Throughout the 1950s, women’s fashions reflected the girl-next-door innocence with a hint of feminine allure. The hourglass figure was the idealized female form in the 1950s, with cinched-in, belted waistlines and skirts that accentuated the hips. It was the first decade that worshipped the sex appeal of womanly curves.
Although major designers favored more conservative, mature looks, casual attire was slowly taking over, as women adopted pants, shorts, sportswear, and shoulder-bearing sundresses.
The emergence of economic security in the 1950s allowed families to thrive on one income, and women who had taken on factory jobs in the 1940s either quit or were fired. The housewife became the epitome of the feminine ideal and an example of suburban success.
The billowing, poofy skirts that exemplified the 1950s were first introduced by Christian Dior in 1947, with a cinched waist that gave a nod to mid-19th century designs, but with a modern twist, allowing a hemline that accentuated the calf.
To support the enormous skirts, petticoats or crinolines of nylon mesh were needed. Hoops were brought back, and sometimes the petticoats were allowed to peek below the skirt hem to show off the colorful ruffled trimming.
Eschewing the squared shoulder designs and dull colors featured during the war years, the “New Look” offered a sense of grandeur and femininity that wasn’t possible under the wartime restrictions.
A common daytime look was the wide skirt worn without petticoats, allowing for a soft, draped appearance, or a shirtwaist dress might be worn at home by housewives. For casual events such as beach parties or barbecues, halter-top dresses were a favorite.
Appliqués or embroidered designs at the hem of the wide circle skirts became an iconic symbol for 1950s fashion, as seen by the 50s style costumes worn at modern day Halloween parties.
Trousers became more popular, with tight knit slacks and short shorts gaining favor. Size zippers became popular, as they left a smoother, more flattering front view of the slacks. For casual wear, women wore short shorts with blouses tucked in, or a button-down shirt or blouse tied low on the midriff. Pedal pushers were pants that ended just below the knee, and Capri pants fell just at the lower calf.
However, for anything more formal like church or cocktail parties, dresses were still required. Smaller hats that sported little veils were popular, and gloves were a must when outside the home, for all but the most casual events. Elbow-length gloves were for formal occasions with short-sleeved or sleeveless gowns, while short gloves were used in warmer months or with long-sleeved fashions.
Glasses were used as fashion statements, with the iconic cat-eye glasses dominating the decade. Jewelry, however, remained conservative and traditional, with pearls being the favored accessory of the time. Shoes were heels for anything more formal, with rounded toes or peep-toes, but espadrilles and tennis shoes were the casual favorite. The saddle shoes of the 1950s, paired with the short “bobby socks”, were a leftover of the 1940s that still held favor among the younger generation.
After emerging from the deprivation of the Great Depression and World War II, women of the 50s finally could experience a range of new styles, from the elegance of sweeping skirts made of extravagant yardage of fabrics to the simple cut of shorts and trousers, making 1950s fashion the epitome of feminine allure and fashion opulence.