Women in the 1950s were the first to embrace pants for a feminine figure. While the women in the 1940s loved their men’s inspired slacks, they were gradually losing favor in the 1950s for a more ladylike style.
Women’s 1950s pants were taboo on TV. 1950s women were secretly wearing pants at home, but it wasn’t until they were prominently seen on TV that they felt comfortable wearing them outside of the home, too. Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance wore pants from time to time on I Love Lucy in the early 1950s. But it wasn’t until Mary Tyler Moore was frequently seen wearing them on The Dick Van Dyke Show in her home starting in 1961 that women publicly acknowledged they wore pants.
There are three styles of women’s pants that the 1950s are most known for: tailored slacks, capri and cigarette pants.
1950s Tailored Slacks
Women’s wide leg 1940s pants were still worn into the early ’50s but now that had a more tailored fit, higher crotch, and two simple pleats. Slacks were still side zipping, never a front fly like men’s trousers. A belted waistband was more frequently seen in newer fabrics such as rayon, gabardine (matte or sheen) as well as classic wool flannel and cotton twill.
Basic colors such as black, brown grey and navy were always available while western inspired colors were making pant wearing more fun: deep gold, copper rust, cobalt blue, forest green. Plaids of red/black/blue/white were one of the newest patterns while small checks of black or brown were carry overs from the 1940s.
In the mid 1950s the emphasis was on textured fabrics. Tweed made of rayon or wool as well as cotton corduroy was fashionable in winter. Cotton twill, always a durable summer fabric, came in a nice variety of colors such as turquoise, pink, white, red and navy blue.
1950s Cigarette Pants
In 1955, women’s fashion took a major jump into a new, very fitted and sleek pant. They were called many names included tapered pants, Italian style, Jax pants (LA designer brand) and capri pants. History would remember them as Cigarette pants that had high waist, side or back zippers, flat front across the hips, wide waistbands (3 inches), full hips, and slim fitting tapered leg down to the ankles. Women loved how they flattened out a tummy and made legs look longer and leaner.
Cigarette pants made of wool or cotton were always lined. Having baggy knees was taboo, so lining helped keep the leg straight and wrinkle free. It wasn’t uncommon for wool to stretch out of shape or linings to bust open with frequent knee bending. An outwardly perfect, good pair of pants could be ruined by a shredded mess on the inside.
“Black capris were the answer to most casual what-to-wear problems.” – What to Wear
The best color of Cigarette pants was black. Brighter colors were reserved for ankle length capri pants and sport shorts. In the later 1950s, more patterns like polka dots, checks, stripes, plaid, and leopard prints appeared on casual cigarette pants. Belts and belt loops were considered too masculine, yet some brands added a thin leather belt placed in the center of the waistband.
Another ethnic style was borrowed from the Spanish matador. Black pants paired with a white ruffled blouse, a Spanish cummerbund or large scarf sash, and an optional bolero jacket put the long pant into a slightly more formal category. Adding a bi-corn hat put it even closer to a costume look, but women didn’t care. Mixing any of these elements with dresses and suits turned one outfit into many.
1950s Capri Pants
Pants in the 1950s were called ‘capris’ regardless of length. This is confusing today, since we tend to call cropped pants capris and full length pants ‘pants’ or ‘trousers.’ Capri pants fit like cigarette pants, except they ended a few inches above the ankle. Once they rose up to mid-calf they became pedal pushers.
Black or white matched all colors easily, but they were especially popular with striped shirts. Striped knit shirts were called Italian or Roman shirts. A red and white shirt with black Capris certainly looked very Italian. Pairing it with blue pants gave a nautical look, like summer clothes on the Italian Riviera. To look European was a big deal in the ’50s.
White capri or pedal pusher length pants with a wide folded hem, were also called Yachting pants.
1950s Pedal Pusher
Capris took on other names as different lengths created new styles. Pedal pushers were an ‘in between shorts and pants’ style. They came to a n inch or two below the knee. They had the classic high waist, flat front that cigarette and capri pants had. Some fun details were added to give them a more casual look such as a belt back (Ivy League styling), contrasting cuffs and pockets, white piping, white buttons, nautical themed embroidery and much more.
Manufacturers came up with many different names for these 3/4 pants, such as Motor scooter slacks, calypso pants, and pirate pants.
Another in-between shorts and pants style was the Culottes. They had been around since the 1930s in an unchanged shape of wide leg pant that looked like a skirt with legs standing together. Colored denim were what the majority of 1950s culottes were made of.
Learn more about 1950s shorts and summer clothes here.
1950s Jeans for Women and Teens
Denim jeans, also called dungarees, were not quite as form-fitting as pants and capris. They were made of heavy dark denim and lined with a vibrant plaid flannel that fit high on the waist, wide over the hips, and tapered down to the ankle or rolled up to a wide cuff at mid calf (pedal pusher length). Extra large pockets were a carryover from the 1940s, but this time the trend was to outline them in contrast stitching.
Adding decorative trim to pocket openings that matched the lining exposed on cuffs was an extra bit of fashion, too. They were only worn for workwear, the most casual of at home occasions, or on a rustic vacation, like camping.
Teenagers developed their own style with pants. Teens, of course, might rebel and wear jeans out with friends on a Saturday afternoon, but never to school. They also liked them a little tighter. The classic outfit was jeans with a white or plaid blouse, thick white bobby socks, and a pair of loafers.
Extra loose pants in the early years and extra slim pants worn with ballet flats, short cropped hair and very baggy “Sloppy Joe” sweaters in the later years created a bohemian artist look. Naturally, parents hated the style. In Europe, Teddy Girls mimicked this style with rolled cuff baggy jeans, flat shoes, black knit shirts and long blazers.
Learn more about the history of blue jeans.
1950s Western Pants
The ’40s and ’50s obsession with all things Western life extended into women’s pants. Not just for riding horses anymore, women living the western California lifestyle wore western motif slacks and western shirts as everyday casuals. They appeared in the same cut as other women’s slacks, with a tapered leg from hip to ankle. The western style came in with wide belt loops (and a western leather belt), white piping on the pockets, and sometimes rhinestone decorations for a fancy Western flair.
Learn more about 1930s-1950s Western fashion.
‘Wrangler’ brand jeans made their mark on ’50s fashion. Heavy “blue bell” denim jeans featured a ‘wrangler’ front fly (oh my!). Large pockets on the back, and a smaller change pocket on the front that was mostly for looks. Classic Wranglers today don’t differ too much from the 1950s style.
1950s Pants and Jeans Today
Fortunately, 1950s style pants are in fashion again. While capris are a summertime staple, high waist jeans are now also making a comeback. Plus, there are many ‘50s reproduction clothing brands that are making pants, capris and jeans, too. My favorite place to find ’50s style pants are with brands that target mature women. They are usually high waisted, side zipping, colorful capris and slacks that look nearly identical to vintage ’50s pants.
I gathered up many of these 1950s inspired pants styles on the 1950s style pants shop page here: