In the 1950’s most of peoples possessions, including clothing, were still passed on or recycled as part of the ‘make do and mend’ culture that had become a necessity throughout the Second World War. However this decade marked the end of rationing and the resulting economic growth inevitably led to an increase in consumerism. After years of hardship ordinary people suddenly had time, money and enthusiasm to put into re-inventing the post war world, and fashion was an important part of this.
Clothes for the average working person became more readily available, there was a surge in the availability of materials and patterns to make your own, but most importantly mass production ‘off the peg’ clothing became available at prices that allowed most people access to latest fashionable styles.
The baby boom led to a high demand for children’s clothing. Some styles of children’s clothes sought to include fashion ideas that were making their way into the youth and even adult styles. Dresses were the most popular item of clothing for women and girls, three tiered dresses with a bolero cardigan were popular for younger girls. Little boys were dressed in brightly coloured shorts, tartan shirts and stripy T-shirts, not clothing generally considered suitable for grown men but the change in attitudes towards fashion evident by the use of colour.
Youth fashion, well teenage fashion as we would call it today was really born in the 1950s, never before had this age group had available funds and freedom to spend in such a way. Previously young adult dress was about the same as normal adult dress but the changes came that allowed young people to care about how they looked and to dress purely for show. The birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll created a rebellious youth culture that sought to push fashion in a direction to attract attention, Elvis Presley pushed the fashion boundaries very far in what was considered acceptable in the 1950’s.
The majority of people dressed in the conventional way of the time, a neat look with a jacket or blazer, trousers, thin straight tie and possibly suede shoes for younger men, however another youth fashion stream called ‘Teddy boys’ is always associated with the fifties, named after the Edwardian (Ted) style jackets that they wore. Typically teddy boys dressed in drainpipe trousers, beetle crusher shoes with fluorescent pink socks and DA haircuts. This ‘duck tail’ hair style consisted of greased long hair, moulded up to a quiff at the front and the side combed back to look like the back end of a duck. Their reputation was that of young men out looking for a fight with rumours of flick knives. This was following riots of a mainly teddy boy teenage audience in London cinemas after viewing the US film ‘Blackboard Jungle’.
Young women were noted for wearing circle and ‘poodle skirts’ for dancing. These were wide swing felt skirts in bold colours with a design, originally a French poodle, applied to the fabric. These colourful skirts were also suited to everyday wear, starched petticoats required to achieve the look for some. Younger women would wear their hair in a ponytail and a short fringe, contrasting to the soft curls and shorter hair cuts preferred by more mature women of the time.
Women’s fashion in the fifties was all about dresses. Slim fitting trousers for women, based on the men’s style of the day had started to become part of socially acceptable dress for women but these were more for daring rock’n’roll teenagers, for most women dresses were the only suitable item of clothing for all occasions.
After the end of cloth rationing in the Second World War the fashion houses of Paris had started up again, it was however the ‘New Look’ silhouette released by Christian Dior in 1947 that seemed to set the style achievement for the decade of the 1950s. This look emphasized everything feminine and consisted of the classic hourglass shape as we would think of it today with many touches of luxury. The main look is to accentuate a small waist with rounded shoulders, full skirts worn with petticoats and finished with gloves and pearls.
Another main designer from this decade Coco Chanel contrasted this look with boxy jackets and straight skirts that now make up the classic Chanel suit. The attention for Chanel was to the materials and the small details such as the finishes and linings, pearls played a big part with the look as well.
For normal women the classic dresses of this time would be the shirtwaist dress, also known as a house dress, and the wrap dress. Skirts would be worn either as full, or in a straight pencil style. Wide ‘Peter pan’ collars on dresses were also very popular.
The end of the Second World War gave people the freedom to dress in new styles with far more fabric than would have been available previously. Peoples increased spending power and appetite for fashion made this decade notable for its daring new teenager and youth fashions, but also enviable for the glamour and elegance of the acceptable adult fashions.