The 1950s was a decade of change. 1950 still felt like the 40s, but 1959 was looking more like the 60s. It's also the decade when Britain got a new Queen, and she was young and beautiful. For the first time ever, there was a monarch that young women could aspire to look like. Millions watched the first televised Coronation, and they admired Norman Hartnell's design, the apogee of 1950s dresses.
From New Look to New Youth
The biggest change was in the fashion market, and this drove changes in style. Until the 50s, the most cutting-edge designs were for women in their thirties or forties. These were the ladies with money to spend. Typically, they were married and had children. There was an air of maturity about the fashion industry. Compared to the UK, change happened much earlier in the US. Youth culture emerged, creating new idioms in music, clothing and speech.
Back in the UK, rationing persisted until 1952, and post-war austerity measures held things back. The British Government encouraged export, and the British people had to wait patiently. After the middle of the decade, things were starting to look different.
We can see all this in the styles of 1950s dresses. At the dawn of the decade, Dior's 'New Look' was still the key aspiration for young women. Many made their own interpretation. Compared to earlier styles, dresses were longer and fuller. Waists were smaller, and busts were bigger. Shoulder pads were gone, and the silhouette was far more feminine. It was a very glamorous look. Necklines became lower, and evening dresses were often strapless.
From the middle of the decade, we see another iconic 50s dress style, the shift dress. It began with a style called the sack dress. This was later refined by a new designer, Mary Quant. Other designers, like Chanel, were also moving away from pinched waists.
At the same time, there was now an alternative silhouette. Long, slim-fitting dresses restored glamour, and made later 50s dresses sexier. Picture a young Marilyn Monroe, compare that to her iconic heyday, and you have the 1950s in a nutshell.
Forward looking designers were well-aware of the potential for mass-produced clothes. Before the 50s, ready made garments carried a stigma. Now, they were desirable and affordable. We shouldn't forget the influence of Marks and Spencer. They weren't cheap, but they were good value. The knitted sweater-dress was a very popular 50s style, typically bought from M&S.
If you're inspired to find out more on the 1950s, and revive some of its styles, ModCloth have wide range of retro clothing that includes 1950s dresses. You'll find designs that recapture the spirit of the 'New Look,' and the energy of the emerging youth culture.
If there's one decade of the 20th Century that most people turn to for examples of wonderful designs it's the Fifties. 1950s dresses are now more popular than ever.