During the 1950s, women wore dresses like we wear t-shirts and jeans today. A vintage 1950s dress was a closet staple and came in a wide variety of colors and two primary silhouettes. Shoulders were narrow and soft. The waist had to be tiny and pulled in — a “wasp” waist. A tight bodice came to the natural waist or slightly higher, where the skirt took over. The skirt is where the two silhouettes of the 1950s emerged. The full swing skirt and the tight pencil skirt. They were complete opposites but both were worn equally by women in the 1950s. All vintage 50s dresses were variations of these two shapes.
Vintage 50s Dress History
Vintage 1950s dress fabrics were endless and made a dress more casual or elegant depending on where it was worn. Cotton was used for leisure wear, mostly in shirtwaist dresses – the favorite house dress. Wool and linen were popular for day, as were the new synthetics rayon and polyester. Tweed, like wool and acetate blends, was in vogue for fall in the mid ’50s. Silk shantung could be used to make a dress a little bit more dressy for dinners out. See more examples of 1950s fabrics and fashionable colors.
Colors went from light and girly to bold – pastels were very popular in all clothing, and dresses were also done in jewel tones like royal purple, ruby red, navy, and emerald green. Allover patterns were used even more frequently – there were small or large florals, plaids, polka dots, gingham checks and stripes, as well as novelty prints with science, nautical, tropical, or western themes. It was very chic to wear prints from famous artists’ works. Whether all over or just around the skirt border, prints made a dramatic statement.
50s dresses, and women’s clothes in general, were rarely left plain. Fancy collars such as Peter Pans, wings, mandarin, middy, man-tailored, detachable, pilgrim, and shawl collars added drama to the neckline, while trims of braid-work or piping on large pockets and shirt cuffs contrasted with the body color. Buttons were large, becoming part of the statement, not just utility.
Summer dresses exposed more arm than ever before. Halter tops and sleeveless shirt dresses allowed the sun to kiss the shoulders. Tropical prints, inspired by Hawaii, the Caribbean, Italian Riviera and other sunny vacation spots became even more popular in the 1950s, along with “Tiki” parties. The strapless evening gown was more widely accepted, especially for teens attending prom.
Shop now for 1950s style dresses.
1950s Dresses: The “New Look”
Dior’s New Look full-skirted dress is the most iconic vintage 1950s dress style, especially during the first half of the decade. The bodice was very fitted with a full circle or gathered swing skirt ballooning out from the natural waistline. The fullness was made by gathering or pleating up to 6 yards of lightweight fabric. The skirt could be worn with a petticoat or two underneath to give it added fullness or with a thin slip for easier movement. These dresses are often called swing dresses.
As for the bodice, the options were vast. It was usually tailored and often decorated with large buttons and bows. Necklines could be scooped, v-neck, boat-neck, square-neck, or sweetheart. There were also collars on these dresses. Dress collars could be large and pointed, small round Peter Pan or Bertha. Bertha collars were very large and round at the bottom, they fit around the entire neck like a bib. Collars were often done in white to contrast with the rest of the dress. Black and white were an especially common pairing.
For a less tailored and less popular look, the bodice fabric was sometimes left drapey, with a wrap top that crossed over in the front or gathering down the sides.
Halter tops were worn in the summer, with a V-neckline and two thick straps tied behind the neck. Sleeveless dresses were also very popular, but sleeves could be very short cap sleeves or elbow length. Short puff sleeves and dolman sleeves were also used on full-skirted dresses.
Needless to say, there was no single style of sleeve or neckline that wasn’t part of the vintage ’50s dress fashion.
1950s Shirtwaist Dress / Housewife Dress
The shirtwaist dress was a very popular version of the full-skirted dress. Shirtwaist dresses, or shirtwaists for short, had a fitted button-down top, like a blouse, that ended at the waist. The buttons would extend a little bit below the waist for getting in and out of the dress. A full gathered/pleated or circle skirt completed the bottom.
Shirtwaist dress sleeves were often cap, short or elbow length, and could also be full long sleeves in winter. Sleeves were cuffed at the ends. The collars were usually pointed or small round peter pan collars for most house dresses. They were very modest with only a small V neck exposing some skin while covering up the collarbones.
The 1950s shirtwaist dress style was the uniform of all housewives, and Donna Reed was the mascot. It was easy to put on, easy to launder, and easy to move in. With a clean, pressed apron over the dress, it could be worn all week before cleaning was necessary. Shirtwaists could be a solid color but were usually in a cotton percale print or gingham. Gingham check was introduced in 1950 and became wildly popular for house dresses as well as shirts, play suits, capri pants, and skirts. It was part of the “All American Western country girl” look of the ’50s. Pink gingham was the most popular color.
“Someday you will be a charming little wife in a cottage built for two. Your husband will enjoy looking at you across a breakfast table each morning in a frock as fresh as a daisy. When he leaves for the office, let him carry with him a vision of the little wife as pert and efficient in her becoming house dress as the office girls in their trim tailleurs.“ – Clothes with Character, by Hazel Thompson Craig
The shirtwaist dress made its way to eveningwear, too, although sparingly. When made of textured solid colors in Rayon, taffeta, or silk and embellished with lace or bead work or rhinestones, the shirtwaist became glamorous. Below is a silk print floral dress accessorized for an afternoon party.
The coatdress was another full-skirted version. It was slightly similar to the shirtwaist dress, but had the styling of a long coat instead of a shirt. These dresses buttoned half way or all the way down to the bottom of the skirt with a single row but more often double row of 4-6 buttons and had no back zipper. Buttons were often oversized, and the collar was larger, resembling that of an overcoat.
Shoulders on coatdresses could be slightly more padded, and sleeves were usually long or dolman shape. They came with a matching self fabric belt. Because of the heaviness of the large collars, buttons and sleeves, coatdresses were worn the most often in fall and winter.
1950s Hostess Dress
Part dress, part capri pants. The 1950s hostess gown was a long robe or duster style overdress with an opening down the front, revealing slim fitting capri or cigarette pants underneath. Lucile Ball wore them often in I Love Lucy, and since then women embraced this more casual yet oh-so-glamorous fashion for entertaining or lounging in the home. Some very fashion forward women tossed out the overskirt and just wore the pants in silky fabrics. Learn more about the 1950s hostess gown (and shop this style of dress) and its cousin the summer playsuit.
1950s Sheath Dress: Pencil and Wiggle Dresses
The other silhouette of the 1950s dress was somewhat opposite of the full skirted style, although the main features of the New Look remained. Dior once again led the way for subtle variations of the sheath dress, naming his collections Corolla, Tulip, H, A and Y Lines after the shape of the dress.
The bodice was the same as a 1950s swing dress– tailored, fitted and nipped in at the waist. But the skirt of this type of dress was very closely fitted to the body from the waist down. The tighter and straighter, the better. This was the lean sheath dress, also known as the wiggle dress today. In their snuggest, curve hugging form, they have become symbols of the modern Pinup movement. Shop pinup dresses here and more wiggle dresses.
Wiggle dresses zipped up the back. The bodices were of ten decorated with small collars and bows, and the skirts often featured welt pockets on the sides or two oversized front patch pockets. Big buttons could be used to decorate the front, too.
The bodice was usually tailored and had either sleeveless, short cap or elbow-length sleeves. The neckline was often a high scoop or boat-neck. The high neckline with a long straight skirt gave the illusion of slenderness. The skirt was what we would call a pencil skirt today. It curved over the hips and tapered down to mid-calf. There was a vent or kick-pleat added to the back of the skirt so the wearer was able to walk.
In 1952, Vogue commented, “We want skirts we can step out of an automobile in without splitting their sides, sleeves that can reach for a telephone without straining their shoulders.”
Comfort while remaining classy was what women demanded. While Paris lead the way with design, it was American fashion houses that made them more comfortable. Despite how tight they looked in magazines, on real women they were a tad roomier.
There were two lengths of skirts. The shortest, ending just below the knee had a kick pleat half way up the thigh. It was the easiest length to walk in. The longer mid calf sheath with decorative kick pleat came up to the knee but was difficult to walk in. Gliding in small steps like a geisha was about all you could do in them. Sheath dresses were sexy. Paired with wiggle enhancing high heels, they made girls into women.
Every woman, teens included, had to have at least one little black dress in her wardrobe. This meant a 1950s sheath dress. It was the perfect dress to dress up with pearls, or dress down with a colorful scarf. When you didn’t know what to wear, you wore your little black dress. Going to a cocktail party meant half the attendees were wearing a little black dress, too. They could be fitted, bloused, double-breasted or with a sexy deep V neckline. An alternative to black was navy blue for evening wear.
1950s Bell Dress / Knit Dress
A trend that emerged towards the end of the decade was the bell dress – a kind of combination of the two skirt shapes. The bodice was tailored and fitted as usual, and could follow any of the bodice styles found in other dresses. However, the skirt started out gathered at the waist, puffed out around the hips, and then tapered back in to be fitted at the calf, creating a bell-shaped skirt. They were not flattering on most body shapes since they accentuated the hips and thighs.
An early form of bell dress was the draped skirt dress. Taking notes from the ruching and draping of 1940s dresses, the 1950s draped dress was slimmer up top and fuller around the hip.
Knit dresses were often hints of the bell dress shape. The natural contours of knit fabric and the ease that they drape made them perfect winter staples in the pencil shape. The two piece dress with matching skirt and sweater top were more common over the one piece dress. A bolero knit jacket or cardigan sweater was sold with one piece dresses too.
1950s Jumper Dress / Pinafore Dress
Another carry over style from the 1940s was the jumper dress or pinafore dress. Loved by girls and teens, the women’s version was usually a deep V-neckline worn with a blouse underneath. The shoulder straps were wide. The skirt could be either be full or pencil, with the pencil shape being more common- more womanly.
Pinafore dresses were popular among western dressers when made of denim or corduroy.
The younger version was a full skirt with a high waist that would end just below the bust or had a bib front, like overalls. Two narrow suspender straps buttoned on the front and criss-crossed at the back.
The main difference between the ’40s version and ’50s jumper version was the fullness of the skirt. Since young teens wanted to dress more sophisticated the jumper dress was increasingly going out of style by the mid ’50s only to return again on the edge of the 1960s.
1950s Chemise Dress
“Sack the Sack!” “Bring Back Curves!”
In 1957, the Chemise or spindle dress was more joke than fashionable attire. The fancy name was Chemise, but the street name was sack, bag, or shoplifters delight. They fit like a tube that ballooned out in the middle. Its non-form shaping qualities quickly made it a freak fad that women and especially men hated.
Only stick thin women could look good in it. Women with hips looked even wider in it. Even a wide belt around the hips didn’t help at all, nor did gathering the fabric to the back and accenting with a large bow. Oh, the comical horrors! By 1960, the sack dress became a straight shift dress with a shorter hemline that women (and men) liked better.
Despite its ill-fitting issues, it was a dress that nearly every woman bought in 1958. It sometimes had a white collar and matching bow at the curve of the back. It buttoned down the back, too, requiring help to put it on. The perfect length was just below the knee. Any longer and it really did look like a tube of lipstick.
“I believe the chemise dress was one of the ugliest style foisted upon American women by designers. The dress disregarded the bust line and the waist, dropping straight down until it fit tightly over the buttocks. My chemise was yellow, and I looked like a waddling stick of butter.” – Carolyn Sucker, What We Wore
1950s Trapeze Dress
A cousin of the hated Chemise dress was Dior’s Trapeze dress. The top was fitted to just under the bust and flared out in a slim A-line to the knee. It was more successful than the Chemise since it accented the bust but hid the hips and thighs.
Both the Chemise and Trapeze were short-lived fads in 1958. By 1959, no one dared to be seen in them.
Not all was lost. By the mid to late 1960s, the trapeze dress came back again with a bit more fanfare than before.
More 1950s Dress Styles
While the above dresses capture the main silhouettes of the 1950s, there were even more dresses that had specific purposes, themes, or prints worth looking into.
- Shop 1950s Dresses, 50s Dresses – All styles
- Shop 1950s plus size dresses in 2XL to 6XL sizes. – The 1950s plus size fashion industry had been booming since the 1920s. By the 1950s, most shops and mail order catalogs featured clothing in expanded sizes. Dresses were designed to fit and flatter a diverse range of body types.
- 1950s mature women’s fashions– For the gracious lady over a certain age, were dresses with longer sleeves and hemlines. Shop dresses with sleeves.
- 1950s Tiki/Tropical Dresses – The influence of Hawaiian prints and other tropical summer destinations made an impact on 1950s dress fashion. Read a bit more about these designs here.
- Polka Dot Dresses – The vintage fashion world was obsessed with polka dots. From the turn of the century to the late 1950s, polka dots were a very popular print. Both big dots and little dots made up most youthful dress designs. Read the history of polka dot dresses
- Sailor Dresses / Nautical Dresses / Patriotic Dresses – Red, white and blue was a common color combination. The 1950s added anchors, sailor stripes, and other seaside symbols for even more playful clothing.
- 1950s Cocktail Dresses or Evening Gowns– Glamorous eveningwear was over the top in the 1950s. Both floor length ballgowns and shorter tea length party dresses used voluminous petticoats, layers of tulle and sheer fabrics, and feminine details to bring the doll look to every party, prom or evening affair. Learn more about these amazing styles: 1950s History of Prom, Party, Evening and Formal Dresses
- For 50s dresses under $50 in the USA and UK, look here.
- For real authentic vintage 1950s dresses use our vintage search browser.
Shop 1950s Dresses
Debbie Sessions has been teaching fashion history and helping people dress for vintage themed events since 2009. She has turned a hobby into VintageDancer.com with hundreds of well researched articles and hand picked links to vintage inspired clothing online. She aims to make dressing accurately (or not) an affordable option for all. Oh, and she dances too.