1950s Fashions: Mid-Century Clothing Styles

July 23, 2020  - by 
women in the 1950s dressed fashionably

Poodle skirts and ponytails, jeans and slick-backed hair—that’s what many people consider iconic 1950s fashions. These looks were popular for teens, but what did everyone else wear? Style in the 1950s offered both men and women a new range of options. The people in your mid-century family photos may have worn lots of styles, but there were some common themes. Here’s what you may see and why.

The Stories behind 1950s Styles

As the 1950s dawned, many war-torn countries were still rebuilding. Goods were available again in many places that had seen shortages. In many cases, returning soldiers had married and started families, and women had left the workplace to become stay-at-home wives and mothers. Some countries, including the United States, encouraged consumerism as a way of strengthening the economy.

stylist 1950s man stands next to car

During and after the war, designers came to prominence from places other than Paris, France (the longtime fashion capital of the West). In the 1950s, the greater geographic diversity in designers meant more styles from which to choose. Furthermore, new synthetic fabrics offered fresh possibilities for mass-produced clothing. Strong consumer spending led to even more demand for clothing—and accessories to accompany every style. Film stars and fashion magazines promoted new looks and showed how to wear new styles of clothing well.

woman holds cat while wearing dress with cat pattern print

Women’s 1950s Styles

Women’s Dresses

In 1947, French designer Christian Dior launched his elegant, opulent “New Look” for women, and it remained popular in the 1950s. Dresses had rounded shoulders, cinched-in waistlines, exaggerated hips, and full skirts. The New Look celebrated an end to wartime thrift and embraced an ideal of decorative femininity. The shape was echoed in many 1950s styles, from everyday shirtwaists and sundresses to crinoline-covered circle skirt ensembles, coatdresses, and formalwear.

Dior’s New Look wasn’t the only popular silhouette for women. Pencil dresses sheathed a woman’s body from bodice to to mid-calf hemline. Pencil skirts could be paired with tailored, tucked-in blouses for a similar look. Other dress designs of the decade loosened or moved the waistline, such as the sack dress, the A-line dress, and bell-shaped skirts.

6 women wear 1950s fashion dresses

Women around the Western world (and beyond) embraced these new styles. The New Look was especially popular in West Germany. Australian women loved both the New Look and pencil silhouettes. Film footage of a 1950s Japanese fashion show reveals dresses inspired by all these Western trends.

Audrey hepburn, who influenced 1950s fashion

Women’s Casual Clothing

Women’s trousers and casual clothing became increasingly common. Female fashion designers in the United States were especially known for creating practical, casual clothing—such as playsuits, pants, and designer sportswear—that could serve the versatile needs of active women. Actress Audrey Hepburn helped popularize a casual, chic look, pairing dark, slim pants with simple boat-necked tops and flat pumps.

The Beatnik style pared down a women’s appearance even further. Beatnik styles (both dresses and slacks) were crisp and fitted. Colors were generally dark neutrals, unembellished except for ethnic or bohemian flourishes.

1950s fashion as seen by woman wearing hate, pearls, flowers, and gloves

Women’s Shoes and Accessories

“A pair of shoes for every occasion”—this idea sums up the 1950s mentality perfectly. An endless variety of new styles of women’s shoes proved hard to resistible; shoes were more comfortable, sturdy, lightweight, and beautiful than ever. Closed-toed pumps, stiletto heels, flats, wedges, sandals, moccasins, and other kinds of shoes could be purchased in a variety of solid or print colors.

Hats continued to be fashionable, if optional, with choices such as iconic pillboxes, veiled fascinators, dainty Juliette caps, flat pancake hats, and large-brimmed straw hats for summer. Some women tied colorful scarves over their hair instead of wearing hats. A complete ladies’ outfit may have included coordinated costume jewelry, gloves, and boxy, short-handled handbags or clutch purses.

Men’s 1950s Fashions

Thanks in part to United States influence, men’s fashions became decidedly more casual. In the early 1950s, many men wore conservatively-colored, baggy suits with narrow ties. As the decade progressed, men’s wardrobes became more textured, colorful, and casual. For leisure, men often donned lightweight sports coats and colored shirts paired with trousers. Hawaiian-style shirts and knee-length shorts became summer staples.

Disney dons 1950s style suit

Men’s shoes offered less variety than women’s, but the shoes were a lot more practical. Wingtip oxfords or other leather dress shoes in black or brown accompanied a suit. For more casual times, men might slip on penny loafers or saddle shoes.

Youth and Teens Fashions in the 1950s

teenagers dressed in 1950s casual clothing and fashion

Young men of the 1950s found alternatives to dressing like their parents. The Teddy Boy style was based on retro-Edwardian (Teddy) suits made on London’s Savile Row. Straight stovepipe trousers, velvet-collar jackets, white shirts, colorful socks, suede creeper shoes, and carefully combed-back hair completed the look. In the United States, film stars Marlon Brando and James Dean popularized jeans, white shirts, leather jackets, and greased-back hair.

young girl in cute dress with ice cream cone

Teen girls often chose more youthful interpretations of their mothers’ styles. A common look was a fitted blouse with a Peter Pan collar tucked into a wide, elastic cinch belt with a round circle skirt or a pencil skirt. (The now-iconic “poodle skirt” was simply a round, full circle skirt with a poodle decoration on it, but other decorations were at least as popular.) Fitted sweaters, including cardigans, were sometimes worn alone or over a blouse. Teenage girls may have finished the look with scarves knotted around the neck, white bobby socks, and saddle shoes.

1950s Styles in Family Photos

Look through your family photos from the 1950s to see which styles your relatives favored. Consider sharing these photos on the FamilySearch Memories and tagging the picture with “1950s fashion” so others can enjoy them too!

Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She's a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; "Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites," and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at sunnymorton.com.

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  1. Saddle shoes were popular in the 1940’s. In the 1950’s teen girls wore penny loafers or flats for school or casual wear.

    1. In 1957, saddle shoes were popular where I lived – Portland area, Oregon. So were wool-blend skirts, pleated and straight, mostly plaid, muted colors. And pretty cotton print skirts. Skirts were so simple in design that we could make our own.

  2. I loved the full, circle skirts. We wore a lot of “petticoats” underneath that were startched very stiff – the more petticoats the better. Loved growing up in the 50’s.

    1. Did they call those petticoats “cancans” where you lived, Rosalie? Not so much fun to maintain them (good thing I had only two) but they made the skirts look extra pretty, especially for the girls that had several. As you said, the more the better. Fun memories!