With Hot August Nights, the largest classic car show on the west happening this week, it has inspired me to take a look at 1950s fashion for women again. My hubby and I usually dress up in vintage or repro 50s clothes before going out to see all the cars. Sadly not very many people dress up or if they do it’s just in poodle skirts. I created the handy infographic above and additional info below to help you not only understand some fashion history but figure out how to put together your own 1950’s fashion look that goes beyond saddle shoes and felt skirts costumes.
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1950’s Fashion Dresses
There are two classic dress shapes of the 1950s. The most popular style today is the full skirt, tea length dress. The less popular but very classy look was the form fitting sheath dress (often called a pencil or wiggle dress today.) Both styles had modest, snug fitting tops with narrow high waist lines, and shin length skirts. The full skirt required at least one but more likely several layers of petticoats or a hoop skirt to be worn underneath. Most women today skip the petticoat when wearing 50’s style dresses because they itch like crazy and don’t fit well in modern small cars with bucket seats. To get an authentic look you will need a nice full petticoat worn over a slip to protect your legs.
1950s vintage dresses are very popular and still pretty easy to find in vintage clothing shops and online. They can be cheap ($15 on etsy.com for a simple cotton house dress) or pricey ($300+ for formal party dresses.) Vintage is best but doesn’t usually fit like modern clothing. Waist lines were high up just under the rib cage, arm ease was tighter, busts were often enhanced with padded bullet bras so the ratio of bust to waist measurements can be quite drastic. For these reasons there are now hundreds of repro and retro inspired clothing designers who make their clothes fit modern body types. Check out the list of them here.
The only draw back to most new 50’s clothing designs is the lack of dress styles with sleeves, plus sizes, and the sheath dress shape. The Pin Up look with tight fitting pencil skirt is inspired by 1950s sheath dress fashion. In reality 50s sheath dresses did not fit as snugly as new pin up dresses do today but the overall style is the same and, my gosh, do they look amazing on women with curves! For that matter both 1950s dress shapes look great on most body types. The fuller skirt dresses hide wide hips and thighs while the sheath dresses accentuate the right curves in the right places. No wonder most women love to wear 1950s!
Learn the History of 1950s Dresses:
- History of 1950s dress styles
- History of sheath dresses
- History of Prom dresses.
- History of petticoats and crinolines
Shop 1950s vintage inspired dresses here:
- All 1950s dress styles here
- Full skirt 1950s “Swing” dress styles
- 1950s style day or house dresses
- 1950s Pencil/Pin Up dress styles
- 1950s Plus size dresses – 1xl to 4xl
- 1950s style prom and formal dresses.
- 1950s costumes- cheaper dresses and skirts for Halloween.
1950s Skirts and Tops
Chop off the top half of a dress and you have a classic 1950s skirt. Full skirts made of one large round piece of fabric were called circle skirts. They were worn over several layers of fluffy petticoats to add to the volume. Poodle skirts were circle skirts too. They came in more fabric than just felt although felt hid hoop skirts nicely underneath. Poodle skirts were embellished with other cute motifs like mice, dogs, cars, telephones, and even martini glasses.
Tight pencil skirts were popular as well. They hung straight from the high waist to the mid calf with a split at the back to make walking easier. Black skirts went with everything, so every woman had one. Plaid was also popular in winter time. Learn more about the variety of 1950’s skirts here. Shop for 1950s style skirts.
Skirts were paired with white, pastel, or striped button down blouses. They fit snug and were always worn tucked in. Bunching at the waist was a constant battle. Blouses usually had collars unless it was made of stretch knit for a summer time T shirt styles. They could be sleeveless, have short cap sleeves, or longer 2/3 length sleeves. The halter neck top was popualr in the summer. Read more about 1950s blouse history. Shop 1950s style tops and blouses.
And all about 1950s coats and jackets
1950s Shoes and Stockings
Besides a dress or skirt and top combination the next critical piece of clothing are shoes. Black and white saddle shoes were all the rage for teens in the 1950’s but women wore them too. They look best with felt or cotton circle skirts and denim pants. Other casual shoes include white flat lace up sneakers like Keds classic shoes, slip on penny loafers, and black ballet flats with a small bow on the toe. Casual shoes were worn at home, not for going out to a party.
Semi formal “outing shoes” would have been pumps or sandals. Heel height was usually 1.5 to 3 inches with small, narrow “kitten” heels. Many shoes had decorative elements on the toe such as bows, crystal clips, ties or at least an interesting painted design. This is what makes vintage style shoes different than most modern shoes which are plain. For evenings, pumps were much taller with thin “stiletto” heels. Beware, thin heels take practice to walk in.
White, fold down, booby socks were worn with casual shoes but otherwise most skirts and dresses needed a nice pair of stockings. Stockings came to thigh high and were held up with garters. You don’t need to do this. It is much easier now to wear pull on panty hose. Your stockings should have seams, black seams. Nude would be fine too but ’50s women loved their stockings to stand out and attract attention. Many stockings had heel designs too such as cuban heels, pointed heels, and other cute designs on the heel or ankle. Learn more about 1950s Stockings here.
1950s Fashion Accessories:
No 1950s woman could leave the house without the perfect combination of accessories. Matching accessories was a big deal back then. All white or all black accessories were the most versatile. Pastel colors or whatever colors were within your dress/skirt would have been what you matched your accessories too.
Hat: Most women still wore hats in the 1950s. They were small straw or felt hats with adornments of flowers or bows on them. It is still very easy and affordable to find a vintage hats on etsy.com or ebay.com. Some had veils attached, although they were short and not worn pulled down over the face. An alternative to a hat would be a grouping of flowers to one side or on the center of your crown. The trend right now is to wear one big flower on the side. That’s glamorous too. Shop 1950s hair flowers and accessories.
Gloves: The other item a woman never left home without is a pair of gloves. Again white was the best choice but matching gloves to hats and purses was also popular. Gloves were usually a cotton material that was thick enough to maintain shape. They were wrist length with straight, scalloped or ruffled edges. I love vintage gloves, but beware of buying any without trying them on. Women’s hands were smaller/thinner back then so most gloves don’t fit modern hands well. A local thrift store or vintage clothing shop will give you the best selection and you can try them on. Shop vintage style gloves for a better fit. Learn more about the history of gloves too.
Purse: A matching hobo bag purse was the iconic style of the 1950s but it was the novelty bag made of unusual materials: plastic, straw, fabric and mesh in unique shapes: boxes, baskets, and satchels that have made a lasting impression. 1950s purses are usually small enough to hold just a few key items although many reproduction bags are bigger for all the stuff we carry today. In the evenings small wrist strap or clutch bags with sparkling clasps were elegantly paired with black party dresses. Day or night purses matched other accessories such as shoes, belts, gloves or hats. Learn about 1950s purses here.
Jewelry: Pearls, pearls, pearls. A small chain of pearls and matching pearl stud earrings were all a woman needed for jewelry. Yes, there were other styles, but honestly pearls are so 50’s and so easy to find why wear anything else. If the near future I will write an article on the other popular styles of 50’s jewelry. Shop 1950s style jewelry.
Belts: Belts in the 1950’s were often worn with a dress or skirt. With a dress they were not required but many came with a matching very think leather belt. With a skirt the trend was for much wider belts. Straight shapes or curved/scalloped designs mimic a Spanish look.
In place of belts, wide sashes could have been worn too. In the infographic above a black sash was worn over her skirt and top. You can use a long strip of fabric wrapped a few times around your waist to achieve this look. Add a wide belt that cinches in the waist in red, black or white for an iconic 1950s look.
Makeup: The 1950s makeup look is a fun one to recreate. While it’s mostly based on a woman’s natural beauty the eyebrows are shaped into a nice arch, the eyes exaggerated with the iconic wingtip and lips soft and full. Learn how to rec-create a natural 1950s makeup look here.
Read more articles on 1950s fashion here.
Shop 1950s Style Clothing