The 50s: A Decade of Influence
Following the end of the Second World War, couture experienced a rebirth, with designers from Christian Dior to Balenciaga taking centre stage. The 50s experienced a return to feminine styles with emphasis on hourglass silhouettes, heavily influenced by icons such as Marilyn Monroe. The decade was a period of change and innovation, and many of the iconic trends are still perceived as timelessly elegant.
The hourglass silhouette was defined by a small nipped-in waist and fuller hips, and was popularised following Christian Dior’s 1947 collection, ‘New Look’, that greatly influenced feminine styles and shapes of the 50s. This celebration of ultra-femininity was highly successful yet equally questioned by feminists. Many argued that Dior’s emphasis on more restrictive shapes and hyper-feminine styles was a reversal in the autonomy that had been achieved during the war, thus reinforcing oppressive styles and heightening the gender disparity. Icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren publicly flaunted enviable hourglass shapes, whilst Audrey Hepburn’s silhouette was noticeably less curvy yet equally desired.
Although women before the 50s had started to embrace the idea of trousers, the 50s saw the first introduction of trousers designed to fit the female figure. Whilst trouser-wearing women were still a rather revolutionary concept, they grew in popularity due to public figures such as Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hepburn effortlessly flaunting them. Textured fabric trousers such as tweed, corduroy, and twill were popular. The types of women’s trousers included cigarette pants, slacks, and capri pants, each varying slightly in design. Marilyn Monroe favoured capri and cigarette pants in her everyday closet and had a great influence on the trend of trousers. An important design element that distinguished women’s trousers was the lack of a front zip, unlike men’s trousers, instead the zip was placed to the side or sometimes the back. Trousers were featured in movies such as ‘Funny Face’, 1957, ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’, 1953, and ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’, 1953.
Interesting Fact: Androgyny
Whilst the 50s was a decade that saw traditional femininity reach its peak, there were occasions of androgynous and masculine style. In 1950s London, groups of working-class women, known as ‘Teddy Girls’, were considered by society as shocking and scandalous, as they embraced and openly wore masculine styles such as suits.
The 1950s can be considered a ‘renaissance’ period of haute couture, as some of the world’s most successful and respected designers emerged. Following Dior’s 1947 debut collection, ‘New Look’, Coco Chanel made a dramatic comeback in 1954, reintroducing silhouettes reminiscent of her previous designs. Hubert de Givenchy’s collaboration with Audrey Hepburn catapulted him further into the public eye, and this continued success with dressing Audrey caused him to become one of the most influential and respected designers of the period.
The still highly desirable label, Balenciaga, used the 50s as a canvas for new radical shapes and designs. Cristóbal Balenciaga created loose, flowing, and voluminous silhouettes, and in 1957 introduced the ‘sack dress’, which conflicted the curve-accentuating styles of Dior.
It is interesting to assess the way different decades perceive and portray fashion of the past, and one way to do this is through the analysis of cinematic presentations. One modern 50s-set movie that showcases a range of 1950s styles, is Todd Haynes’s 2015 movie, ‘Carol’, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Carol Aird, played by Blanchett, is of enough wealth to sport the glamourous, new fashions of the period. Costume designer, Sandy Powell studied fashion magazines including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar from 1952-1953 to create an accurate style depiction. Whilst Carol is of wealth, showcasing high fashion, there is a clear style disparity between other characters, including Rooney Mara’s character, Therese. Many of the background styles are more reminiscent of bland 40s fashion, whilst Carol sports luxurious, eye-catching pieces and achieves a defined hourglass silhouette.
“Carol wears restricting designs that have structured undergarments underneath – waist cinchers, girdles, and bras included – to give her the silhouette” – Sandy Powell, costume designer.
Close attention was paid to the intricate details in ‘Carol’, such as the accessories and jewellery. Carol’s wardrobe was accessorised with stunning estate jewellery pieces acquired from Van Cleef and Arpels, and Fred Leighton.
The Influence of 50s Fashion Today
1950s fashion seems to be making a grand return in modern fashion and trends, as celebrities and public figures are increasingly leaning towards vintage inspired pieces. An example is the 2021 Met Gala in which many celebrities sported 50s inspired designs, including Billie Eilish’s Oscar de la Renta gown, heavily inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s 1951 Oscars look. Gigi Hadid also wore a stunning 1950s-inspired gown, accessorised with evening gloves. From observing developing trends and styles, it is clear that 1950s trends are powerfully making a modernised return.
WRITTEN BY HANNAH MAE WEBSTER