How to Date Vintage Clothing: the 1950s

With the end of World War II and rationing being lifted, the 1950s saw the start of great social and economical change.  Men who had been off at war returned to the jobs at home that had been filled by women while they were gone.  Many saw the end of the war as an opportunity to settle down and start a family.  Thus, the Baby Boomer era was born.  Consumerism regained its ground during this time, and the fashion industry began to thrive once more.

(1950s fashions, via Flickriver)

1950s Style Overview

Fashion in the 1950s as a whole didn’t see as much of a drastic change at any various part throughout the decade like the 1940s had.  It did, however, give way to many new styles, silhouettes and fabrics that had never been seen before.  Christian Dior’s New Look in the late forties set the tone for the ideal 50s look.

1950s Silhouettes

When we think “1950s” the most iconic image that comes to mind is the full circle skirt, emphasized by a cinched waist and accentuated bust; the “hourglass” figure.  Skirts were either as full as they could be, either cut completely round or pleated, or, toward the later part of the decade, were very narrow and form-fitting to show off the figure (i.e. the pencil skirt.)  Full skirts were almost always worn with a petticoat.  Hemlines remained mostly knee-length or longer during the fifties.

(Full-skirted silhouette of the 1950s, via Debutante Clothing)

(Pencil skirt silhouette, via)

The lines of the 50s were all around softer and less square than the previous decade.

One of the most commonly used sleeve styles from the 50s was the dolman sleeve.  This type of sleeve was put out of fashion during war rationing, but came back with a bang a few years later.  Armholes in ladies garments tended to be cut quite small and high, adhering to the fitted silhouette adapted during the 50s.  Another common sleeve-related detail to look for is a diamond-shaped gusset in the underarm of a garment.  This was very common in mid-century women’s clothing and had not been used much before then.

(Dolman sleeves, via My 50s Year)

Other common styling details in fifties fashion were strapless dresses with sweetheart necklines for evening wear, boned bodices, high-cut necklines in day wear, the “swing coat” silhouette, peter pan and other rounded collars, narrow-cut pants and shorts (the “cigarette” silhouette) and wrap-style dresses for wear at home.


(Swing coats, via Fifties Wedding)

(Audrey Hepburn in “cigarette” style pants, via Barbie Jhaki)


In the first half of the fifties, zippers tended to remain in the side seams of most garments.  However, they gradually started migrating to the centre back toward the end of the decade.  Please note that this does not necessarily indicate which part of the decade a garment is from, as centre back zippers weren’t used the majority of the time until the 70s.

Seam Finishing and Fabric

As in the previous decades, most seams were left unfinished.  The “pinked” edges we referred to in the previous post became very popular and readily used during the 50s.

A wide variety of fabrics were used in the fifties.  As rationing was over in North America, silk and cotton were once again in abundance.  Rayon and wool were still readily used.  Additionally, synthetic fibers began to grow in popularity.  Nylon and acrylic became widely used toward the latter end of the decade, and were seen in garments ranging from day wear to evening wear, and even sleepwear.  Taffeta, tulle, and chiffon were other major fabric for the 50s, especially in formal wear (think the iconic 50s prom dress.)

(Tulle dresses from 1957, via Couture Allure)

Fur remained very popular in evening wear during the 50s.  Mink was most commonly worn, especially in coats and stoles. However, since fur was not affordable for many, the manufacturing of faux furs became huge during this time.


Other Tidbits

Women were able to obtain that much desired “hourglass” figure through heavy duty foundation undergarments.  The cinched waist came from corsets, girdles and other waist cinchers and the emphasized bust came from  carefully sculpted bras and bustiers, known as “bullet bras” (the pointier, the better!)

 (Early 50s bullet bra advertisement, via Neat Stuff Blog)

Hats were very much still in style during the 1950s, especially those with lots of embellishments. Veils, or netting, on hats were very popular, as was fur or feather trim.   Toward the latter part of the decade, hats were often covered in dramatic floral decorations.

(A variety of women’s hats, via Challenge Fashion)

Women’s shoes in the 50s were quite delicate looking in comparison to their chunky 40s predecessors.  Stiletto heels were highly fashionable, which added to the dainty look that was in style at the time.  The majority of women almost always wore heels or pumps.

(Mid-fifties shoe ad, via Found in Mom’s Basement)

 Though saddle shoes were worn in many previous decades, they became even more popular during the 50s, especially among youth.

Check back next week when we will explore the fashions of the 1960s!

Leave a Reply