Suburban Conformity & Cutting-Edge Couture: The Dualistic Forces Behind 1950’s Fashion

Bodysnatchers, couture, & the suburbs

Ah, the 1950’s: an era of suburban sprawl, festering social unrest, the threat of nuclear war, and a new guard of fashion icons.  To me, the 1950’s represents the best and worst of American culture and fashion in particular.  While at once characterized by a need to suburbanize, conform, and forget the violence and tragedy of the 1940’s, the 1950’s also provided the seeds to the inspiring changes that would occur in the next decade, both socially and culturally.  Often viewed as a decade of prosperity, many American families in the 1950’s enjoyed newly affordable luxuries: a family car, modern kitchen appliances, television sets.  The traditional, nuclear family was heavily emphasized, and was promoted by the entertainment of the day.  Television shows and films reinforced traditional women’s roles, displaying the role of wife and mother as the only priority in a woman’s life.  Finding a husband, settling down to a newly built home in the suburbs, and raising two charming mini-citizens (also known as children) was the goal here.

Meanwhile, across the pond, European culture was revitalized after the slow recovery from war.  Fashion-wise, this meant the best and the brightest were allowed the freedom to be as creative as they wished without the restrictions of war-time rations.  The greatest fashion designer of the era (just an opinion, of course), Cristobal Balenciaga, flourished in this time, and reinvented what it meant to be fashionable.  Christian Dior, whose “New Look” debuted in 1947, also pioneered new fashion trends, while houses like Chanel found inventive ways to change with the times and stay ahead of the competition.  Keep reading for more on the strange dualistic nature of the 1950’s, the era of conformity and invention…

The New Look

Obligatory “New Look” photo

In 1947, Christian Dior made an instant name for himself when he debuted what was termed “the New Look”, a collection that sought to create a new silhouette for women after the utilitarian-chic that dominated most of the 1940’s.  In attempt to revive traditional femininity and cast aside the gender-neutral silhouette so popular in the beginning and middle of the decade, the New Look emphasized “rounded shoulders, a cinched waist, and a very full skirt”, thus celebrating “ultra-femininity and opulence” (Met Museum, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dior/hd_dior.htm).  Although this new silhouette debuted at the end of the 1940’s, it basically dominated popular fashion throughout the 1950’s, and it is still viewed as the classic “vintage glamour” silhouette today- very narrow waist, full skirt; presently, most shops refer to this look as “fit and flare”, and it is still incredibly popular and flattering on a range of body types, although now we don’t really have to worry about the necessary foundational undergarments to get into the dresses.

Cristobal Balenciaga

The master of couture

Meanwhile, although Christian Dior was obviously a champion of what would become the biggest trend of the 1950’s, he was nonetheless influenced by fashion genius Cristobal Balenciaga.  While Dior created the ultimate feminine silhouette, Balenciaga challenged the idea of what was attractive, of what was feminine, and innovated silhouettes that had really never been seen before.  Dior’s “New Look” can be traced from a direct line from romantic silhouettes of the past, as small waist, full hips was not exactly a new concept; Balenciaga, meanwhile, played with shape and textiles in a way that no other designer had before.  Balenciaga, a lover of fashion history, had a clear appreciation for where fashion had been, but also had a unique role in dictating where it would go.

  • The Barrel Line, 1946-1947

At the same time that Dior’s ultra-feminine shook up the fashion world, Balenciaga debuted the barrel line, a semi-fitted suit that was the opposite of the New Look (although Balenciaga did produce pieces that fit that silhouette, as well).  Consisting of a jacket loose through the body, wide-sleeves, and a slim skirt, the barrel suit was chic, modern, and a complete re-envisioning of women’s suiting, especially compared to the militaristic influence of most of the 1940’s.  It is a silhouette that would continue to evolve throughout the 1950’s.

  • Volume, 1950-1951

Balenciaga continued to rebel against the narrow waist, full skirt silhouette of 1947, and instead created lines that played with volume and heavy fabrics, and introduced the bubble skirt trend.  The barrel line evolved into the semi-fitted suit, which was quite fitted in the front waist, but had volume at the back, creating an effortlessness that was lost on heavily corseted-looking wasp waist silhouettes.

  • Tunics & Sack Dresses, 1955-1957

Continuing to dress the modern woman, Balenciaga debuted the tunic dress, which was a two-piece dress that had straight lines and allowed for freedom of movement.  Another example of wearabilty championed by Balenciaga towards the end of the decade, and which would extend into the 1960’s, was the sack dress.  Throughout the 1950’s, Balenciaga’s modern designs remained functional, wearable, and were created in heavy fabrics such as tweed that leant and air of sophistication to the garments.  Balenciaga’s 1950’s designs basically dictated the trends of haute couture, and predicted the silhouettes of the 1960’s.

Suzy Parker, too fierce for everyone, in ideal 1950’s couture.

What American Women Were Wearing

Typical ’50’s fashion on some gals hanging in the Ohio Library

But how did these European design innovations influence trends back home?  Well, firstly, there was the couture influence on Western cinema, as reflected by the hit films of Audrey Hepburn throughout the beginning of the 1950’s.  Films like Roman Holiday (1953) and Sabrina (1954) made European fashion accessible to the American public.  European actresses like Brigitte Bardot and Gina Lollobrigida became popular, and their chic French and Italian styles, respectively, were influential.

However, there was still a distinct element of conformity and traditionalism that permeated American culture, and it was reflected in the every day clothing of most women and, now their own demographic, teenage girls.  Hemlines sank to a conservative below-the-knee, or tea, length.  The favorite necklines included the halter and the sweetheart.  Day clothes included cardigan and pullover sweaters, or sets, and full skirts.  Sheer blouses were also a prevalent separates choice to pair with skirts.  Suits, as in the 1940’s continued to be popular, but were more feminine and crafted in softer fabrics, with less severe collars and necklines than in the prior decade.  Patent leather was a popular choice for shoes, as well as the ubiquitous saddle shoe for younger women and teens.  Sportswear like shorts and trousers were worn high at the natural waist, with pleated fronts.  Pastels and a bold color palette differentiated 1950’s fabric from the more sober tones of military-influenced 40’s era fashion.  Body-hugging knit dresses became popular, especially later in the decade.  In eveningwear, sleeveless dresses became the norm, and, for teens, the decade witnessed rise of the princess prom dress.  Fabrics like satin and velvet, along with chiffon and tulle, remained eveningwear staples for women, and the trend of cocktail dresses (like the overtly famous Little Black Dress) paired with matching coats emerged, and remained a mainstay throughout the 1960’s.

Rebellion and Unrest

Ton up boys (& girl), Audrey Hepburn, the teen cast of “Rebel Without a Cause”

At the same time that the majority of America was dressing in a rather conservative, classic fashion, subversion and street style began to emerge in response.  The U.K. trend of café racers and ton-up boys was reflected in the U.S. by the tortured teen icon of the era, James Dean, in Rebel Without A Cause (1955).  Other subcultures, like the Beats, also played a role in influencing 1950’s street style, a term which really is not applicable until this decade.  Although the 1940’s saw the starts of these subcultures, they did not really permeate the rest of society and become culturally relevant until the 1950’s, which can be seen by the increase in films and media depicting these “others” (The Wild One, 1953; parts of Audrey Hepburn’s role in Funny Face, 1957; strange beatnik neighbor Maynard on tv show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, 1959-1963).  Music also began to change in the 1950’s and as new styles of sound arose, so did new fashion trends to mirror them.  Honestly, there is really too much to cover as far as fashion subculture goes in the 1950’s to be very thorough here, but I will be devoting several upcoming blog posts to the subculture trends of the fifties where I can explore this topic a bit more in depth.

Overall, the 1950’s are truly a fascinating time for fashion, as much as I lament the emphasis on traditional roles for women and on extreme femininity.  As with all times of conformity, there was of course rebellion and subversion that kept things interesting, dynamic, and constantly changing.  Next time, more on the emerging trends and subculture fashion of the 1950’s and fashion in 1950’s cinema!

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6 Comments

Filed under Fashion History

6 responses to “Suburban Conformity & Cutting-Edge Couture: The Dualistic Forces Behind 1950’s Fashion

  1. Your writing style has evolved so much since you first began this project, and for the better. I see there is an ample amount of material that will involve more posts for each decade than was previously the case. I had never heard of the term “café racers” until now.

    It would seem you have quite a bit of momentum behind you!

    For some reason I some of the work in the CELESTINE PROPHECIES later volumes might be of some use to you when you have recreational reading time.

  2. brian p.

    Your blog is great, Stephanie. I hope you write a little about teddy boys and mods in the future.

  3. Hello Stephanie,

    Your site is great – a wonderful resource for vintage fashion with beautiful pictures.

    Keep it up!

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