American Women's Fashion Trends and Times: History by Decade, Part 2 - 1950's and 1960's

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The Fabulous ‘50’s.  The Fifties were pretty fabulous.  America was prosperous and strong. Medicine had conquered bacterial diseases with antibiotics and was successfully immunizing against the worst of the viral. Death from natural causes before old age became more rare. There was no reason to expect that medicine would not find an answer to all diseases. The future had never looked so bright. With television coming into many homes, an “ideal” of the American family was portrayed there, and came to be widely accepted as the way things were--although of course, few families were ideal.

Teenagers, for the first time, became a demographic unto themselves, and were accorded some of the privileges of young adulthood--in particular, driving, mostly for young men--but notably also, the freedom to choose teen-oriented entertainment, opening the door for the rise of Rock’n’Roll and “teen idol”-type music, in a cultural break from their parents that eventually became all too recognizably familiar in the rebelliousness of youth shortly after the onset of puberty and into young adulthood. In previous generations, the cultural strictures of society had prevailed to keep teenagers from “going astray” in their adolescent search for independence, but the Fifties were an era of relative indulgence by parents toward their children.

As the decade progressed, many homes still sharing “party lines” (this was several households on one telephone line, so that you had to wait for another party to conclude their conversation before you could use the phone), were suddenly able to obtain private lines as supply caught up with demand--and teenagers immediately seized the opportunity to stay in almost-constant contact with their friends.  So while Mom might have worn a “casual” dress around the house, her teenaged daughter was iconized as The American Teenager of the Fifties, lying on a frilly bedspread in a blouse and pedal-pushers (cropped pants), with a few 45-rpm records scattered around her, gabbing on the phone.

Influenced by movies and the popularity of the characters in the über-popular musical, West Side Story,  teenaged and young-adult men turned jeans, T-shirts and more casual short-sleeved shirts into “cool” fashion--and began perpetuating the “statement” of the black-leather jacket as the symbol of young rebellion; or, for the more studiously inclined, corduroy slacks and cardigan sweaters over shirts--and thus was born the visible schism between the “hip” and the “preppie” which endured for years. However, schools did require young ladies to wear dresses or blouses/sweaters with skirts. Unless required to wear a uniform--usually involving a pleated plaid skirt--the girls quickly knocked the dress code down a few pegs toward “more casual” by adopting men’s “saddle-oxford”-style shoes as their own, worn with “bobby socks” (a thick, rolled-down ankle sock first popularized in the ‘40’s) and tucked tailored blouses into extremely full skirts buoyed by layers of often-visible petticoats, cinched at the waist with a wide patent-leather belt. The ponytail became a publicly-accepted hairstyle.

“Cute” was “in,” in the 1950’s, and had brought with it a romanticized view of all things Parisian, notably the Eiffel Tower and classically-cut French poodles. Nothing said “the fifties” more than a teenaged girl’s “poodle-skirt”, very full and cut from a circular piece of (usually pink or light blue) felt, embellished with a huge, fuzzy chenille French poodle, riding over a cloud of stiff, bouffant petticoats.

Equally iconic of the ‘50’s were the prom dresses of the era--colorful, extravagantly fluffy confections of nylon tulle, strapless and showing off tiny waists and exploding into impossibly full skirts, usually waltz-length, example below:

With the ‘40’s having ushered in acceptance of pants on women, many adult women in the 1950’s were wearing pants and blouses as comfortable and practical wear for around the house.  However, the mainstay of adult women was the “shirtwaist” dress, with a full skirt bolstered by some petticoats (not as extremely full as their daughters’, and fully covered by the skirt), belted at the waist, in a full range of fabrics from more casual prints and small plaids to finer fabrics for more dressy occasions--which also called for a hat, although hats were phasing out and becoming smaller in size.   The “shirtwaist” could be worn at home or in a work environment, as well as skirts--full, pleated, or straight at below-the-knee length--with tucked-in blouses and belts--and nobody worked the shirtwaist look like Donna Reed vacuuming with ladylike dignity in high-heels and an antique-satin shirtwaist on TV.  Marilyn Monroe added a plunging neckline to the curve-hugging silhouette for many of her most famous shots.

For cocktail parties, which were becoming increasingly popular, miniaturized “cocktail” hats became de rigeur.  For formal occasions, grown women opted for somewhat more dignified (less voluminous and ruffly) versions of their daughters’ prom gowns, indulging in the color and fairytale quality of tulle, perhaps with a brocade top and the tulle overlaying the same brocade in the skirt.  As the size of the financially-comfortable Middle Class grew and eclipsed the “silver screen” view of American society as being exemplified by the wealthy, with their numerous charity and debutante balls and private clubs hosting formal events, the truth is that, for the masses, there actually were relatively few formal events to attend.

Shorter, curly hairstyles were “in” throughout the Fifties for all ages.

In yet another division-by-age (the teenagers being the first), older ladies tended to stay with the straighter-cut dresses and suit styles (complete with hats and gloves) from the ‘40’s.

Cars developed huge “fins” in the rear, and pink plastic flamingos began to dot the yards of suburban America.  And they did all of this with a straight face.

Still, despite the general prosperity and fun, there WAS a very dark side to the 1950’s, personified by the disproportionate influence of the small-minded tunnel-vision of Joseph McCarthy and his “machine” of anti-Communist witch hunters, who ruined families--and most famously those in the entertainment industry--by branding them as Communists and traitors based on convoluted and usually baseless “evidence,” with the support of J. Edgar Hoover, whose FBI was busily investigating and amassing files on countless Americans. This ground to a halt when McCarthy was censured by the U.S. Senate for these activities, but it had set in place a fear of Communism and Socialism that remains alive and well in the country to this day, and which threw gasoline on the embers of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

The Swinging ‘60’s, a decade of turmoil and change.  The early 1960’s found women teasing their hair into larger, heavily-sprayed “bouffant” hairdo’s--for younger women, the bigger the better.  While middle aged women didn’t seek such great bouffant volume, they kept the shorter, salon-coiffured look, which many middle-aged and older women still wear today.  By a few years into the Sixties, longer hair was popular among the young, and having rejected their mothers’ permanent waves, the desired look was for very straight hair--curly was definitely “out”--resulting in women actually lying their heads on the family ironing board and using the household iron to straighten wavy or curly hair as close to stick-straight as they could achieve.

Sweeping societal changes occurred in America in the 1960’s, and fashion reflected those changes. Keeping close to the fun fashion of the 1950’s for the first few years of the decade, things began to change.   When John F. Kennedy became the youngest-ever elected president in 1960, his progressive thinking drew the attention of many younger people, who had previously viewed politics as a dull matter for their parents. Many young adults were engaged and inspired by Kennedy’s vision to step out of the past and make changes in the country. As the new First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, stepped quietly but confidently out of his shadow to stand at his side, unlike most of her predecessors.  She showed American women that education and taste could help them carve their own niche in the world, while taking nothing away from their duties as wife and mother; and she brought the world of haute cuisine  to the attention of Middle America, who couldn't afford it--but who could certainly afford to copy it.  By the mid-sixties, her high-end but elegantly simple style was reflected in the renewed popularity of the tailored-but-feminine suit for dressy wear, yet she was young enough to be seen in tasteful “sportswear” separates with her family. 

Abandoning the waist-accentuating styles of the three previous decades, the “shift” became the “everyday” dress style--not unlike the “Flapper” dresses of the 1920’s--cut straight and simple, with minimal if any trim; and empire waists, created by seaming just below the bustline, made a romantic return to fashion for the first time in over a century.  Both of these simple cuts relied on the character of their fabric and accompanying accessories to dictate its level of dressiness, from casual cotton prints to the most elegant of brocades.

The straighter lines were also reflected in the formalwear of the 1960’s. The simple shift or empire-waist cut (see photo) could be executed in a luxury fabric and be comfortable, flattering and perfectly appropriate in a formal setting.  For full-formal, gowns took on a long, straight, almost Grecian silhouette from the early-‘60’s on. With Jackie Kennedy’s confident example, American women began to appreciate classic lines, simplicity, and dignity in their fashion. Sadly, for men in formalwear, while the ‘60’s may have started out with the same “white sport coat and a pink carnation” from the ‘50’s, this was the decade that wound up having the shame of introducing the powder-blue tuxedo with ruffled shirt that has been spoofed ever since. Enough said.

The bikini arrived from Europe.  It had been shown in a shockingly abbreviated “string bikini” form in 1946 by French designer Louis Reard, but at that time was fashion-lightyears away not only from acceptance, but of even consideration for wearing. The more relaxed era and gradual baring of more skin in fashion in general, allowed for its still-eyebrow-lifting introduction to the general public in America in the early 1960’s, in a bottom-covering panty with a full brassiere-type top. The rest is generally-known bikini history through the present day, as the bikini went on to shrink in size to often being only a nod to the formality of not being altogether nude, depending on the comfort level of the wearer.

For the teen generation, the “British Invasion” of music by bands in the U.K., spearheaded by the Beatles in 1964, brought a great deal of fashion with it:  the “mod” look, with long--or very, very short--hair, heavy eye make-up and pale lip color, the mini-skirt, either in one-piece dresses or in skirt-and-top form; and a passing fad were mid-calf-height white boots which came to be called “go-go boots.”   For the remainder of the decade, hemlines for younger women remained very short. Mature women may not have been willing to go as "undignified" as miniskirts, but hemlines in general came above, or just reaching, the knee.


Famous Sixties Supermodel, the ultra-skinny Twiggy, in mini-length dress.

Couture fashion at this time saw bold color-blocking in women’s garments, often in wool blends or knits, with geometric alternations of light and dark fabric in dresses, suits and coats, best exemplified by the designer André Courreges--simple lines, with contrasting colors, very fashion-forward but tasteful:


The lingering fear of Communism sown by McCarthyism in the 1950’s kept the population on edge, and the Cold War between the U.S.S.R. and the United States had much of the U.S. population living in fear of a catastrophic nuclear war, with some families readying bomb-shelters to protect themselves against a nuclear attack. This fear fueled the country’s conviction that it must take steps to keep Communism from “spreading”--enabling the continuation and expansion of the U.S.’s participation in the Vietnamese War, which many citizens felt was “not our fight.” This same fear, which justified the war to the older generation, created a wedge between young adults, who did not wish to aid in (much less be drafted and die in) another country’s battle.

As the issues of racial bigotry and inequality in the country ignited, younger Americans stepped forward en masse and became vocal about their opinions. Violent riots erupted with tragic consequences, as much of the southern U.S. struggled to cling to its right to segregate black populations from white.

Violence became the order of the day in the country, as President Kennedy, civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, and Kennedy’s brother Robert (while campaigning for the presidency) were all assassinated.  Political rallies over racial issues or the Vietnam war often became violent.

The birth control pill was affordable, effective, and became widely taken. Without fear of pregnancy, many taboos about sex without marriage evaporated. Married couples engaged in affairs, and divorce rates soared. Unmarried people from teens to seniors began to drop their moral hesitation about engaging in sexual relationships. Sex became less attached to the concept of “love” or a lasting relationship. It is from the “sexual revolution” made possible by freedom from fear of unwanted pregnancy that the “Swinging Sixties” got their name.

A huge segment of the younger population “dropped out” of participation in the government, and declared a (mostly) passive war on “the establishment,” becoming what was known as “hippies” or “the counter-culture.” They resisted being drafted into military service, many seeking refuge in Canada. The Peace Symbol was seen everywhere. Disillusioned with politics and government, they turned 180 degrees away from regulation of any kind and embraced a gypsylike existence centered around their freedom to enjoy childlike lives centered to a large extent around the music of the era; experimentation with marijuana, hallucinogenic drugs--LSD in particular--and, sadly, often moving on to heroin addiction; and sex was simply a pleasurable “natural act” and frequently engaged in casually--although this is not to say that many did not form loving and long-term, monogamous relationships.

Much was made about living by Nature’s laws rather than the laws of man, and from this anti-establishment movement, eventually came (as it always does) an identifiable fashion trend. The first rule of this “fashion statement” was to let Nature take its course with one’s hair, appreciating the diversity of natural curl or straightness and most importantly, simply allowing it to grow to great lengths.

Wild prints and paisleys in women’s wear and men’s shirts were popular, and jeans came fully into their own as the true main staple of everyone’s wardrobe, for hippies often embellished with colorful embroidery.  Along with the gypsylike lifestyle, a Bohemian look evolved as well: long, full, flowing skirts, often in batiks and East Indian prints and fabrics, tie-dyed T-shirts, dangling earrings, and a proliferation of beads--preferably of wood or plant seeds.  A lacy blouse, velvet vest or jacket, or accessories with the look of the Victorian era were sought-after additions to the mix. The idea was to present a romanticized gypsy look that was NOT perceived as materialistic--as though the “vintage” pieces had come from grandma’s attic.   Just because they had fallen off the mainstream's traffic radar did not mean there was no fashion; just that the perception of beauty was in the eye of the beholder.

©KatieK, April 25, 2010


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