The 1950s is an era in fashion design that is instantly recognizable to everyone, regardless of how much or how little they know about fashion. The full, crinoline skirts, the close-fitting cardigans, the nipped-in waists, all of these things that we associate with 50s style clothing have been on the tip of our sartorial tongues for decades.
Just how exactly did these styles get their start? This brief walk back through time will show you exactly how these iconic styles came to be such a part of our cultural narrative.
A bit of background to the story
In order to really understand the evolution of the fashion styles of the 1950s, it is important to think about the cultural context that gave birth to some of these styles. The catalyst for these designs was the end of World War II in 1945. Up until then, women had taken up positions in the workplace while the men were at war. Styles during that time reflected the utilitarian practicality and austerity associated with the war effort.
Military and auxiliary uniforms, work dungarees, and austere dresses were the order of the day during the war. Hosiery was scarce; nylon and silk was appropriated for the war effort in order to make parachutes. Many women, busy with working and taking care of families on a very tight budget, used hats as a way of elevating their otherwise spare looks.
While hats were often the one and only bit of decoration and embellishment women allowed themselves, these accessories also served a dual purpose by allowing working women to go out without having spent a lot of time on their hair.
New era, new look
Once the war was over, those men who were lucky enough to have survived returned home, and the cultural focus shifted from the war effort to a sense of renewed hope and a focus on the family unit. A desire for simplicity, comfort, and a renewed emphasis on consumerism became the new cultural norm, and the fashion world took this sense of renewal and ran with it.
For women, part of this cultural shift meant that, for better or worse, they were no longer required in the workplace. Becoming the ideal housewife and mother became the cultural focus, and this was reflected in everything from advertising to fashion.
Leading the charge in women's fashion at that time was none other than Christian Dior. In 1947, just two years after the end of the Second World War, Dior introduced the New Look.
The New Look was a variation on the fashion themes of the mid-19th century; a nipped-in waist, a full, billowing skirt, and an enhanced bust line that celebrated the female form which had been hidden underneath military and work uniforms during the war.
The piece that really set the tone for Dior's New Look collection was a suit called the “Bar Suit”, and it was instantly embraced by women around the world as the antidote to the bland, wartime dressing that they had been enduring for years.
In addition to breathing new life into the wardrobes of women around the world, Dior's New Look had another effect. In one fell swoop, the New Look revived the flailing reputation of Paris as the fashion capitol of the world.
The effect of the New Look was far-reaching. The nylon mesh that was so hard to come by during the war was back; this time in the form of crinolines that would give the voluminous skirts their shape.
Color also came roaring back onto the fashion scene, and women felt emboldened to wear such prints as stripes, florals, and polka dots without having to worry about appearing too jovial during wartime. The younger set often wore skirts with embroidered and textured appliqués, the most popular of them being the now iconic “poodle skirt”.
Hats were still very much in vogue, although the wide-brimmed garden hat that was originally shown with the New Look gradually evolved into the smaller, more streamlined look that we have come to associate with the 1950s.
As far as footwear is concerned, high heels with rounded toes were the feminine ideal of the era, although teenagers and young girls would often pair their full skirts with saddle shoes and short white socks, known as “bobby” socks. Jewelry was kept simple; often a single strand of pearls or a rhinestone or diamond brooch was all that a woman would wear.
Although there were many other fashion trends that evolved during this time (pencil skirts, car coats, rolled jeans, cropped jackets), Christian Dior's New Look was the look that started it all. It's the New Look that created the silhouette that we have come to associate with the 1950s, and a look that still resonates today.