Christian Dior’s salon launch of his revolutionary New Look took place on 12th February 1947. This date marked a watershed in the history of post-war fashion in Britain and the rest of Europe. The New Look style inspired a whole generation of fashion designers and helped kick-start a boom in couture and ready-to-wear clothing for women during the following decade. Women’s clothes became more light-hearted and feminine, shaking-off the austere aesthetic of utility clothing. Clothes rationing ended in March 1949.
In September 1998, I was very lucky to be at the first Goodwood Revival event dressed in a Dior New Look outfit. The jacket was original but the skirt a later copy. The Goodwood Revival is still as popular today as it was fourteen years ago. This year’s event takes place at The Goodwood Estate, Chichester, West Sussex between 14th and 16th September inclusive. CLICK HERE. The perfect opportunity to wear your newly created fifties inspired vintage look.
At the beginning of the 1950’s, shoulders were more rounded and waists defined. Long narrow skirts or full circular skirts were worn, about 30cm off the ground. The full skirts made a statement; they celebrated the end of post-war clothing restrictions. Criticism was levied at designers for the excessive amount of fabric needed to realise their creations. The full skirts held their shape thanks to the many layers of frilled petticoats of stiffened nylon. Sometimes these petticoats contained upwards of twelve metres of nylon net. Previously, women had had to make do with just over a couple of metres of utility tweed.
The playsuit was a popular item of leisure wear and would traditionally be teamed with a wedgy pair of espadrilles. The playsuit has made a recent comeback. This time around it is often worn with a thick pair of tights and statement-making footwear. There were a number of European key designers and design houses producing high-end fashion in fifties. I list here the more well-known but this is by no means an exhaustive roll of honour: Balmain (fashion house); Balenciaga; Coco Chanel; Hardy Amies; Hubert de Givenchy; Norman Hartnell and Victor Stiebel. The last three of these designers were British. In 1958 The Fashion House Group of London was formed. This group of British designers created collections to be sold in high street stores. The designers were: Susan Small (mostly evening and party dresses); Horrockses; Peggy Allen; Jaeger; Dannimac; Polly Peck and Aquascutum.
In order to achieve the fashionable tiny waist of the fifties, a short corset of five or six inches deep, called a “waspie” would be worn. The waspie was often worn over the panti-girdle. A foundation garment controlled by stretch rather than boning.
Strapless, glamorous, evening dresses required another type of undergarment, the basque which had incorporated bra cups. Bras in the 1950’s were under wired and had spiral stitching, creating the conical-shaped bosoms synonymous with the film-inspired “Sweater Girl” look. Padded bras or inflatable inserts were a suitable alternative if nature had not blessed you in that department. In 1952, seamless stockings were introduced into Britain.
Ready-to-wear ranges emerged in the 1950’s that made good use of the new, man-made materials such as Nylon, Crimplene and Orlon. These materials meant that garments were easy-care and required little or no ironing. Crimplene revolutionised the colour palette of fifties fashion due to its colour fast properties. Ready-to-sew kits were also popular and made sewing accessible to a wider number of women.
St. Barbe Museum’s recent exhibition ‘1950’s – Having it so Good’ included a display featuring the work and career of society milliner, Liz Tilley. Liz opened her haute couture millinery store on No. 1 High Street, Lymington in 1959. She had trained with Aage Thaarup, the Mayfair based Danish designer. Thaarup is known for the hats he created for Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth. Thaarup recognised Liz’s natural talent for millinery design and encourage her to move to Paris. The aim of the move was to expose her to the houses of Dior, Chanel and Jacques Faith. Liz lived with her sister in a tiny Parisian bedsitter in the Latin Quarter. She borrowed a friend’s salon in Paris to display her designs but the hats themselves were created from the confines of her tiny bedsit. Liz’s shop in High Street, Lymington closed in the 1990s. In the course of my research I did manage to find a couple of British Pathé films of Thaarup at work in his Mayfair salon:
Men in the fifties often wore dark, two or three-piece suits to the office and a tweed sports jacket and flannel trousers at weekends. Neatly laced brogues of either brown leather or suede (‘brothel creepers’) were often worn. English gentleman’s athletic clothing was also popular. Teaming an old college blazer with a cravat. The classic English city gent would wear a black bowler hat, three-piece suit or black jacket and waistcoat with pin-striped trousers worn with a white or finely striped shirt with semi-stiff detachable collar. To complete the ensemble, a pair of black Oxford shoes, coat in Crombie woolwith a black velvet collar and a rolled umbrella.
I asked my mother and mother-in-law about fashion memories that they had of their teenage years in the fifties. My mother recalls:
fashions were very feminine, tightly fitted bodices, full skirts and lots of net petticoats. To starch my petticoats I would dip them in sugar-water and leave to dry. However, if it rained it was awful as you ended-up with sticky legs. I remember my petticoats had a channel in them and I had to pass a corset guide or flat stiffener – which you brought by the foot – through it to make the petticoats stand out. I had to be careful on the bus so that when I sat down the skirts wouldn’t flip-up and show my underwear. That was a big no, no. Girls in those days were trimmer than they are today. The waists were tiny and nipped in. I had an elasticated waspie. I also wore wide, about two inches wide, elasticated belts which had either a metal clip or a pretty buckle. On my feet I had flat ballet pumps and wore my hair either in a pony tail or had it curly. I didn’t wear that much make-up as I was very young. I do remember that a lot of girls wore quite thick eyeliner, Cleopatra style. You had to practice a lot to get your eyeliner straight but most girls became quite expert at doing their own make-up. I did have a block of mascara that I had to spit on to moisten and then would apply using a mascara wand. I wore light coloured lipsticks and always made sure my eyebrows were tidy. I also liked wearing a few bracelets, so too did my friends. Padded bras with circular stitching were popular. There were no tights. Instead you had stockings and suspender belts. The rubber bits on my suspender belts often perished and I would use a six pence penny piece to keep them up. It was quite breezy in the underwear department. There were no skimpy pants, thongs or g strings. I do remember some girls had seamless stockings but my nylons had seams up the back. I wore a lot of waist length cardigans with buttons up the front. Women of my mother’s generation always wore a hat but the young women did not wear hats as much. Gloves were also always worn.
I enjoyed making my own clothes. One of the first dresses that I made was in 1957 when I was thirteen. It was in a cotton fabric, which was sky blue with white spots and white bias binding trim. I sent for the fabric pieces from Honey magazine, which was a popular teenage magazine. It cost me about £4 and I was so proud of it. There was a choice of blue or pink and I preferred blue because I was fair-haired. It wasn’t a full skirt but a shift dress. It had a fabric tie in the middle. There was no paper pattern. All the pieces of fabric came ready cut and you just had to sew them together. My mum had a Singer sewing machine which she had waited three years for after the war and it was always in use at home. During the war they were not manufacturing sewing machines as the metal was needed for armaments. My mum was a very good needlewoman and came from the ‘make do and mend’ generation. She always brought her bras from Marks and Spencers in the 1950’s and 60s. She had a French figure. Big bust, nipped in waist and ample hips.
My mother-in-law grew-up in rural Northern Ireland in the fifties and her fashion choices reflected her musical interests at that time. She recalls:
I loved rock n’ roll and jive dancing. I was a big fan of Elvis Presley too. I used to wear skirts that were plain but not fully flared. The skirts had a wide waistband or were gathered in at the waist. They were called Dirndl skirts I think and were mid-calf length. I think they were based on traditional maid’s style costumes worn in Germany. They did still have a lot of material in them though. My underskirts were bright colours. Layers of pink, yellow and white netting. I remember that I also had a black feather hat. The feathers were bunched on one side of my head and secured to the head. The feathers would then lay flat across the top of the head reaching to the other side. The hat did not last long. We came back from Mass one Sunday to discover that the family dog had shredded it to pieces. It looked like a blackbird had been massacred in our kitchen. I used to wear my ‘V’ necked jumpers back to front as well, with the ‘V’ at the back. We didn’t refer to suits as suits, they were costumes. I never wore red lipstick. I wore pan stick foundation, a little powder with a pink or peach coloured lipstick.
Last year I purchased McCall’s blouse pattern no. 9028 at a vintage fair. It is from 1952 and I thought that it would be a good project to have a go at making one of blouses. I consider myself to be a fairly competent needlewoman but I am afraid I could not make head nor tail of the pattern instructions. I admitted defeat and passed the pattern to my mother who cheerfully took-up the challenge. I come from a long line of excellent dressmakers but know my limits. My mother has made a wide variety of clothes over the years: theatrical costumes; copious clothes for me; curtains; cushions and is also a dab hand at upholstery too. Definitely the right woman for the job.
When my mother was first married, my father worked in Southern Ireland at Raidió Teilifis Eireann in the latter part of the 1960s. Married women were not allowed to work for money in Southern Ireland at that time. However, my mum did not want to get stuck at home so managed to secure voluntary work at Ardmore Film Studios in the Wardrobe Department. She helped out with ironing, pressing and doing minor sewing alterations on a number of film productions including Sinful Davey (1969), directed by John Huston and starring John Hurt and Pamela Franklin.
Anyway, those are my mother’s credentials and here is her advice on working with vintage patterns. She made view D from McCall’s 1952 pattern no. 9028:
First of all the pattern markings are a lot clearer to work with than modern patterns. However, the instructions are not easy to follow. There is a lot of reading and assembling to do before you begin and you really do need some prior needlework experience before working with a vintage pattern. I found it difficult to attach the collar and the tie was not as easy as it looks to make. A complete beginner would struggle with the pattern. In the fifties, sewing machines did not have automatic buttonhole options. But if you are using a modern sewing machine then this part of the construction would definitely be easier now. Interfacing is also important. Interfacing in the fifties was not sticky; it was a separate item, a separate piece of fabric. Make sure you choose the correct weight of interfacing for the fabric you are using. Ask in the fabric shop when you are buying supplies. The seam allowances are surprisingly generous. Although be aware that sizing is different today. A size 12 pattern, as this was, is about a size 8-10 today. Although, the generous seam allowances do help when adjusting a vintage pattern to fit a modern body shape. The bottom of the shirt appears to offer a generous fitting but remember that this was so that you could wear it over your full skirt. Also check that the pattern you are buying is complete, luckily this one was but you may find some bits are missing. I used a modern sewing machine and just made sure I had the right needle for the fabric I was using but other than that I did not have to make any other adjustments on my machine.
The lovely blouse that my mother made went to a good home. Unfortunately, I have inherited my grandmother’s ‘French figure’, so the garment was no good for my body shape. However, my dear friend and retro goddess Carolyn Hair now has it in her large collection of vintage fashions.
1950s fashion is enjoying a huge revival at the moment. Original garments can be sourced from one of the many vintage fairs popping-up all over the country or for the more resourceful among you, why not try one making your own 50s clothing. Pattern companies such as Butterick, Simplicity and Vogue all have 50s inspired patterns or re-issues of originals from their own archives.
If recreating your vintage look from an original pattern or wearing second-hand clothes is not your thing, then don’t panic. If you want to dress to impress the vintage way, then high street fashion stores are currently full of garments that have a retro feel to them. I recently visited Westfield shopping centre in White City, London to see the pop-up fashion display ‘Future Fashion’ (27th March-1stApril). In all of the fashion trends on display I could identify trends from the 1930s right through to the 1980s.
Alongside each of the themed displays there were five digital 103” LCD touch-screens housed in Styling Cubes. The idea being that you chose the fashion items that had caught your eye, then you dragged and drop them into a personalised mood board to create your perfect wardrobe of outfits. Once you had chosen your favourite items you simply entered your e-mail address and the images were sent directly to you. There were also options to link to your Facebook page or share your finds on Twitter. Here are a couple of my favourite items from this event. A sixties-inspired dress and a fifties-inspired swimming costume.
For information on 1940s and 1950s hair and make-up, please my article from September 2011.
I have listed below a few books and resources that should help to inspire your top-to-toe 1950’s look:
- Victoria and Albert Museum, London – ‘Ballgowns – British Glamour Since 1950’ (19th May- 6th January 2013);
- Victoria and Albert Museum, London – ‘Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age’ (31st March – 12th August 2012);
- Royal Mail Mint Stamps – Great British Fashion: 1945 to 2010. I rushed out and purchased my pack at the local Post Office on the first day of issue. I brought the presentation pack priced £6.50. The presentation pack contains a stylish and well-written booklet, written by Professor Amy de la Haye, Rootstein Hopkins Chair, London College of Fashion. The booklet charts the history of British fashion from 1945 to the present day.
- Ketteler, J., (2010) Sew Retro: A Stylish History of The Sewing Revolution published by Voyageur Press;
- Brennan, E., (2005) Making Vintage Bags: 20 Original Patterns for Vintage Bags and Purses published by Guild of Master Craftsman;
- Ours Drager, B., (2009) Hat Tactics: Instructions for Creating Early 1950’s Hats published by Bramcast Publications (although this book is a reprint of one produced in 1950);
- Westmore Beauty Book – A Complete 1950’s Guide to Vintage Make-up, Hairstyling and Beauty Techniques (2009) published by Bramcast Publications. This is a fantastic book and was originally published in 1956;
- What Katie Did, 26 Portobello Green Arcade, 281 Portobello Road, London – for all your vintage shapewear needs. If you are unable to visit their shop, they do have an on-line shopping facility for overseas customers. For the more daring and patriotic among you there is even a Diamond Jubilee inspired corset – the Union Flag Corset;
- Here are a few fun and fascinating British Pathé fifties fashion clips:
- Kitchen Hats (1959);
- Italian Knitwear (1958);
- Spectacles (1955);
- She Walks in Beauty (1950);
- She Walks in Beauty (1951);
Poodles became the must-have fashion accessory of the 1950s. Friends of my aunt and mother had a poodle called ‘Inky’ who can be seen in the above photograph, on the left. I hasten to add here that Inky was not dressed in any of the fashion outfits worn by high society poodles of that time, neither was he dyed lurid pink, he was just a much-loved family pet.
The craze for poodles had an impact on mainstream fashion too. The ‘poodle skirt’, with its bright colours and breed motif appliquéd on the front, is one of the most memorable fashion trends from this decade. Even TV star Lucille Ball got herself a ‘poodle hair cut’ and who can forget Doris Day with her bevy of rainbow-coloured poodles in a fashion shoot from 1950. The poodle often featured in French fashion and beauty advertisements. Here are a few examples of the fifties passion for poodles that may amuse you: