Manufacturing processes improved greatly in the 1940s so much that ready-to-wear clothing was almost as affordable as fabric alone. The need and desire to sew clothing at home significantly decreased in the 1950s. For those who still chose to sew their own clothing, the diversity of new fabrics and the variety of colors, prints and textures were bigger than ever. Advancements in new synthetic textiles further reduced the price of fabric. 1950s fashion fabrics were available in nearly every type and color that ready-to-wear came in. As trends changed, new fabrics in new colors were offered to the masses in general stores and shopping catalogs. Sewing patterns, too.
The following is a look at common 1950s fashion colors, types of fabrics, popular patterns, and suggestions on where to buy fabric, notions and sewing patterns.
1950s Fashion Colors
While colors came in and out of fashion for most of the decade, there was a certain set that repeated throughout the decade. Like the 1940s, colors were saturated with some pastel shades in spring. Unlike the 1940s, colors drifted from the primary into offset shades like teal, coral and dark green. In the spring and summer, light pink, powder blue, cream, aqua, rose, maize (yellow), lilac, and kelly green were reflective of youth. In the fall and winter, deep hues of dark brown, rust, black, charcoal grey, red, royal blue, wine, olive, purple, peacock, gold, and navy fit the season. Moving closer to the 1960s, colors shifted into earth tones yet pink, teal and red remained present.
With the research and production of synthetic fabrics exploding in the 1950s, the sheer number of textile options was overwhelming. Natural fibers (cotton, wool, linen) were mixed with new synthetics to create hybrid blends that dried faster, needed less laundering and repelled stains. Pure synthetics were woven into textures that looked like natural fibers yet had the benefits (and drawbacks) of synthetics. Both natural and synthetic textiles found new uses in the 1950s. Denim, for example, had only been used for work wear but now was sporty and casual enough for most leisure clothing. Corduroy was favored by men, but now women used it for winter skirts and dresses. There were less rules about what type of fabric could only be used for certain clothing items.
The following are some of the most common fabrics available to home sewers. This list isn’t exhaustive of all fashion fabrics, but it is a good start.
Cotton: Soft or stiff cotton could be silky (Sea Island, Egyptian, Pima), light and airy (batiste, voile), embroidered holes/raised bumps (eyelet/swiss dot), textured (crepe, damask) and smooth (gingham). Some specific cottons are broadcloth and pique (basic), gabardine (twill like texture), chambray (faded and sturdy), denim (heavy, durable), corduroy (small rows for texture), and seersucker (a waffle weave common in summer stripes. Madras is similar.) Cotton is easy to sew with, easy to wear and versatile all year round.
Denim: Not just for blue jeans (Dungarees), cotton Denim came in multiple weights and bold stripes and plaid patterns. Lighter weights were made into sportswear, children’s clothing and sometimes dresses. Heavy weights were for jeans, work clothing and outerwear in solid colors. Chambray is a similar medium weight fabric with a white yarn speckled throughout, giving the fabric a faded look. Chambray was used in dresses, aprons, shirts, and children’s clothing.
Corduroy: Cotton or rayon fabric with a pile cut into long rows. It came only in solid colors and usually was a winter fabric because of its heaviness.
Silk: A beautiful, light, and expensive fabric saved for evening attire, lingerie, men’s ties, blouses, and some semi-formal dresses. Silk can be perfectly smooth or a have an uneven nap used to make pongee and shantung. Silk could be blended with other fabrics but artificial silk, Rayon, was more popular, durable, washable and affordable.
Rayon: Is a synthetic that can resemble silk, cotton, wool, linen and most other types of natural fabrics. It washes well, wears long, dyes easily and blends nicely with natural fabrics to create affordable fabrics. Some versions are prone to shrinking and stretching. It was the primary fabric of the 1940s but lost some favor in the 1950s when other synthetics were developed. It was most popular as a print for dresses.
Net, Organdy: Net was used in most bridal gowns, bridal party dresses, and prom dresses in the 1950s. It was light, sheer and voluminous. Velvet flocked net was very popular for both little girls and women’s formalwear.
Flannel: When I think of cotton flannel, I think of cozy winter bed sheets. In fashion, flannel is a nappy wool twill material frequently used for men’s and women’s suits and separates. It’s breathable and light, which makes it very comfortable. Soft cotton flannelette for nightgowns and pajamas came in small novelty prints, thin stripes, plaid, and pastel solids.
Wool: Wool, the fur of sheep, come in two types: worsted and woolen. Worsted wool fabrics (long flat hairs) are gabardine, wool sharkskin, and serge. Woolen fabrics (short and thick) are tweed, velour, and coating materials. Since wool is very warm, it is a prime winter materiel for coats, sweaters, suits, dresses, and scarves. Menswear favored textured wool for suits and coats.
Indian Head Cloth: A popular brand of cotton cloth with a linen feel, it was medium-heavy but very durable, neat, crisp, and versatile. In the 1950s, the company advertised the fabric towards home decor, table linen and crafting where it flourished. In fashion, this “All Purpose Cotton” was used for skirts, dresses and children’s play clothes. In the mid ’50s, they were known for novelty prints, many with ethnic, folk or world travel themes.
Indian Head Cloth is highly collectible today. It has stood the test of time very well. Vintage garments still look brand new.
Nylon: A true synthetic that can be either smooth (stockings) or coarse (sweaters). It is similar to rayon but is flame resistant and also holds little water making it ideal for swimwear and lingerie.
More Synthetics: The 1950s were the decade of new man-made materials. Fabric that was easy to wash, did not shrink, did not wrinkle, held dye in all sorts of colors was the savior of tired housewives and working women. Some of the synthetics and their primary usage were Dacron (suiting), Dynel (uniforms), Orlon (outerwear), and Acrilan (knits). Most synthetics were blends with natural fibers for even more variety.
There are some classic prints that are part of the 1950s, just as they were in the 1920s to 1960s, too.
Polka Dots: Polka dots were common in the 1920s through the 1960s. Small and large, the 1950s, for the most part, preferred large dot prints. Some were a mix of large and small dots, too. When sewing a 1950s dress, you can’t go wrong with using a polka dot fabric. They are very popular among ready-made retro dresses.
Plaid: In the 1950s, plaid was the most popular print for both women and men. Small plaids, large plaids and plaids in any color for spring and winter were made into every type of garment. House dresses and afternoon dresses, skirts, pants and tops brought a casualness to the look. Plaid shirts for men was also a casual style year-round. In winter, both women and men wore plaid coats and jackets. Plaid prints were big and bold, rarely small prints.
Gingham Checks: Small checks, especially in pastel colors, were very popular in the 1950s and again in the early 1960s. Many westernwear clothes used gingham check fabric to make summer tops and skirts. Spring time was the best time to wear check dresses and sportswear. Needless to say children’s clothing also came in check prints.
Floral: Like most prints of the 1950s, floral prints were big… in size. Large single flowers with a handpainted feel dominated the decade. Tropical leaves, trees and animals were also trendy.
Abstract Prints: The abstract art movement was making way into fashion by the late 1940s. Squiggly lines, interpretations of nature scenes, multi color stripes, and even paisley made an appearance. These are the designs that make up the bulk of 1950s prints as well.
Where to buy 1950s fabrics:
Here are some sites that sell vintage fabrics:
- Rick Rack.com – Original fabrics from the 1950s- mostly cotton prints
- Antique Fabric– Large collection of original fabrics
- Vintage Fabrics (AU) – Many colorful fabrics for home and clothing. Ships worldwide
- Vintage Fabric Market (UK) – Vintage fabrics, accessories and some vintage clothing
- Donna Flower(UK) – Charming collection of 1950s Fabric
- Vintage Fabric House– Small cotton prints for quilting, crafts and day dresses
- Fabric.com – Another source for classic vintage and cute novelty prints
- Telalinda – 1920s-1940s reproduction fabrics
- Thai Silks – A huge assortment of silks and silk blends
- Damask Raven – Silks appropriate for historical clothing
- Maltings Fabrics (UK) – Early 20th-century reproduction fabrics
- Spoon Flower – Vintage reproduction or inspired designs printed on a variety of fabrics
- Liberty Fabrics (UK) – Cotton and lawn printed fabrics. Also silk and linen. You can find this brand at most USA quality fabric shops
- Farm House Fabrics – Cotton, lawn, suiting, silk and more
- Sew La Di Da (UK) – vintage inspired cotton, linen, crepe, etc
- Til The Sun Goes Down (UK) – Vintage inspired designs from the 20s-60s
- B Back and Sons – Wool, cashmere and silk. Wool suiting ideal for menswear
- Dharma Trading – Dyeable silk, cotton, rayon and linen fabrics
- NY Fashion Center – Fashion fabrics, all kinds
- Mood Fabrics – Designer fashion fabrics, all kinds. Trims and leather too
- Fashion Fabrics Club – More fashion fabrics
- Fabric Mart Fabrics – Organized by fabric type
- Farthingale– Corset, garter, bra making supplies and some fabric
Vintage notions for sale:
- http://www.thebuttonbower.com/ – Buttons, buttons, buttons!
- http://www.accessoriesofold.com/ – Beads, buttons, trim, and more
- http://www.vintagebuttons.net/ – Buttons, jewelry and more
Where to buy 1950s patterns:
There are a handful of reproduction pattern makers and each have their own level of difficulty. I recommend doing an online search for a review of a pattern before buying one. Also, patternreview.com is an excellent source for reviews and online sewing lessons.
Where do you find fabric, patterns and notions? Let me know, so I can add to these lists!