, didn’t need to be ironed and didn’t shrink.

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Few designers chose to break from the New Look model, but a couple paved the way. Coco Chanel hated the New Look so much that she reopened her business after closing it at the start of the war. In 1954, she came back with slim suits – the brand’s signature look – in wools and tweeds. Jackets were boxy with no collar, and skirts were straight and comfortable. She topped the look off with costume jewelry and the famous quilted bag.

In 1947 Christian Dior, Chanel’s rival permanently changed the fashion industry and created the look that would dominate the next decade. Named the ‘New Look’ by Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow, Dior’s first fashion collection, shown in Paris, was the exact opposite of the ‘40s look. The fabric was luxurious and voluminous. Shoulders were soft instead of squared, the figure was hourglass instead of boxy, and the short, straight skirt of the ration-happy ‘40s was replaced by a huge, billowing one that hit at mid-calf. There were also skirts that were so slim and fitted that women found it hard to walk. Bodices were extremely tight so that a woman could accentuate her tiny waist. In many ways, the New Look was reminiscent of styles from the mid-nineteenth century.

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The New Look lasted throughout the 1950s, but the high-maintenance lifestyle eventually gave way to the rebellious culture in the ‘60s. Teenagers wanted to be individuals who didn’t look like their parents, and their mothers were ready to break free again. Fads were short-lived and garments were cheaply made. Clothing wasn’t constrictive anymore and was looser and much shorter. The flowing hippie look and the graphic mini-skirt gave women new choices and a way to express themselves.

Runways and the odd celeb showing have confirmed the '50s are back in fashion. Designers including Balenciaga, Carolina Herrera, Alexander McQueen, and Calvin Klein have helped to kickstart the revival, sending hand-embroidered fit-and-flares, cropped sweaters, and polka dotted and checkered numbers down the runway. Mid-century trends were about showcasing a tiny waist and then throwing out the skirt shape to accentuate the hips. '50s dresses were often printed, knee-length and came with halterneck, shirt-button or square necklines, made to show off a bit of collar-bone. Tea length swing dresses with petticoats for fullness and slim sheath dresses are two popular styles you could be sure to see throughout this decade. These trends have now been seen spotted both on the runway and within everyday street-style looks indicated the styles from the ’50s have returned.

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Mary Orton from MEMORANDUM
Mary Orton from MEMORANDUM
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The 1950s also saw the rise of the poodle skirt. Often in pink or powder blue, poodle skirts were swing skirts made to flare out around the knees. Current designers, including  Calvin Klein, focus more on solid colours and fanciful pleats. Poodle skirts were predominantly worn by teens and pencil or circle skirts were favored amongst more mature women.

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In recent times we have welcomed the return of the cardigan with open arms. But that iteration of the knitted staple—most often in a longer shape, with a slightly slouchy feel to them—is a step away from the '50s blueprint. Now, the cardigans are back to their original fine form: cropped, bright, and worn charmingly about the shoulders.

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Kitten heels have been spotted on the catwalks for the past few seasons. When the most influential designers of the moment agree on a trend, you can be sure everyone else will follow. The kitten heel was introduced as a “training shoe” for younger women. The short, slender heel is around 1.5 inches tall, and the shoe helped young ladies transition from flats to high heels.  The practical style became a hit with women of all ages and became an iconic style thanks to Audrey Hepburn. The classic kitten heel has been a wardrobe staple for many women. It pairs perfectly with either a little black dress or a pair of jeans. (Capri pants and high waisted jeans were the most worn form of pants for women during the ’50s.) Kitten heels are ideal for women who need to look elegant while spending long days on their feet.  The new version has a fresher, more modern look. New cuts and proportions make today’s kitten heel look less like a throwback and more like fashion.

Cat eye glasses first began to trend in the 1950s, worn by style icons such as Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor. The glasses were primarily small, slick and angular. Although, the most stylish women of the era also dabbled with the larger and rounder variety. In today’s society, cat-eyed glasses are worn by all demographics of women and come in a variety of fun colours. They can either be worn as a bold, fashion statement or as a form of feminine elegance that reflects the loved styles of the past.

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When the summer heat hits at full force, people everywhere flock to the water to cool off and enjoy the sun. While the tendency to swim in the waves when it gets hot outside is not unique to a given time or people, what we wear (or don’t!) is. From full-on dresses to strappy bikinis, women’s swimwear has seen it all. Although there was no shortage of swimwear to choose from - ballerina, empire waist, baby doll, bubble, and princes - the bikini make a strong debut.  

Although the actual style of the bikini wasn’t that different from its cousin one-piecers, some skin on the upper stomach was allowed to peek through. The bikini has been a favorite amongst young women for decades. The 1950’s bathing suit also inspired the return of the one-piece suit’s popularity. The two-piece high waist bikini comes in at a close second. Solid colors (red), as well as polka dots, are always best sellers among retro swimwear fans. Vintage style swimsuits with ruching are some of the most body-flattering designs you can wear today.

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Polka dots were not only popular amongst swimwear. The pattern has been around since the mid 19th century but didn’t boom in popularity until the 1950s. You could find an array of objects and clothing in the now familiar polka dot print including dinnerware, accessories, dresses, skirts, swimwear, toys, curtains, pop art, and much more. French designers Christian Dior, Pierre Balmain, Mme Gres, and Jacques Fath were all dominant influences on post-war haute couture fashion and incorporating the popular pattern into all aspects of women’s clothing. Polka dots have recently returned in popularity amongst the runways and are particularly seen throughout the summer season as a fun and bold print, perfect for all women and all occasions.

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While some may view 1950’s fashion as a set back in the freedom women had gained, the trends and styles had a prominent impact on the culture and continue to inspire designers across the world today. Comment below which fashion trend from this decade is your favorite and if you have a particular decade from the 20th century that you admire the designs the most.

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