The British Fashion Scene Mid 20th Century
The 1950s moved Britain from the austerity of the 1940s to the prosperity of the 1960s. Fashion history would never be the same again after the 1950s when teenagers became an emerging fashion voice. A new consumer driven society was born. The fashionable age of being between thirty and forty at the start of 1950 was soon knocked off its pedestal before the end of the decade, by the arrival of the teenage cult with it's own development of style and spending. Until then, 18 year old girls often dressed and made themselves up to look as old as their mothers.
The fifties saw the breaking of a mould that has stayed broken as those same baby boomer adults today strive to look as youthful as possible. The clear dividing line of the decade was 1956 when the fifties began to move away from the rigid controls of the 1940's into the more flexible hedonistic 1960s when youth movements influenced fashion and lifestyles.
The British fashion scene used opportunities presented by the Second World War to capture some of the American market. The Incorporated Society Of London Fashion Designers had designed prestige garments throughout the war. The raw materials of Scottish tweeds and English worsted suit materials were renowned as being of exceptional quality. The wools were also used by the French and the British did everything they could to promote the fine materials with fine designs.
Fashion for women returned with a vengeance and the 1950's era is known mainly for two silhouettes, that of the full skirt and the pencil slim tubular skirt, with both placing great emphasis on the narrowness of the waist.
The Festival of Britain Exhibition of 1951
The Festival Of Britain Exhibition of 1951 held at the South Bank on the River Thames in London produced over 6000 products many of them clothing, accessories and dress fabrics. The items were seen by the visitors as luxury items, because they were in colours, designs and fabrics mostly never seen before.
The British government had the materials, but to help rebuild the economy they quietly traded the goods abroad and did everything they could to promote the fine materials. They achieved this by depriving the British people access to the materials for as long as they possibly could.
For the many visitors it was both an uplifting and depressing experience all at once, as almost all the goods were destined 'For Export Only'. The festival highlighted a Britain on the edge of becoming a huge consumer society, soon to follow trends and attitudes first set in America.
If you are involved in 1950's party celebrations you can see the simple everyday clothes real children and adults wore on the 1950's page of photographs of ordinary people. You will also find more useful information in the 1950's page on sewing patterns.
The page also show a 1951 Festival of Britain carnival street party
Marks and Spencer in the 1950s
Marks & Spencer produced the best ready to wear chain store clothes in the fifties and quadrupled their profits at the same time. Their clothes were not the least expensive, but they were the best value for money. The quality became so high in the 1950s that limits were set on production as everyone wanted the affordable stylish Paris inspired clothes.
In the late fifties, early sixties, a popular style was the knitted sweater dress with crew, shirt tab front or cowl necks and made from Orlon or Lambswool. It was a warm garment in a Britain still not centrally heated and it was made universally popular by Marks & Spencer. Beneath the sweater dresses women wore long line bras and girdles that covered the individual thighs.
The higher standard of manufacture of utility clothes had ironed out pre-war problems and new skills had been gained that enabled designers, manufacturers and chain stores to produce quality goods to a high specification. After the war mass produced ready made clothes were far removed from the shoddy workmanship of pre-war days and any stigma attached to early ready made clothes was forgotten once royalty bought ready made clothes.
Marks & Spencer literally became part of the nation's fabric in the following fifty years so that today ordering worldwide from them via the internet is a simple operation for fast delivery, but at present to addresses in the UK only.
Norman Hartnell Designs Queen Elizabeth II's Robes
The work of Norman Hartnell with limited resources in producing a wedding dress for Princess Elizabeth in 1947 was outstanding. Go to the page about the Queen's Wedding Dress. When the Princess was crowned Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, Norman Hartnell once again designed her lavish shimmering gown. I have seen this gown on display and the coloured beadwork is very pastel and extremely subtle, but dense. Go to the page about the Queen's Coronation Gown.
Millions in the UK and elsewhere in the world, saw the coronation on a friend or neighbour's small screen black and white television. For millions it was the first time they ever saw television and shortly after sales of television sets in the UK boomed, bringing ideas and fashions to the masses.
Dior's New Look 1947
In 1947 Christian Dior presented a fashion look with a fitted jacket with a nipped in waist and full calf length skirt. It was a dramatic change from wartime austerity styles. After the rationing of fabric during the Second World War, Dior's lavish use of material was a bold and shocking stroke. His style used yards and yards of fabric. Approximately 10 yards was used for early styles. Later Dior used up to 80 yards for newer refinements that eliminated bulk at the waist.
Dior's New Look of 1947 and the design called Bar.
Dior's timing made his name. After the war women longed for frivolity in dress and desired feminine clothes that did not look like a civilian version of a military uniform. Life magazine dubbed Dior's Corolle line the New Look in 1947. Evening versions of the New Look were very glamorous and consisted of strapless boned tops with full skirts and were ultra feminine.
The shaped fitted jacket Dior designed with his New Look full skirt was also teamed with a straight mid calf length skirt. Women usually wore just underwear beneath the buttoned up jacket, or filled in the neckline with a satin foulard head scarf, dickey or bib.
Dior's New Look dominated the fashion world for about ten years, but was not the only silhouette of the era. 1956 was the year that introduced visible changes that separate the early fifties from the late fifties. It places that era firmly alongside the stuffy formality of the forties, whilst putting the post 1956 period firmly into the start of the livelier, anything goes sixties period, often dominated by the young of the day.
There were those in the 1950s that rebelled against the pristine immaculate groomed look, so often associated with Grace Kelly elegance. Leslie Caron and Audrey Hepburn both often wore simple black sweaters, flat shoes and gold hoop earrings coupled with gamine cropped short haircuts. They gave a continental alternative often described as chic and had many fashion followers seeking to embrace the modern.
Paper Nylon and Net Petticoat Support 1950s
The full skirts needed support to look good and nylon was used extensively to create bouffant net petticoats or paper nylon petticoats. Several petticoats often of varying styles were worn to get the 'just right' look of fullness which progressed from a gentle swish to a round ball like bouffant effect by the sixties.
Each petticoat was stiffened in some way either by conventional starch or a strong sugar solution. Eventually a hoop crinoline petticoat was developed and it had channelled tapes which were threaded with nylon boning in imitation of whale bone petticoats. A single net petticoat worn over it softened the look of the rigid boning.
The full skirts needed support to look good and nylon was used extensively to create bouffant net petticoats or paper nylon petticoats. Several petticoats often of varying styles were worn to create fullness and some are shown on the 50s girdles and stockings pages. Marks & Spencer still sell great petticoats today.
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Late 1950s - 3 women at a ball wearing lace and tulle boned bodice dresses with full skirts. All of these women were over 40 when this picture was taken and looking just as good in their fashion era as women over 40 do today.
Their hairstyles follow the fashion of Queen Elizabeth II and Elizabeth Taylor.
The full skirts of these dresses were supported by tiered nylon tulle petticoats such as the drawing left or like the real one shown below.
Image below courtesy of www.anothertimevintageapparel.com
(You may wish to view more crinoline styles for costuming purposes in the section Victorian Crinolines.)
Another influential silhouette of the period was that of the late 1940's swing coat by Jacques Fath, which was a great shape to cover up full skirts and an ideal silhouette for the post war high pregnancy rate. This style was also often made as a loose full tent line duster coat, but often without the double breasted feature and buttons shown here.
In contrast to the full skirted New Look, Chanel who had reopened her fashion house in 1954 began to produce boxy classic Chanel suit jackets and slim skirts in braid trimmed, nubbly, highly textured tweeds. She used richly textured wool slub fabrics sometimes designed by the textile artist Bernat Klein. The silhouette was straight down and veered away from a nipped in waist. The beautifully made suits were lined with lovely silk fabrics. They were weighted along the facing join and inside lining with gilt Chanel chains.
The look was easy to copy and very wearable. Major chain stores sold suits based on the design. Accessorized with strings of pearls the style has frequently been revived over the seasons and in particular a collarless style of coat and jacket she popularised, is now called the Chanel line. The collarless Chanel line jacket was hugely popular again in both the 1980s and the 1990s.
America in particular bought Chanel's designs in large numbers. Her influence of boxy suits of the fifties has far more bearing on sixties fashion style, than Dior's New Look design.
H, A, Y Lines, Sack, Trapeze And Empire Dresses
1955 - The A-line Style from Dior
During the 1950s Dior showed his H, A, and Y lines. The H-line of 1954 was a slender tunic suit with a slim skirt that later became more of a dropped waist tubular twenties style dress with a hemline that was creeping upwards.
Hubert Givenchy designed a Paris collection dress in 1957 called the sack and it started the trend for straighter waist less shift dresses. First it developed into the fitted darted sheath dress and later into the loose straight short shift dress. By 1958 the style really began to catch on.
The design was picked up by Mary Quant who modified it to her taste. Various refinements on this early sack dress picked up by Courrèges, led Quant to go one step further and design the mini shift dress that was to dominate the 1960's decade.
The Trapeze to Tent
The trapeze dress was a swinging dress almost triangular in shape and designed to be worn with low shoes and bouffant hairstyles. Over the years it too was modified into the short baby doll tent style making the 60's version. A shaped Tent dresses with cutaway armholes were an alternative look of the sixties.
The 1950s/1960s Empire Line
Similarly the empire line dress that had been introduced in 1958 was loved by young teenagers who looked childlike in the style, hence phrases like "baby doll style" were applied to it. The empire line dress of 1958 was loved by young teenagers who looked childlike in the style and the opposite of looking 'grownup' like their mothers which by then was the worst possible 'fashion' look to have.
The Swoop Line 1955