December 7, 2020 – America is often overlooked when it comes to fashion and being trendsetters and icons. People usually think of Milan or Paris before they think about America as a fashion powerhouse. Indeed, they are, but in fact, the robust American movie industry perhaps can be credited with creating those hallowed fashion houses into the world famous icons they are. When I think about the best vintage and retro fashion, I think about the American fashion of the 1950s and 1960s. This was a time when clothing was durable, functional and built to last. Culturally it was a time when men knew they were men, and women knew they were women and both appreciated the differences between them.
What really brought me to thinking about this was a recent conversation with my Aunt Annabelle. When I was little, she and I would watch all these old time movies from the 50s. She was a professional Marilyn Monroe impersonator and taught acting (one of her students was Sinbad) and she always involved me in the things she was working on. We watched Hitchcock films, every Marilyn Monroe film, Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly films. I absolutely loved dressing up in her classic Marilyn outfits from various films, including the infamous white dress from The Seven Year Itch. I loved watching her do her makeup, and all the neighborhood girls loved coming to my house for dress up. She was able to get costumes for our school plays and she had lots of shoes, gloves and pillbox hats with netting. It was like going back in time, and she always stood out and look like a famous movie star compared to the other school moms and aunts. She was the cool aunt that everyone wished was their own.
I will never forget the time she curled my hair, dressed me up as Shirley Temple and made me perform “On The Good Ship Lollipop” to an entire club of people when I was seven. I hated having to sing in front of all these people I didn’t know, while she stood at the side of the stage mouthing the words to me and clapping. However, when I was finished, everyone started clapping and all these people wanted to come up and take my picture (these were the days of disposable Kodaks) and everyone told me how cute I was.
It gave me an idea of what her life was like, traveling across the country and performing at weddings and other events, and all the work it took to learn how to sing like Marilyn and learn all the dance moves. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but I think she was able to remind people, if only for an hour or so of a different era and to make people happy. This experience and kooky aunt is what taught me about fashion, and particularly American vintage fashion.
America also adopted some of the European styles, but they always made them their own, and put their own twist on them. The classic Chanel suit, while costly, was made extremely well. These suits have held up for decades, with good care. I remember my first time wearing a Chanel suit that my mother found at Goodwill on the Island of Palm Beach. I fell in love with it, and ended up using it for my Halloween costume that year as Jackie Kennedy, although I had to order a pill box hat online. Donning the Chanel suit made me feel classy, chic and feminine. The fabric was thick, and it was incredibly made. You knew when you were wearing it, that you didn’t have to worry about losing a button or a decorative bead.
As you can see from the above image, the fashion in the 1950s was totally different from what passes as “fashion” today. The women are wearing form fitting, feminine clothing that compliments their natural lines and beauty. They wear skirts and nice blouses with the skirts coming down over the knee in a modest style. They are not showing all their skin. By dressing modestly and conservatively, they leave the rest to the imagination.
Another thing to note is how people actually cared about their appearance. To us today, it seems they were dressing up everyday. I believe this has been lost on our modern age of yoga pants and pajama clothing or casual jeans and t-shirts. The men and women took pride in their personal appearance and they took to heart the phrase “dress your best” and to “dress for the job you want.”
The hairstyles of the 1950s and 1960s are beautiful. The styles had a personal flair that highlighted their faces. They did curls, waves, and chignon buns. You have to consider that after the hardships of World War II with rationing and extreme frugality, when the war came to an end and the economy picked up, Americans wanted to get back the life that had been taken from them. So many of them had put their own lives on hold to help and serve their nation. They had earned the luxury of spending some time on themselves, celebrating themselves.
Jean Varon Minidresses from the 1960s
After the modest and conservative apparel of the 1950s, in the 1960s women began to experiment with shorter dresses. Inspired by the so-called “sexual revolution” just starting to be promoted by the elites, the famous fashion designers of the day pivoted to more skimpy clothing. During the 1950s, the youth began to rebel against their parents and the idea of having the perfect home and family. With the television revolution, young people began to be inspired by Hollywood icons and their work.
Audrey Hepburn, one of those Hollywood icons, inspired a generation of women with her trim, minimalist fashion. Everyone remembers Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Charade and Sabrina. Audrey was a chic, feminine icon and she embodies natural beauty and poise. She never lost that grace and style that made her a household name.
This image from Duke University, like a time capsule, captured a women using the library’s card catalog system. She is wearing comfortable flats with a flowing dress, clinched with a waist belt. This image is from the 1950s and you can see the men also, wearing dress trousers and shirt and a tie. They look like they could be going to a dance or a work party or to church. This underscores the idea behind this era of fashion: you dressed your best and were ready for anything!
Then there is the ever-present poodle skirt. This is perhaps the most well known fashion staple for young women of the 1950s. Think Grease.
They offered a comfortable and fun look for young women. The poodle skirt could be worn pretty much anywhere, with anything. You can wear a blouse, a cardigan, flats or heels. It was functional and in a lot of cases, homemade. Christian Dior had created “the New Look” for post WWII women and well into the 50s, that was epitomized by the tiny waist, pointed breast and long full skirt below the knee. And crinolines, lots of crinolines to create the blooming effect of the skirting. Though the poodle skirt followed the line of the New Look, it was adapted to a more rockabilly style in America.
Jean Shrimpton, September 17, 1965
Jean Shrimpton was a photo model in the 1960s who embodied the fashion and look of the era. Seen above at the opening of a gala in 1965, she is wearing the high collar overcoat in muted colors and natural looking makeup with the voluminous hair and side part of the day.
The dresses above are all by designer Laura Ashley and were very popular in the 1960s. Each of these dresses use soft pastel colors and new patterns in their design. They are all very short, in contrast to the mid-calf dresses of the 1950s.
One of the quintessential icons of the 1950s is actress Marilyn Monroe. Born Norma Jean Baker, Ms. Monroe began as a pin-up girl and would later become one of the most famous actresses in the world. She always looked stunning and everyone remembers her in films like Some Like it Hot, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Niagara. Sadly, Hollywood treated her very badly, chewing her up and then spitting her out. They pigeonholed her in the role of “dumb blonde” when she was so much more than that. She was an incredibly intelligent women who came from a very rough background. Nonetheless, she is still a fashion icon to this day.
After the war, utility and functionality were still important for clothing. Muted colors, tailored clothing, block colors and pencil skirts were suitable. Many families sewed their own clothing, and made their own adjustments. Fashion designers of the era where Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Nina Ricci, Coco Chanel, and Christobal Balenciaga. Many of these designers became household names and the houses of fashion they established are still going strong. Understated elegance but practical, affordable and comfortable was key for the women of the day. Women often wore hats and gloves. After the 50s, fashion of the 60s became more simplified and functional.
The postwar youth style brought us the “preppy” look which inspired campus dress code with sweaters, cardigans, cable knits and suits. Fashion continues to evolve, we can look back to the 1950s and 1960s as the time women really began to express themselves through fashion after World War II. The bigger story here is how women started coming out of the home to work in the war effort and the shortages and scrimping that was done then. Post WWII, with businesses roaring, manufacture then turned from implements and clothing of war to consumer goods. There was an explosion in fashion as some women continued to go to work and ALL women celebrated the availability of an abundance of new fabrics and colors, and plenty of both. So the short WWII skirts and baggy trousers gave way to longer, more flowing and feminine dress. America can gain inspiration today and learn a great deal from our rich and varied cultural history by looking at what influenced fashion in other eras. Women often get overlooked when we study WWII history and the post-war world. Perhaps they should be given a second look, and elevated to their proper place in history.