Tag Archives: fashion history

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…

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1940’s Fashion Etiquette- According to “Vogue”

“It is axiomatic that a woman who dresses well always has an acute sense of fitness, as well as an understanding of current fashion.” – Millicent Fenwick, associate editor of Vogue, in Vogue’s Book of Etiquette (1948)

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Songstress Style: Key Elements of On-Screen Glamour

Nina Mae lookin pretty fierce.

Nina Mae lookin pretty fierce.

As made evident by my previous post, pop culture in the 1940’s clearly valued elements of glamour, despite the basic and utilitarian fashions that were popular for real-life working women.  Adding to this drama of escapism was the popularity of musical numbers in popular Hollywood films, such as of the above Hazel Scott, a brilliant musician and actress who often made musical cameos in various pictures.  Especially for women of color, whose roles were extremely limited by a blatantly racist film industry, the importance of being able to “do it all” was clear: be beautiful, be a gifted actress, sing wonderfully, play an instrument.  Often, women of color fell into two categories when it came to Hollywood casting: the well-meaning, unintelligent but caring “maid” or “nanny” character, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the extremely beautiful and unattainable glamour girl, often cast in the role of a musician or so-called diamond in the rough who was too good for her current surroundings and situation, which sometimes included the cringe-worthy but relevant plot-line of “passing” for white.  Despite these typecastings, women of color in the entertainment industry still delivered iconic performances, and I’ve collected some of what I find to be the key elements of style for the songstress/chanteuse archetype from throughout the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s.

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Cherchez la femme fatale: film noir fashion of the 1940’s

Ann Savage, 1945

Ann Savage as bad girl Vera in 1945’s “Detour”

Cinema during the 1940’s, although somewhat lacking the raw dynamism of the pre-code 30’s, allowed for the forging of some the most intriguing genres of film.  Ranging a broad spectrum the included women’s pictures, comedies, westerns, crime films, and war films, 40’s cinema showed the influence of the era.  World War II was showing some of the grimmer facets of human nature, and amidst the patriotism and war effort, there was nonetheless a sense of despair.  Film reacted to this darkness in two extremely different ways: on the light, bright end of the spectrum, there was the musical, with its over-the-top Technicolor, dance numbers, hit songs, and cheerful, smiling, triple-threat stars.  Meanwhile, on the darker side of the spectrum, there was film noir, which literally translates to “dark film”.  Film noir became a sort of subset of the crime and detective genre, but it quickly set itself apart visually, technically, and by its storylines and characters.  Visually, film noir photographers played with light and dark, emphasizing shadow and allowing lighting to become its own character in the story, increasing the tension and suspense of the film itself.  The storyline, typically, focused on a main character (usually male) who was plagued by some unforeseen force that was pulling him into a waking nightmare.  Due to some circumstance, or perhaps a character (such as the femme fatale), the so-called hero of the story was usually descending on a downward spiral riddled by crime, mistaken identity, or some other misfortune.  Things did not usually end well for this anti-hero of sorts, and often there was a woman who, intentionally or unintentionally, was spurring on this fall from grace.

While this new archetype of the femme fatale may sound like a step backwards for women, it actually allowed female actors to play against type in many cases, and to portray a woman who was beautiful and glamorous, yet riddled with flaws.  These women were often using the men to further their own agendas, realizing that they had little tools available to them in order to make their own lives.  The femme fatale also provides a clear example of 1940’s fashion, as her wardrobe was one of the factors that added to her striking image, and exemplifies what was considered glamorous or desirable at the time.  In addition, a subset of film noir, sometimes referred to as a “women’s noir”, allowed female characters to take the lead, such as in Nora Prentiss, although their stories often dealt with romances turning into nightmares instead of the crime-oriented themes of a male hero’s story.

So what set la femme fatale apart from other archetypal women’s roles in film?  Keep reading to find out some of the key elements of femme fatale fashion… Continue reading


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A World at War & Women at Work: the Chic Utility of the 1940’s

My lovely grandmother Betty (third from the left) & her well-dressed girlfriends in 1946.

Greetings, ladies & gentlemen!  I am finally updating!!!  I actually wrote this article awhile ago but have been trying to find some images that are unique and illustrate the awesomeness that is 1940’s fashion.  The photo above is from my grandmother’s collection of photographs and I think it’s a great example of mid-40’s dresses.  Growing up in the Midwest, my grandmother didn’t live in the fashion capital of America, but she and her girlfriends look super chic and stylish in their (probably rayon) dresses with sweetheart necklines, knee-length (or higher) hemlines, and peeptoe shoes.  Going through her photos was pretty inspiring, and it made me want to write more articles for this blog.  So, if you want to know more about what made fashion in the 1940’s special, keep reading.

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Top Ten Fashion Moments of Pre-Code 1930’s Hollywood

Clockwise from top left: Teresa Wright, Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, and Theresa Harris

Signaling the start of Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, Depression-era cinema set the foundation for trends in film, culture, and fashion throughout the first half of the twentieth century.  The star-powered studio system, the moral conduct code, and the typical film personae were crafted and fleshed out during this period.  Directly following the gay twenties and collapsing into the economic disaster of 1929 and 1930, Hollywood sought to keep audiences paying to see films and fought to maintain a theatre-going culture, where seeing a film was an essential part of daily life.  In order to keep attendance high, studios sought the biggest stars, the best talent, and the most intriguing and sometimes raciest story lines.  Known as the pre-code (as in, the period prior to the enforcement of the Hays Code which restricted what was portrayed on film) era, the period from 1930 to about the middle of 1934 allowed for some of the freshest, most provoking portrayals on film the public had and ever would see (at least until the 1960’s).  During this period, women’s roles in films flourished, as pre-code starlets such as Barbara Stanwyck, Ruth Chatterton, Norma Shearer, and Greta Garbo were given meaty roles that went against the stereotypical ideals of femininity (as seen in the 1920’s archetypes).  Playing divorcees, professional women, ‘loose’ women who were never punished for their sexual depravity, maneaters, women who used men for their own personal gain, and on and on, pre-code actresses were really allowed to let loose on the silver screen.  Some of the most fun to watch performances were given during this period by women who modern film lovers often remember for their latter (more sober and classical) roles during the forties and fifties.

But what does all this mean in terms of fashion?  Continue reading


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A Brief History of Women’s Fashion Pt. 2: The Depression, The Bias & Return of the Waistline, 1930’s

Typically, when people think of Great Depression-era fashion, exciting thoughts do not necessarily spring to mind.  Marking the end of Jazz Age decadence, the 1930’s are often thought of as a somber decade when it comes to fashion.  However, to be honest, the 1930’s are one of my favorite eras of fashion (besides the 1960’s).  Perhaps it is the existence of extreme opposites that interests me; the 1930’s saw both the bare minimum housedress of the typical woman simultaneously with the escapist Hollywood glamour of the pre-code silver screen.  As a sort of apology for the frivolity of the flapper fashion, women’s dresses dropped their hemlines and were typically constructed of more practical, less ornate fabrics.  The waistline assumed a more traditional, natural position.  The ideal look, however, continued in the art deco fashion- streamlined, long, lean.  Meanwhile, couture fashion pushed boundaries of the silhouette with the increased popularity of bias cut draping, as well as the influence of modern art movements, such as surrealism.  Modern hardware, such as the zipper, was also popularized throughout the 1930’s. In a sense, the 1930’s is the start of the sort of classic period of vintage fashion that lasted up until the early 1960’s, a period marked by ultra-feminine silhouettes existing at a time when women’s roles in America were increasingly traditional, acting as the build up and inspiration for the second wave of feminism.  The Great Depression insisted women stay home to allow for more chances for employment for men, a trend that would last until the factory boom of the 1940’s, only to re-emerge during the nuclear family-centric, suburban docility that was the 1950’s.  Thus, women’s fashion was further feminized and defined, drifting away from the boyish, masculine silhouette of the flapper.  With a few exceptions… Continue reading

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Film & Fashion in Focus: Silent Icons of the 1920’s

Colleen Moore

Colleen Moore, America's perfect flapper.

As anyone who has seen Gloria Swanson freak out in Sunset Boulevard knows, in the 20’s, the actors had faces.  Also, they had fashion.  Often, actors in silent films were portraying archetypal characters who were easily identified and defined by their clothing, hair, and makeup.  For women, this meant two main categories of characters: the virgin and the vamp.  Beneath these two umbrella archetypes were a variety of personas- the flapper, the ingénue, the girl next door, the “It” girl.  Fashion in film helped to define these characters to the American public, and in turn says something about how women were defined by what they wore during that era.  Film also helped to spread fashion trends out of the city to outlying or rural towns, giving the rest of the country a taste of the new styles emerging from a city center like New York.  Ultimately, film played an integral role in defining the ideal style for the twenties woman, and comments silently about what clothing projects about the wearer.

the Flapper

Colleen MooreColleen Moore

Colleen Moore

Above: Box-office gold, Colleen Moore, in the many costumes of the ideal flapper.

Perhaps the most iconic persona of the silent screen, the archetypal flapper is also the most responsible of all the film personas when it comes to inspiring the fashion, both of the twenties and the modern era.  Actress Colleen Moore personifies this character, with her bold, parisienne-esque fashion choices depicted above.  From the long, lean, deep-v flapper evening dress, to the androgynous garçonne, to the eastern-inspired turbans and head-wraps, Moore’s on-screen style runs the gamut of flapper fashion.  Moore starred in films with titles like Flaming Youth, Painted People, and The Perfect Flapper, and became a sort of icon of the flapper to the American public.  Her characters were fun, carefree, adventurous, and free-spirited, but never vampy or obscene (unless you count putting perfume on your lips as obscene).  Her portrayals helped make the flapper accessible to the public, while Moore’s on-camera style gave dreamy girls who saw her films something to look up to, fashion-wise.  When most girls owned one, maybe two dresses, seeing Moore wear a different dress, usually heavily beaded or trimmed in fur, or covered in an ultra-modern art deco print, in every scene of Flaming Youth provided a sort of perfect ideal of this mysterious modern woman, the flapper, who everyone was trying to understand and explain.

Other notable flappers: Clara Bow, Josephine Baker, Joan Crawford

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A Brief History of Women’s Fashion Pt. 1: The Rise of the Hemline & Disappearance of the Waistline, 1920’s

Women’s fashion trends prior to the twentieth century convey a sense of, well, discomfort to modern ears: s-curve, hobble skirt, corset, bustle.  In Joshua Zeitz’ Flapper, the author quotes ‘King of Fashion’ Paul Poiret’s description of the hobble skirt that he designed: “You will remember the tears, the cries, the gnashings of teeth caused by this ukase of fashion.  Women complained of being no longer able to walk, not get into a carriage.  All their jeremiads pleaded in favor of my innovation . . . Have their complaints or grumblings ever arrested the movement of fashion, or have they not rather, on the contrary, helped it by advertising it?”  Clearly, the fashion trends of the late nineteenth century were not targeted towards women who were active or independent, although women were not necessarily expected to be.  Yet it still sort of boggles the mind to think that fashion was a part of women’s shackle as early as a hundred years ago, which is sort of a hiccup in the grand scheme of history.  Yet, in the 1920’s, thousands of years of women’s fashion became undone and rewritten.  Fashion retained its appeal as a status symbol, yet also incorporated new ideas of comfort, movement, and function.  Instead of binding and controlling women, it became an expression of their liberation.  What changed?

Ideal of women's fashion, late 1800's.

Basically, a combination of social and cultural changes for women allowed for this sort of aberration in fashion history known as the twenties.  In America, women were finally granted the right to vote.  World War I was over, with America, a late-comer to the war and remote enough to be less devastated from its effects, emerging as prosperous and as a more established world power.  Meanwhile, the cultural climate of the West – Europe and America – was changing as well.  By cultural climate, I mean the creative output of writers, musicians, and filmmakers who were basically altering the perception of what society valued, what was acceptable, and what was ideal.  As everyone knows, the 1920’s heralded the arrival of the much lauded “flapper”, a new concept of the modern woman, who danced, drank, worked, and played at a level (almost) equal to men in a manner that offended the traditional Victorian thinkers but captivated the new generation.  The newly popularized medium of film helped to promote this new archetype, while writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald both created and promoted her to the American public.  Meanwhile, real-life ‘flappers’, such as Josephine Baker, thrived in liberal communities in Europe, in cities like Paris and Berlin, where the modern woman could express herself even more freely than in America.  American writers also formed communities in Europe, especially in France, which helped to further establish this connection between the American and European modern sensibilities.

Compared to the image above, the 1920's were a totally different world.

At the same time, fashion was responding to the new demands of the modern woman.  Supply and demand, again, reared its econ 101 head.  As early as 1914, Coco Chanel was promoting a new silhouette for women, one that emphasized comfort over decorative frills.  By the end of World War I in 1918, her designs were selling throughout France.  According to Zeitz, Chanel proclaimed to have “let go of the waistline” as she “came up with a new silhouette”.  This ‘new silhouette’ seems pretty tame from modern-day standards, but it was actually quite revolutionary.  Playing with androgyny, Chanel’s designs allowed women to take the best parts of men’s fashion – blazers, cardigans, streamlined designs – and make them appropriate for women.  The corset was completely unnecessary to achieve the chic Chanel garçonne look: slim, straight, and vertical, with no waistline, and a hemline that emphasized movement rather than modesty.  Instead of the ruffles, feathers, bustles, and trims of the previous era, women’s fashion was feminized with ornate beadwork and lightweight fabrics (jersey, silk), and incorporated elements from contemporary art, such as geometric, art deco patterns.  Paired with long cardigans (not unlike the ‘boyfriend cardigan’ that pretended it was invented a few years ago) or flowing blazers and topped with a bell-shaped, skull-hugging cap, the cloche, that emphasized the newly popularized bob haircut, the flapper look was born.

The cloche hat & the bob haircut

What did this mean for women?  Other than allowing them to replace binding, restrictive corsets with comfortable, lighter than air bralettes and slips, and to be actually able to move without ‘hobbling’ down the street, it meant a lot.  Fashion throughout history didn’t happen in a bubble; what women wore and what women did were connected.  The new found freedom in fashion accompanied some new found freedoms socially, from voting to working to being active in a sphere once reserved for men: the social sphere, out of the home and into the public eye.  While women’s roles did not change overnight because of a dropped waistline and a raised hemline, such changes in fashion represented the social changes that were affecting women’s lives.  The flapper ideal allowed women to borrow from men’s wardrobes, implying that women were also borrowing from men socially and culturally.  The ‘separate spheres’ keeping the worlds of men and women apart throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s were coming apart at the seams, as the ‘modern woman’ looked to new avenues for her liberation- the workplace, the university, and anywhere else where she could carve a new path.

Suggested further reading:

Flapper by Joshua Zeitz

Flappers and Philosophers by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy: A Lost Generation Love Story by Amanda Vaill

Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age by D.J. Taylor

Next week, we look at the ‘flapper ideal’ of fashion in cinema: Colleen Moore’s Flaming Youth, the bobbed Louise Brooks, and the dancing daughters of the 1920’s…


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