The 1950s gave us a vast wardrobe to dress in. It was the first decade that made fashion affordable and diverse enough to require the purchase of new clothes frequently. Women’s 1950s clothing was sold in coordinating sets to make mixing and matching easier, but also to help women choose outfits that were classy and elegant even while dressing casually. For us who want to emulate ’50s fashions, there are many unique outfits, both authentic and inspired, to choose from.
The simple ’50s housewife outfit reminds us of our favorite TV wife, Lucile Ball. The ’50s teenager showed us how fun it is to dance at a sock hop in poodle skirts. And high fashion women like the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel show us what classy women’s ’50s style looked like in New York. All of these outfits plus summer and winter, casual and formal, ’50s dresses and pants are explored below to give you ideas for your next 1950s outfit.
50s Housewife Outfit
Starting at the beginning of the day, a typical ’50s woman put her house dress and apron on in the morning. For a housewife, this was often her only outfit of the day, unless she went out to run errands or visit with friends. The house dress was usually a button down shirtwaist or shirt dress in the swing style with a light petticoat, apron, and flat shoes. The full skirt made it easier to make beds, vacuum, and tend to children. However, if you look at ads featuring a ’50s housewife, it usually showed her wearing a wiggle dress, fancy apron, high heels, and pearls. Many women dressed like this at 5 o’clock for dinner when her husband came home, but not when doing household chores!
For your ’50s housewife outfit:
- Shirtwaist dress – Choose cotton dresses in simple colors and small prints like gingham, checks, plaid, polka dots. Dresses were usually in the swing style, but a loose sheath dress is also acceptable. Big pockets are a nice touch! Wear a thin belt in a matching color.
- A light, not too full petticoat.
- A ’50s style apron, either full or half.
- Flat shoes like ballet flats, loafers, and low heel Oxfords were worn until husband came home, then it was back in heels. You could wear white bobby socks instead of stockings with loafers and saddle shoes.
- Hair scarf – Wrap it around your head. Many women went half a day with pin curls in their hair and a scarf wrapped around them until dry.
I Love Lucy Outfit
The most famous 1950s housewife was none other than Lucile Ball as portrayed in I Love Lucy. She has two iconic looks that continue to inspire modern ’50s outfits. The first is her blue gingham check housewife dress. Later in the series, she switched to a blue and white polka dress. Both had white collars and cuffs, a common trim on house dresses and uniforms [ like a Vitameatavegamin sales girl : ) ]. Salesgirls would also wear heels, pearls, and maybe a small hat.
The other iconic I love Lucy outfit was her black sheer Hostess dress. A hostess dress is a combination dress or skirt and pair of capri pants/jumpsuit. The dress/skirt was split in front, exposing the matching pants below. It was worn at home while hosting a party. Lucy’s dress was a long sleeve black sheer check/dot robe dress worn over tan ankle length pants. You can create this dress with a little DIY creativity. Start with a long lace dress (or robe) and cut open the front skirt in the center (if you want more exposure, cut a triangle out of the front skirt. Sew/serge/glue the hem. Wear the dress over a pair of 50s pants (either black or cream), add a headscarf or turban, a pair of cat-eye glasses, and voila! You can use almost any long or tea length swing dress and pair of pants to re-create a hostess dress. You can wear the split dress over another skirt, too, for a layered look.
In summer, the skirt or button-down shirtdress over pants/jumpsuit/romper/shorts was a common playsuit look. The skirt would wrap around instead of being split open at the front. Fabrics usually matched because they were sold as a set. For your DIY look, feel free to mix and match prints and solid colors.
50s Teen / Sock Hop Outfit
1950s teenagers dressed nearly identical to their mothers. On a daily basis, girls wore either a full swing skirt and a knit top or long pencil skirt and blouse with a cardigan layered over it for winter. They wore dresses too, usually in more color combinations than their mothers or with more details like pockets, big belts, and bows. They loved a good pair of flats or loafers, saddle shoes, or white classic Keds for casual looks (denim crop jeans and a sleeveless blouse). Accessories were simple, like a chiffon neck scarf tied to one side or a wide headband. Women wore these looks, too. Teenagers, however, were leading all the fashion trends in the ’50s.
For my outfit above, I used a fun pattern swing skirt over a petticoat and paired it with a teal blue knit top. I added a pink chiffon scarf (it is actually a little too big for a neck scarf) and a pair of white wedge sandals. If I had a wide belt, I would have added that too. Perfect for teens, perfect for summer!
Substitute a swing skirt for a poodle shirt in the above look and you have another classic teenage sock hop costume. Poodle skirts were made of heavy felt with a poodle and leash or other cute animal embroidered on it. They were usually paired with a white button-down shirt or knot top, cardigan sweater, neck scarf, white bobby socks, and saddle shoes. There were many other types of 50s dresses and skirts worn to a sock hop. Look here for more 50s sock hop outfit ideas.
50s Office Outfit – Work Clothes
The teenager wearing a pencil skirt, blouse, and cardigan sweater is also a signature look for women — especially professional women in a business office (Mad Men secretary anyone?). Women took it up a notch in sophistication by wearing beaded cardigan sweaters, silk blouses, pearls, fitted pencil skirts, backseam stockings, and kitten heels. A small hat and gloves were usually worn to and from the office as well. This look exuded classy sophistication. It is the perfect outfit for modern vintage gals in a workplace environment. Shop work place/office friendly suit and dresses.
Another workplace friendly outfit is to wear a two-piece suit consisting of a pencil skirt or fitted sheath dress and a matching jacket. A modest bow tie blouse is a nice accent underneath as well. Here are some ideas from vintage-inspired brands:
50s Waitress / Car Hop
Besides working in an office, many women worked in uniformed service positions such as nurses or waitresses. It is the roller skating car hop or ’50s diner girl waitress that is the most memorable from the 1950s. Uniforms varied from one burger stand to the next, but in general, waitress girl outfits featured a button down shirtwaist dress with contrasting cuffs and collars, belt, and large pockets on either side. They wore comfortable saddle shoes, low heel Oxfords, white flat sneakers (like Keds), or roller skates. Some diner uniforms had small white half aprons and retro chef hats too. The diner-style dress alone makes a simple daytime ’50s dress that fits well in most workplaces today.
Classy City Girl / Mrs. Maisel
A high fashion girl living in the city wore a head-to-toe coordinated outfit from almost every outing. Suburban women, too, dressed up whenever traveling into the city or going out to dinner. Putting away her day clothes, she stepped out in her best dress, backseam stockings, (usually black), tall heels, small hat, warm overcoat, gloves, purse and jewelry (necklace, bracelet or watch, earrings). If you are a fan The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, you may have noticed her many New York “going out” outfits where she was always dressed to impress.
Marilyn Monroe, that sexy siren of the ’50s, captured the dreams of many men and the jealousy of ladies. Her clothing was tighter, shorter, and more revealing than most women wore. She was a pin up, but she had class and sophistication and a playful innocent side in her day to day life. Her many fashionable looks on and off screen give us a lot of ’50s outfit ideas. There was, of course, her iconic white halterneck dress from the movie The Seven Year Itch. There was also the strapless pink gown and gold lamé gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. These sexy dresses inspired a wave of form fitting formal party dresses in the ’50s.
You can dress to the nines at your next party with a strapless or halter neck gown, long opera gloves, big dazzling jewelry, and tall heels. You can get these looks in cheaper costume quality here, too.
On the set, at home, or out and about, Marilyn avoided modest swing dresses. She wasn’t a housewife, she was a pin-up, and her outfits always played the part. She favored snug capri pants or high waisted shorts and a tight fitting sweater top. She also wore long pencil skirts and low cut blouses with a big belt to nip in her waist. For dressier occasions, she chose a sleeveless wiggle dress that always showed off her neck, chest, and a hint of cleavage. These outfits ooze Mariyln’s sexy take on classic ’50s clothing.
50s Tea Dress Outfit
1950s tea dresses mean different styles across the globe. To some, it means a 1950s tea length dress that descends down to the mid-shin. For others, a tea dress is a name for a simple day dress. For me, it means a ’50s dress that is ideal to attend an afternoon tea party in, such as the vintage cream silk ’50s dress below that I wore with a matching faux lucite purse. Pastel colors and light materials like cotton, chiffon, lace, and Swiss dot are some options for a springtime outfit. Floral prints naturally make great tea party dresses. Pairing a floral blouse with a light shirt or pair of pants is a casual way to introduce spring.
Tea dress outfits pair best with kitten heels or open toe sandals. A wide brim sun hat with a few well place flowers will set you perfectly in the garden. You could skip the hat and wear a flower tucked in your hair instead. Don’t forget gloves. Mesh or lace gloves will be the most comfortable in warm weather.
50s Cocktail Party Outfits
The 1950s were all about the new type of dress, the cocktail party. Not formal, but not informal either, it was a time to slip into a little black dress and have some conversation over drinks. Tea length party dresses in black, red, yellow, or blue were part of every woman’s wardrobe. Lace cocktail dresses were especially trendy, as was any other textured satin, brocade, taffeta, or velvet dress. Pencil dresses were equally common, especially for mature women. They came with a little crop or bolero jacket that made them sophisticated instead of sexy.
Besides the dress, Cocktail attire called me nude backseam stockings, strappy heeled shoes, short gloves, pearl necklace, button earrings and sometimes a small crescent hat. A small clutch purse that sparkled was a welcome accessory for carrying makeup.
The finest outfit of the ’50s was the formal evening gown. It and the wedding dress were the biggest, longest, most elaborate dresses of the entire decade. They took inspiration from the Victorian era and brought back the huge ballgowns. The long, slender, sexy gown was also reintroduced in simple shapes with rich materials like velvet or heavy satin. Teens attending prom opted for long or tea length tulle ballgowns with multiple layers of petticoats for maximum fluff.
Attending a formal evening affair today in ’50s style is a lot of fun. The dresses make you feel like Cinderella going to meet Prince Charming. Add some accessories like full-length gloves, kitten heels or strappy sandals, a heavy rhinestone necklace, and button earrings for head to toe glamour.
50s Sailor Outfits
Summer in the ’50s was a fun time. Halter neck and thin strap dresses in light cotton, especially with nautical colors (navy blue, red, and white) started the summer season with visions of the beach. Candy stripes, polka dots, and sailor motifs like anchors adorned not just dresses but pants, shirts, shorts, beach bags, and sporty flats. Wearing these seafaring themed clothes is a very popular ’50s summer outfit.
Choose a sailor dress and add red, white, or blue flats (I like casual loafers, espadrilles, and ballet flats best), a polka dot hair scarf, and summer beach bag. For a more casual look, try high waisted shorts or capri pants with a halter top and sporty flats.
Tropical / Tiki/ Riviera
Another popular ’50s summer outfit is the tiki theme. Tropical prints like palm trees, hibiscus flowers, and pineapples found their way onto swing dresses, sarong dresses, skirts, halter tops, swimsuits, shorts, and my favorite — rompers. Tiki parties were trending and Tiki bars popped up right and left. They reemerged in the 80s and are coming back again now. Those lucky enough to attend Viva Las Vegas know about their annual tiki pool party which is full of summer fashion ideas with a tropical spin.
A tiki theme dress is the easiest way to get the 50s look combined with large tropical flowers pinned in an updo. A pair of espadrilles or wedges and a woven straw purse adds to the tiki look. Don’t forget to get your other half to wear a Hawaiian shirt to match.
Let’s forget for a moment that Greaser women, meaning leather jacket, tight stretch pant wearing, motorcycle riding teens, never existed in the ’50s. They were the creative invention of the Grease movie costume department, loosely based on real Teddy Girls in the UK. Teddy girls wore rolled blue jeans, black flats, plain knit tops, neck scarves, and long blazers with velvet collars. They were rebels, but the trend never caught on in the USA. It wasn’t until the movie Grease came out that women started dressing like male Greasers. Tight jeans or black stretch pants/a jumpsuit, low cut knit top, leather jacket, wide cinch belt, hair scarf and oversized sunglasses was their take on the rebel style. It certainly is a unique look, and one that contributed to modern Rockabilly fashion.
The modern rockabilly look is part ’50s pinup, greaser, country, and Rock N’ Roll. Black, red, leopard print, flames, skulls, bandanas, tattoos, music, and cars are all themes of the Rockabilly style. In can be classy, but it is usually edgy and sometimes erotic. Rockabilly dresses favor the swing style with halter tops that allow tattoos to be seen at their best. Hemlines are shorter and the petticoat is optional. Rockabilly casual style takes notes from the Greaser look by combining cuffed blue jeans, a striped or solid knit shirt, hair bandana and high heels. Wearing a gingham check or plaid tied button-down shirt is another popular top. And for those who don’t like heels, classic converse shoes are a comfortable alternative.
1950s Casual Outfits
Wearing pants, especially slim cigarette or capri pants and jeans in the 1950s, was the trendiest thing to do. It is what women secretly wore at home (instead of house dresses) or anytime casual clothing was acceptable in public. Wearing pants was not a new invention, but it was a novelty. Because of our pants wearing culture today, I am frequently asked for help dressing the decade while wearing pants. Rockabilly gals adopt the pants or jeans look regularly, but most ’50s outfits center around dresses instead of all the fabulous casual styles made possible with a good pair of pants or jeans.
Consider mixing and matching tops and bottoms like these: Cigarette pants with a boat neck knit shirt, short jacket, and loafers. Capri pants with a button-down halter neck top, skinny belt, and ballet flats. Pattern capri pants with a peasant blouse, sandals, and sunglasses. Wide leg denim jeans and a plaid button-down shirt with saddle shoes. Capri blue jeans, striped top, sandals and sun hat.
Shorts Outfits / Summer Outfits
Summer is a great time to wear ’50s clothing. I love to wear capris more than shorts, so you’ll find me in a pair of cropped capris and a button down shirt most summer days. Sleeveless knit tops, tank tops, and halterneck tops are also great for warm days. Paired with casual flats or sandals and cat-eye sunglasses, a summer wardrobe is easy to mix and match. For variety, add in a playsuit (called rompers now) with wedge heels and some tropical accessories like a hair flower or a straw sun hat. To keep you look true to vintage ’50s style, avoid tight fitting short shorts. 50s women preferred high waisted mid-thigh to knee length shorts that fit loose around the thighs. The best place to buy these styles is in Mrs. sections of the department stores or brands that cater to mature women, such as Talbots (they have great button down tops too).
When the weather turns cold, it can be hard to figure out how to wear ’50s style. Since most ’50s fashion revolves around dresses that expose the legs (brrrr) or short sleeved tops, a little layering is in order. Most women pair a cardigan sweater over summer dresses. A blazer or crop jacket is another option. with a warm scarf wrapped around the neck and tucked inside. To keep legs warm, try wearing nude ice skating tights or tall socks and wear lace up granny boots instead of heels. You can even find some snow boots that don’t look too modern. Accessories such as a warm beret or wool hat and lined gloves will help, too.
When inside, look for dresses with longer sleeves, thicker fabrics, and modest necklines. Plaid prints are very popular in winter, as are houndsooth and checks. Naturally, pants are an alternative to dresses. I prefer wide leg pants in winter because I can layer warm tights or leggings underneath them. A long sleeve blouse or pullover sweater, belt, and Oxford shoes sets the look back to the ’40s and early ’50s.
The final winter item is a nice vintage coat. Many repro ’50s coats are long, trimmed in faux fur, and designed to fit over swing dresses. For pencil dresses, I prefer shorter box coats or a late ’50s straight line trench coat.
1950s Film Noir Outfit
A very popular vintage movie event or Halloween costume party out this year is the Film Noir femme fatale look. All black, white, or grey monochrome dresses, shoes, and accessories with optional grey makeup makes for an impressive outfit. Without the grey makeup, the look is fantastic for an everyday vintage vixen style. Learn more here.
More 50s outfit ideas
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.