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1950s Fashion History - Flamboyant & Feminine



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For more information on this decade in fashion history, check out our list of books and reviews at Recommended Reading. Also please visit our Links page.

For bibliography referencing, the author of this page is April Ainsworth.

Women's Vintage Fashions of the 1950s

Silhouette     Soft but wide shoulders, corseted waist, and full hips were hallmarks of 50s wear, but silhouettes were more varied than this favorite silhouette. On these outlines, women wore a trim bodice and very full knee-length skirt, or a fitted short, boxy jacket or blouse with a pencil-straight skirt. One style that hid all the rest, literally, was the cocoon-like sacque dress and coat, which fitted the shoulders and bloomed at the waist and hips.

Common Designs in Vintage Clothing

  • One- and two-piece dresses with small-collared, fitted blouses and full, pleated knee-length skirts
  • More casual dresses with tied shoulder straps or halter straps, boned bodices and the quintessential circle skirt
  • Similarly fitted eveningwear that had an opaque strapless bodice with a sheer silk or nylon overbodice, usually sleeveless or long-sleeved
  • Prom night evening gowns of pastel nylon tulle, usually bedecked with yards of tulle trims, ruffles, and  velvet bows
  • Long-sleeved button-up sweaters with a plain, ribbed neck, often beaded or appliqued

Fabrics Available     Natural fibers (linen, cotton, wool, silk), rayon, acetate, nylon, modacrylic, acrylic, polyester, and spandex.  For daytime, the most common fabrics were in naturals, rayon, nylon, poly-cotton blends, and sometimes acrylic and acetate; sweaters were wool (cashmere for status) or acrylic knit.   Brocades, satin, velveteen, taffeta, nylon net, tulle, and chiffon in both natural and synthetic fabrics were reserved for evening.  Materials were usually light- to medium weight, and sheer fabrics were common, but not usually as the main material of a garment (except in tulle evening gowns, and some day dresses and blouses).

Popular Colors and Prints     Day and casual wear saw neutral solids and floral prints, along with dazzling western and peasant-styled clothing, sometimes hand-painted onto circle skirts or scarves.  Futuristic prints of all types appeared in bright, abstract designs apropos of the atomic era. Also, dark tone-on-tone abstracts in brown, gray or navy were popular winter prints.

For evening, both solids and classic floral brocades were common; the effect of overlaying contrasting sheer chiffon or net on a flesh-colored underdress was daringly popular. Colors in the evening were now both subtle and bold, as peacock blues and hot pinks became acceptable.

Trims and Detailing     The most obvious trim of daywear is the beading of sweaters and occasional extravagance on detailing circle skirts.  Circle skirts and novelty garments were sometimes incredibly ornate, with applique, rickrack, screen-printing, sequins, or glitter.  A very common feature on 50s dolman-sleeved dresses is the small, nonfunctional, diamond-shaped underarm panel.  Flutter hems, which were curved evenly up and down, and scalloped edges appeared occasionally in full-skirted day and evening dress.  Most evening detail appeared in sculpted pleats and necklines, or toned-down rhinestones and corde`, which added style without being cumbersome or uncomfortable.

Hemlines Day and Night     Daywear hems fell to the knee or a little below it.  Evening gowns could be floor-length, but the cocktail dress also flourished at knee and upper-calf length.

The Latest Fads

  • Bobby soxers (Peter Pan collared blouse, poodle skirt, scarf-tied ponytail, and saddle shoes)
  • James Dean look-alikes, hoods, and motorcycle gangs
  • Modeling became a respectable job for young ladies (more)
  • Super-fitted dresses for bombshell types called wiggle dresses
  • Cat-eye glasses
  • Beatniks
  • Hawaiian shirts
  • Barkcloth in casual wear
  • Ethnic scene prints in day and leisure wear
  • Americana prints with rustic scenes or patriotic eagles, etc

Innovations     New fabrics: acrylic (1950), polyester (1953), and spandex (1959)