1950s style was the birth of American fashion and today, is one of the most popular vintage trends to incorporate into your everyday wardrobe.
After World War II ended in 1945, the doors for American fashion designers opened wide with stylish opportunity. The haute couture houses of fashion in Paris stopped producing designs during the war, so by the mid ’40s their influence had waned. In their place, vintage designers like Bonnie Cashin, Ceil Chapman and Pauline Trigere were introduced to women’s closets in the ’50s.
The ’50s was an era for new blood in the design world, but before America gained fashion ground European designer Christian Dior released his “New Look” collection in 1947 that laid the foundation for all of ’50s fashion design.
Embraced for re-defining the female silhouette, the New Look collection (also called the “Corolle” line as dubbed by LIFE Magazine) introduced styles designed with full skirts that dropped below the knee, tightly nipped to emphasize a woman’s waist.
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The collection purported a feminine softness totally opposite from the ’40s militaristic styles of wide shoulders jackets, short skirts and an overall ethos of less-is-more (limited adornment or elaborate designs) made from minimal materials to conserve for the world.
This article explores how five 1950s style looks – rockabilly, hot housewife, modern pin up, poodle skirt and sporty-varsity – can be worn without hesitation today. I provide advice on how you can wear ’50s clothing without feeling like you’re wearing a costume.
If you are a seller, please leave a comment with a link to your favorite ’50s garment in the comments below!
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Feel free to scroll through the post for inspiration on how to wear ’50s style in a contemporary way, or click any of the links below to be taken immediately to the text within the article!
1950s Style Dresses from Shabby Apple
Source: Vintage Vandalizm
Rockabilly is a fashion and lifestyle culture popular in the southern and western areas of the United States. It’s technical definition is as a music genre popular in the 1950s, combining the influences of R&B with country hillbilly music from the ’40s and ’50s. Elvis and Johnny Cash were birthed from the rockabilly music scene.
Today, rockabilly music, lifestyle and fashion lives on in states like California, Tennessee, Washington and Nevada. The subculture of rockabilly isn’t as popular on the East coast – at least for now. Viva! is a weekend of fashion and events around the ’50s rock ‘n roll inspired culture, offering music performances, car shows and quintessential ’50s activities like bowling and bingo.
How to Wear it: Rockabilly is about dressing sexy while still maintaining a unique edge. It combines the ’50s New Look styles with the Bettie Page pin-up looks of the ’40s and ’50s.
The stereotypical rockabilly girl is commonly seen with coiffed hair, tattoos and wing tip eyeliner while wearing a 1950s dress, cat eye sunglasses and stilettos. But that isn’t the only way you can dress rockabilly. Even just adding the makeup, or wearing a look like Jasmin from Vintage Vandal above, captures the rock-chic glam of this ’50s look.
Red and black is a common color combo for the quintessential rockabilly look. Jasmin went for an all black-red look, including her vintage accessories. The bandanna is a ’40s Rosie the Riveter touch that in my personal honesty, makes the outfit an A+ versus just an A.
Source: Regal Films
Soure: Warner Brothers
The movie Grease told the story of a “classic'” ’50s girl (Sandra Dee) who by the movie’s end, is converted to the rockabilly girlfriend of Danny (John Travolta).
Her transformation from goodie-two-shoes is made possible thanks to the body-hugging styles of tight leather pants, an off the shoulder top and red kitten heels. Go rockabilly girl go!
During the baby boomer era of the ’50s, the average age of marrying was 20.3 years old. Today, it’s 26.1 years old. By the mid ’50s, approximately a quarter of married women were working.
If a woman was left to cook, clean and care for the kids, she wasn’t wearing Uggs and sweatpants in the ’50s. She was still dressed to impress, protecting her house dress with a pretty apron and when the chores became too much, resting on the stovetop with a glass of wine and a smoke.
How to Wear It: You don’t have to be a real housewife to wear this look, which for modern day is more appropriately worn for events beyond the comforts of your home. These are dresses that feel best for school, social events and just looking really good when you want to get out of those sweatpants.
Any 1950s sundress or shirtwaist dress paired with crinoline lays the foundation for the look. The accessories and shoes are up to you. For a bonafide ’50s look, accessorize with a matching earrings, necklace and bracelet jewelry set.
Or, skip going all ’50s and pair your dress with a contrasting pair of solid or patterned tights, dazzle up that hair and heck, wear a bunch of cocktail rings on one hand. Whatever feels good for the inner hot housewife in you.
Source: Vintage Ad Browser
Source: Vintage Ad Browser
Source: Annette Ashley
Thank you to Annette for sharing this photo of her parents from the ’50s! The fur collar on the mother’s sweater is just too fabulous.
Source: Vintage Vandalizm
Juli Lynne Charlot was 24 years old when her “poodle skirt” design became famous around the country.
The story goes something like this: Juli was an aspiring opera singer living in Los Angeles in the late ’40s when she married Philip Charlot. Shortly thereafter, he lost his job. With money so tight, Juli was left to create her own clothing for the upcoming holiday events. She couldn’t sew, but the innovative girl figured out a workaround: Make a skirt from felt fabric so that she wouldn’t need to cut multiple pieces and avoid sewing altogether.
To decorate the skirt, she came up with the creative idea of buying whimsical appliques – perfect for the holidays.
The skirt was such a hit, that she decided to make a few more and see if a Beverly Hills boutique would be interested in them. They were, and they sold from the floor immediately.
Now, those were skirts with non poodle appliques for the holidays. In the spring, the same boutique requested the full felt skirts with a non holiday applique. Juli came up with dachsunds. The boutique then requested poodles. The poodle skirt was born!
Within a short time, word of the new trendy skirt spread and upscale department stores around the country like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman were ordering in droves. Juli couldn’t keep up with production (and she still couldn’t sew!) so she set up a 50-member factory and launched a line of Juli Charlot poodle skirts, which would become the most iconic symbols of ’50s fashion and Americana to date.
Thank you to The Vintage Traveler for this information.
How to Wear It: The poodle skirt has become such a symbol of teenage ’50s America that at first glance, the modern woman is probably hesitant to adopt it as a “look” for her wardrobe.
The trick is to wear it during the appropriate season (I’d argue spring) and to gently play up the novelty characteristics of the look.
Jasmin plays up her poodle princess style with cat eye glasses and a crystal poodle pin. But her shoes, bag and top are simple, demure and elegant. She’s not wearing bowling shoes and her hair certainly isn’t in a pony tail. Rather, she’s wearing her poodle with pride since she’s not weighing it down with flowerly accouterments. All eyes are on the poodle!
The typical poodle skirt is made from felt material, but many vintage style versions are made from cotton. This lessens the “vintage” feel of the skirt so that it feels more modern. Bonus: Cotton means easier to clean!
Source: Vintage Ad Browser
Source: Found in Mom’s Basement
Source: LIFE Magazine
The 1950s had a revival in the 1970s and 1980s. This LIFE magazine cover from 1972 says it all (really, a ’50s quiz?!) and the movie Grease (in 1978) defines the era’s reborn passion for the ’50s.
If you’re a seasoned vintage seller, you also know that the ’70s is when the “industry” for vintage clothing was born.
The ’50s became popular amongst sellers because according to the 20-years-is-vintage rule, it was the first “vintage era” when the vintage fashion culture was growing as dealers and shops were born.
If you’ve seen A Place in the Sun (1951), then you undoubtedly gasped when Elizabeth Taylor wears her tulle dress.
The style captures the essence of Christian Dior’s “New Look” collection: A fitted bodice which exposes soft shoulders and emphasizes an itty-bitty waist. A sweeping skirt of maximum volume is feminine with a capital F and further enhances the wearer’s shapely figure.
That dress was so popular amongst women and young girls in America that it became the style to reproduce for the era. Women wore the styles to parties and their daughters to proms, which is why these dresses are most commonly called prom dresses.
The truth is that they’re princess dresses, capturing a romanticism that only layers of tulle and lace made voluminous by a circle skirt of crinoline can. Wearing a dress like this transports you back to Cinderella’s era, as if attending the royal ball with your prince.
How to Wear It: The ’50s prom-party dress is the most attractive silhouette for any woman. The width of the circle skirt draws attention to your waist, which appears tinier because of the skirt’s volume. The bodice of the dress nips you in all the right places and draws attention to your shoulders, neck and face.
High school girls can wear these dresses to their real proms and college-age sorority girls to their formals. Grown women can wear them to their favorite parties of the season for a dress that no matter what crazy moves you might do on the dance floor, simply makes you look good.
What I love most about these dresses is that they work for all seasons. A tulle prom dress feels just as perfect for a summer photoshoot in a field of flowers as it does worn under the mistletoe for a holiday event or perhaps, in the back of a limousine for your best friend’s bachelorette party.
The style is elegance defined and is best worn when you want to wow your audience with this style of ageless appeal.
Source: Columbia/Sony Pictures
Source: Paramount Pictures
Big thanks to JoRetro boutique for sharing this photo of her mother Ladonna, who wore this dress to her senior prom in 1957.
When she submitted the photo she wrote: “It was featured in a fashion show at Watt & Shand Department Store in Lancaster, PA. Always the bargain hunter, she was able to purchase it at a discount because of a small powder stain. She married her date, my dad Joe, later that same year and wore a suit to her wedding, nothing at all like the dress she wore to snag him!’
Source: Gina Carla Pin Up Model
The pin-up look is a combination of dressing with the attitude of a ’40s pin-up girl but wearing styles more characteristic of the ’50s era.
Historically speaking, ’40s pin-ups are the attractive models and movie stars whose promotional stills were pinned to the walls of soldier’s bunkers. Their photos provided comfort to the men of America who everyday, wondered if they would return home alive to see their loved ones and sweethearts.
Famous pin-up models included professional models like Bettie Page and legendary movie stars like Rita Hayworth.
How to Wear It: The intent of dressing pin-up isn’t “to let it all hang out,” which has become the unfortunate stereotype of modern pin-up style today. Rather, it’s to look sensually sweet and playful. It’s a light-hearted style that’s best embraced with an equally fun attitude.
Add the flavors of pin-up to your look with skinny capri “stovepipe” pants, a brightly colored fit sweater (ideally cropped to show some tummy) and a headscarf tied into a bow. Peep toe heels with manicured toenails polishes it off!
Source: Esquire Magazine
Source: Vintage Ad Browser
Source: Vintage Ad Browser
Source: Maejean Vintage
Thank you to Amanda and Laura of Maejean Vintage for sharing this photo of their grandmother Doris caught in her pin-up pose while sunbathing in 1950!
The grit and glory of high football games represent this golden era of America and next to poodle skirts and saddle shoes, the visuals of girls and boys wearing varsity sweaters has become an iconic look with the era.
The varsity sweater descends from the letterman jacket, first conceived in 1865 at Harvard University. The university’s baseball team embroidered “H” to their flannel uniforms, and only the best players were afforded with this stylish luxury.
The style carried into the 20th century and by the ’50s was not just seen on jackets but also sweaters as a more relaxed approach to showing your school pride and sports swagger.
In the ’50s, girls wore the varsity sweaters gifted or lent to them by their boyfriends over dresses or with skirts. It’s like wearing your boyfriend’s blazer with a pair of jeans today. For girls of the era, it was a tomboyish topper that pledged their allegiance to their school and their man.
How to Wear It: You don’t need to date the team’s quarterback or join the cheerleading squad to wear a varsity sweater for today, and it doesn’t matter what school yours happens to originate from.
I own two varsity sweaters from the ’50s. One has a large “H” on the front and the other is a button-up wool cardigan with a C on the upper right chest. I’ve worn my H sweater with leggings and boots and my button-up with a pair of ’80s jodhpurs and a fuzzy Russian hat.
Since the sweaters’ school spirit give them a dose of personality already, you can style around them in a variety of fashions. In other words, avoid wearing them as a tomboyish topper to your floral dress. Go team creative!
Source: Blue Devil Athletics
Source: Get the Mott & Buckett
Source: Universal Pictures
Thank you to Kara Fancy That Vintage for submitting this photo of their grandmother Dania in May of 1950!
Kara wrote of her grandmother, “She’s always very put together, and I love how it translates to this casual, utilitarian outfit.”
Thank you to Diane of Snapshot Fashion.
Thank you to Cat of Aiseirgh Vintage
Thank you to Kira of Good Luxe Vintage
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