In the years following World War II, the United States was marked by economic prosperity, a powerful military, and the invention of new technology like televisions, electronic appliances, and suburban houses. The 1950s were a fascinating time in the US and the fashion during this period was no different. The silhouettes were imaginative and the patterns were expressive, and over time iconic images evolved that are replicated in fashion today. 

While the typical 1950s lifestyle that is portrayed to a modern audience is one of a conservative, middle-class, nuclear family who had well-behaved children that obeyed their parents, there was actually a great deal of teenage rebellion that came out of this era. Prior to the 1950s, teenagers idolized the same older generation figures as their parents, however, in the early part of the decade, younger idols arose and new cultural factors began the start of a teenage rebellion. By the mid fifties, American teenagers had created a distinct subculture of their own. The invention of television and the rising popularity of rock ‘n’ roll music appealed to teens. Teenagers had their own money, idols, slang, and clothing. Fashion that centred on casual dress, instead of the uptight styles of their parents.. The new uniform for teenage girls included full dresses with crinolines, skirts paired with sweaters, casual blouses, blazers, tube dresses, sack dresses, two-piece bathing suits, and brown and white saddle shoes. High school boys were regularly seen in sport shirts, denim jeans with rolled-up cuffs, baggy pegged pants, pleated rouge trousers with a white side stripe, V-neck sweaters, slacks with back buckles, button-down striped shirts, blazers, and loafers. Polka dots, dramatic bright colours, and pastels were incorporated into everyday wear. 

During the 1950s, there was an economic boom in the United States as well as a broad period of worldwide economic expansion. The prospering economy as well as technological advancement meant that many households had disposable income and leisure time. This meant that not only teenagers but also older generations were embracing new fashions and trends. One of these new fashions was Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ which debuted in 1947. After years of sartorial shortages and restrictions caused by economic hardships resulting from the Second World War, Dior offered not merely a new look, but a new outlook. The ‘New Look’ immediately became the epitome of fashion for women, emphasized by celebrities and models like Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Suzy Parker, and Dovima. The silhouette featured rounded shoulders, a cinched waist, a very full skirt; the ‘New Look’ celebrated ultra-femininity and opulence in women’s fashion. Dior’s model emphasized an hourglass shape, skintight tailoring, narrow waist, and a full flared skirt. Along with this latest fashion ideal, it was also popular for fifties women to wear fashion staples such as stiletto heels, bright red lipstick, hats, and gloves. Although many women worked in careers outside of gendered norms during WW2, after the men returned home many were forced out of their careers and most women in the US became housewives. Women were forced into traditional roles and their clothing reflected this by celebrating ultra-femininity.  

Younger women and girls preferred a more trendy look as opposed to the opulent New Look. The most memorable of these looks was that of the ‘Bobby soxers,’ consisting of two-tone saddle shoes, ankle socks, white shirts, soft sweaters, neck scarves, and poodle skirts. Poodle skirts were in fact frequently worn by young women and teenagers; they’re not just a costume donned by students in high school productions of Grease. They were full circular skirts decorated with felt patches of animals, flowers, and objects and were the fashion rage for teen girls during this period. For young men, clothing such as smart suits, sports jackets, and trousers with permanent creases began to increase in popularity. A sense of style was even welcomed by young children because of the popularity of Western television shows like I Love Lucy, Leave it to Beaver, and The Honeymooners.

Although fashion during this time was evolving and various subcultures were starting to emerge, conformity was still highly important. Teenagers were very concerned about what their friends thought of their dress, behavior, and ideas, and they tried very hard to be part of the group and not be labeled as an oddball. The fashion of the 1950s stemmed from the emerging middle class, suburban lifestyle in the United States which was all about conformity through appearance. Therefore, fashion during the 1950s was most often not about being an individual with your own personal style, it was based on being a part of a universal style.  The fashion of this period reflected the widespread sense of stability, contentment, and consensus in the United States. However, that consensus was a fragile one and hid many of the inequalities in American society.  It splintered for good during the tumultuous period of the 1960s with the rise of the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism that exposed the injustices in the country as well as the tension surrounding the Vietnam War.


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