1950s Fashion Guide

The origins of the 1950s look

Drawing influence from the exaggerated feminine silhouettes of the Victorian era, Christian Dior pioneered a whole new shape coined the “New Look” in 1947. This was just two years after the war, and the French couturier’s new collection was a symbolic move towards a new society – one which was eager to leave wartime austerity behind, but with a sense of nostalgia for an earlier time.

“It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian! Your dresses have such a new look!” remarked Carmel Snow, the former editor-in-chief of the American edition of “Harper’s Bazaar.” And with that, a legend was born.

The draped, padded and embellished aesthetic was seen as a rediscovery of prosperity. Through his exaggerated silhouette, Dior proposed an image of radical femininity. The look was fit for the time, and when it filtered down from French fashion houses, the new shapes were readily adopted.

The 1950s look first saw a revival in the 1990s, when a wave of young fashion designers appropriated the New Look line. And today, high-end fashion labels including Thom Browne, Prada and J.W. Anderson have updated Dior’s signature style for the 21st Century. Our very own cache of retro-repro designers make such styles accessible. Read on to find out how…

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Your definitive guide to 1950s clothing

1950s Dresses

The 1950s Swing Dress

This statement dress drew on Dior’s legendary look, by enhancing the figure with a host of flattering features. Bodices were tailored to accommodate a generous or enhanced bust, nipping in at the waist, and flaring dramatically into a full – usually circle – skirt. The line of 1950s swing dresses allowed, some would say demanded, the inclusion of at least one petticoat – to achieve ultimate fullness. This iconic cut is the mainstay of most vintage fashion collections, with reproduction styles brandishing the same kitsch prints and colour-ways as were employed in the 1950s. You can view our collection of 1950s fitted pencil dresses by clicking here.

The 1950s Pencil Dress

The counterpart to the New Look swing dress was the form-fitting 1950s pencil dress. Because of its slim fitting skirt, it was also known as the “wiggle” skirt, named for the way it affected the walk of the wearer.

Much like the swing dress, the pencil dress also rocked a fitted bodice and waist, and fell to just below the knee, but unlike the full skirted styles, the pencil dress was reserved for more formal occasions – being the less practical of the two styles, and not entirely suited to the demands of housework! 

You can view our collection of 1950s fitted pencil dresses by clicking here.

The 1950s Housewife or Day Dress

Around the home, more practical designs reigned: button-up shirt dresses with three quarter length sleeves that didn’t need to be rolled up, with labour-saving pockets and the accompaniment of an apron to maintain cleanliness. Usually crafted from cotton, with a fit and flare line but a more modest skirt, this dress maintained a practical manner with as much femininity as possible.

The 1950s “Going Out” Dress

Going out dresses incorporated a higher level of decorative detail, including contrasting trims and piping, statement collars and bows, and busier prints – typically the floral and polka dot patterns we commonly associate with 1950s. The 1950s Going Out dress would have been more formal and substantial, being made from heavier cottons, tweed, rayon and wool, as well as “new” synthetic fibres that were pioneered during this period.

The 1950s Cocktail Dress

Designed with sophistication in mind, the 1950s cocktail dress may be the origins of today’s famed “Little Black Dress”. Thought to embody the heights of sophistication, black was considered flattering, versatile and chic. Cut with either a flared or pencil line, womens cocktail dresses of the 1950s were made from finer fabrics, including silks, velvets and taffeta. A formal evening ensemble would have incorporated a lady’s best jewellery, and a well-appointed set of heels, together with carefully coiffed locks.

The 1950s Party Dress

A typical 1950s party dress would have followed the fashionable New Look line, together with a demure high neckline, and some styles sought to be more daring, with a V neck to show a daring glimpse of décolletage. Beads and sequins would have added ample pizzazz.

The 1950s Hostess Gown

This trailblazing era of fashion was also responsible for the inception of the seminal Hostess Gown: an audacious split skirt dress worn over capri pants. Unlike anything that had come before it, this unique style sky-rocketed in popularity after Lucie Ball sported this retro treat in “I Love Lucy”. In spite of the supremely unique status of this Fifties treasure, this style is hard to find among today’s retro-reproduction fashion houses.

The 1950s Evening Dress

Dressing to impress meant stepping out in a full length ballgown, or a tube gown, cut from silks, velvets, taffetas and lace. Hemlines swept the floor for maximum presence and Hollywood glamour, while cuts still sought to celebrate feminine curves with the tailored fit of the bodice. The fit and flare aspect was augmented with layers of petticoats, crinolines and hoops, and the fullness was further exaggerated with gathers and posterior bows. Shoulders remained bare, which called for formal outfits to include a bolero or jacket to add modesty and warmth to the evening’s attire. Long glove added lashings of glamour to the look.

The 1950s Prom Dress

A classic 1950s prom dress incorporated all the glitz of an evening dress, but with a higher hemline. Fabrics were lighter, and included silks, net and organdy. The 1950s prom dress was crafted with a fitted bodice, with either high fitting necklines akin to the 1950s party dress, or shoulderless and strappy designs that were most fitting for summer proms. Petticoats were present in a profusion of colours, housed under the abundant skirts that remained true to Dior’s ideal.

The 1950s Skirt

Not since the Victorian era had such emphasis been assigned to the exaggerated scale of a garment, as with the 1950s swing skirt. Pattern cutters used volumizing techniques such as gathers, tiers and pleats and to create the circle shape and volume that is as popular among jive dancers today as it was among housewives of the 1950s. The shape of the circle skirt was supported by netting petticoats, which were in turn lined with a slip for comfort.

Popular trends for the 1950s skirt included border prints, bright fabrics and busy prints, such as tartan, plaid and florals, and design detailing including piping trims and appliques – perhaps the most iconic of which being the “poodle skirt”, which featured the famed poodle applique motif. These design innovations can be seen across many of today’s retro-repro designs, which tap in to the kitsch and quirky side of 1950s fashions, as they include atomic space age designs, as well as the more exotic martini glasses and Americana inspired classic cars.

As with 1950s dresses, 1950s flared skirts also had a slimmer fitting counterpart: the pencil skirt. These offered a figure-hugging fit from waist to mid-calf, and so as not to induce too much of a wiggle, they would have incorporated a split hem or kick pleat to make walking a little easier.

Dancing Days and Hell Bunny are today’s masters in retro-reproduction skirts – and both of these London based brands also offer some of the best petticoats on the scene, with easy to wear elastic waists, adjustable lengths and coming in a huge array of colours.

The 1950s Blouse

To complete a two-piece ensemble, the 1950s skirt was frequently paired with a blouse. Offering a fitted line that could easily be tucked in to the high waist band of a skirt or capri pants, and tapping in to the hour-glass trend that was so sought-after during the 1950s.

The 1950s blouse was as feminine as a sperate can get, and typically boasted pretty pin tucks, ornate ruffles, embroidery detail and statement buttons, with either long or short sleeves, and often in a choice of fabulous Fifties prints – covering florals, polka dots and ginghams.

Rivalling the blouse, short sleeve fitted tops were on hand to achieve a more casual look. This style has been replicated to wonderous effect by Hell Bunny. Their short sleeve vintage inspired tops are so easy to wear, and allow you let your vintage inclinations seep into every corner of your retro-inspired wardrobe.

1950s Knitwear

The twin set was very much in demand in the 1950s: a knitted sweater and matching cardigan was not just practical, but chic and classy too. Jumpers, sweaters and cardigans followed a fitted convention, and aligned themselves to the 1950s silhouette by assuming cropped waist lines. This figure-hugging feature even led to the pop-culture term “Sweater Girl”, referring to a women whose look occupied a hazy fashion zone somewhere between modest and sexy.

The 1950s also favoured textured and chunky knits, and the new synthetic fibres of the time meant that these garments were not as vulnerable as wool to shrinkage. Knitting was even more popular as a hobby than it is today, which meant the skilled knitter could customise the fit and style of her own hand-made jumpers.

In our experience, 1950s inspired knitwear is an essential addition to any vintager’s wardrobe, allowing retro trends to infiltrate smart-casual and workwear ensembles. We’ve seen some truly authentic 1950s inspired knits from Dancing Days, and Hell Bunny, and Hearts and Roses London have taken the applique aspect on board to create some cute cardigans with flamingo, floral and atomic designs. The most timeless and best selling 1950s inspired cardigan is the Paloma cardigan by Hell Bunny. Its snug fit and cropped line makes it the ideal accompaniment to so many vintage dresses. Hell Bunny make it in a rainbow of colours, and we have customers who have bought it in every single colour – it’s that popular!

The 1950s Coat

Swing coats of the 1950s were cut to accommodate the burgeoning hemlines with their bounty of petticoats. Big feature buttons rivalled statement collars to balance out the augmented line, and many were made from wool as well as tweed and camel hair.

An alternative to the swing coat was the swagger jacket – a loose fitting overgarment that also afforded space for larger lines beneath – and the classic trench coat – which was the ideal accompaniment to many a figure-flaunting outfit.

Modern leaders in vintage reproduction coats are Hell Bunny and Hearts and Roses London. Both brands seek to create coats of distinction, season after season, meaning there is never a shortage of supremely well-cut 1950s inspired coats to complete your winter wardrobe. Hell Bunny vintage coats are primed with designer applique detail and lashings of lavish faux fur, and Hearts and Roses London strive to provide us with ultra-glamorous 1950s style coats that are known to be real head-turners.

1950s Trousers and Shorts

The 1950s witnessed the wide leg swing trousers of the 1940s evolve into a slim-fitting, narrow legged line that sought to show off the female form as the decade demanded. The 1950s conceived of the figure-flaunting capri pants, which also gave a glimpse of leg as hemlines rose well above ankle levels. Denim was employed to create capri jeans, and other fabrics and prints were called upon to achieve the fun and care-free look that this style of trousers sought to uphold. Plaids, polka dots and leopard prints paved the way, and we’ve witnessed Hell Bunny rule the roost with modern day interpretations of this style.

The use of denim in womenswear made jeans available for the first time as an off-the-peg garment, and while many consider it synonymous with 1950s fashion, the turned-up dark blue denims of the 1950s were mostly used for more practical purposes, such as gardening, as well as being popular among teens.

Clam diggers and pedal pushers saw cuffs rise to knee-length, and short shorts liberated ladies’ legs like never before, as they rose to thigh-high levels making them a popular pin-up piece during summer months.

Simple styling included front pleats, pockets, and the more feminine side-seam fastening, which set 1950s shorts and trousers apart from the front fastening masculine styles of the time.

1950s Swimwear and Playsuits

The all-new playsuit, or romper, was a practical one-piece that was popular beach wear. It usually came with a button-down dress or skirt to wear over it for the sake of modesty, and often worked nautical trends, with white trims on navy, and anchor print fabrics.

1950s Swimwear set out to flatter the figure like never before. Built-in cups enhanced the bust, and ruching to the bodice aided the amplification of hour-glass curves. Many 1950s swimsuits included a skirt – even the pioneering two-piece bikini – which itself had a very high waist line in addition to low leg lines that we so synonymous with this era. Exemplified shape was favoured above and beyond exposure of skin.

1950s Shoes

In this era of fashion evolution, one of the most directional developments in footwear was the embracing of the espadrille, and the celebration of the sandal, which incorporated strappy canvas designs, with or without a heel.

The classic black and white saddle shoes were fashionable among teens, and they were a practical footwear solution for women too, where they were paired with circle skirts and denim trousers.

Mary Janes and kitten heels were other key trends in women’s footwear during this era, and they are styles that have been reinvented by modern retro-repro footwear designers such as Banned and Dancing Days.

1950s Stocking and Lingerie

The sought-after 1950s silhouette was frequently enhanced, and arguable created, by the popularity of the Fifties’ answer to shapewear: bullet bras were padded, girdles gripped at tums, and stocking sought to lengthen the look of legs with the classic vertical back seam. All-in-one underwear garments took care of all of these “functions” in one fell swoop. Multiple layers of starched petticoats puffed out circle skirts, and were worn over a silk slip, which was included for comfort, as well as for creating am ore sleek foundation for over garments.

1950s Accessories

Accessorising was an important aspect of formal dress during the Fifties, most often matching, and in a colour that complimented the outfit. Black was, and still is, a popular choice for that reason!

1950s Hats were usually small, flat straw or felt, adorned with flowers, feathers and bows, and made from lightweight materials so as not to collapse hairdos. For this reason, whimsies (known today as fascinators) became a popular means of adding décor to one’s head. Other popular 1950s hats included berets, and plate hats and bucket or cloche hats – many of these styles we associate with Hollywood movies stars of the 1950s. Flowers and headbands are more so synonymous with the rockabilly look.

1950s Gloves were an essential element of going out attire. It was commonplace for gloves to be coordinated with other accessories, but white was a popular colour, crafted in thin cotton and wrist length.

1950s Handbags included the iconic hobo handbag, made from plastic, straw or fabric in basket, satchel and box shapes, that are still popular today because of their icon-appeal. 1950s accessories also included classic evening clutches. Genuine 1950s purses and handbags erred on the small side, while today’s reproductions are large enough to house far more paraphernalia.

1950s Jewellery celebrated the power of the pearl – always a matching set of necklace and earings (usually clip on), which added instant femininity and glamour. Beads were all the rage, both wooden and plastic, in a vibrant range of colours. Brooches were also popular during the 1950s, with animals shapes, fruit and flowers taking the fore.

1950s Make up

Every era has a way of creating its own iconic look, one that typifies the decade, and creates an instant sense of the beauty zeitgeist. For the 1950s, that essence is one of unapologetic femininity and glamour. Arched brows defined with pencil, mascara coating the lashes, eyeliner framing and exaggerating the eyes with flicked wing tips, cheeks lightly roughed, and lips enhanced with reds and pinks.