Booming. The word brings to the mind an image of prosperity and strength, perfectly describing the post-World War II era. The economy is booming: people are making money after the war. The land is booming: buildings are being built and cities are expanding. The population is booming: celebration of the end of the war led to the infamous “Baby Boomers”. This is the 1950s, the Boom Generation. In this flourishing time, it is not surprising that people had money to spend on themselves and their hobbies, in accordance to the fashion and fads of the time period.
As the economy bounced back, Paris once again took the stage as the world’s center of fashion. Haute couture was in, and it was one of the defining fashion movements of the 50s (Mendes and Haye 128). With more money to spend, there were more designers than ever, a combination of prewar designers and fresh new ones. Taking center stage for this time period were Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga, two influential couturiers (Mendes and Haye 128). These two had very significant roles in impacting the women’s fashion of the time.
After launching his spring collection in 1947, Dior became one of the leaders in the fashion world (Mendes and Haye 128). In this collection, Dior revealed what is referred to as the New Look, a silhouette that defined the 1950s women (Leaper). The New Look emphasized the hourglass shape, with a defined waistline and a billowing skirt. The fashion world fell in love, and the look spread all over the world. In the United States, this look was embraced, and they brought their own spin on the billowing skirt with the poodle skirt. The postwar women had returned to their roles as housewives and mothers, and the clothing was meant to accent the women’s feminine nature.
The hourglass shape encouraged women to wear undergarments that helped highlight their figure, and girdles, the less constricting version of a corset, were worn to slim down the waistline and create a curvier form (“1950 to 1960”). Women also wore bullet bras, which were conical shaped bras also meant to increase the hourglass shaped appearance (Cunningham). Hair was usually kept short and curled; easy to take care of when working around the house, but still very feminine. In accordance to the 1950s viewpoint of conformity, women’s clothing reflected their motherly status. Women were meant to look good for their husbands, which was why the hourglass shape was so highly coveted.
Another strongly influential designer, Cristobal Balenciaga, also contributed to the fashion of the era. Balenciaga took a modern approach to fashion, and was more experimental in his designs than Dior. His clothing was meant for women of all sizes (Mendes and Haye 134). Avoiding the dominant corset-aided shape, he experimented with volume, and introduced the semi-fitted suit (“Biography and Milestones”). Later into the 50s, Balenciaga introduced the fashion world to the sack dress, which was a loose, waistless dress, a complete contrast to the New Look’s hourglass shape (“1950 to 1960”). Fashion was no longer a singular, streamlined look. Instead, it was diverging into various ideas and trends.
Returning to the fashion scene was Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. She updated her cardigan suit from the 1920s into a look that was simpler than the previous one (Mendes and Haye 139). It was an elegant look that was looser than the tight waists of the New Look and did not require confining garments, helping women move past constraining clothing to more comfortable ones. Her revolutionary fashion has remained well-known and loved. To this day, the Chanel suit remains a signature piece. The suit brought about another popular trend of the 1950s: the pencil skirt. Pencil skirts are slimmer skirts that contour to the body’s natural shape. They remained a fashion piece throughout the whole time period and into today’s culture (Thames and Hudson 173).
Unlike women’s fashion, men’s fashion remained fairly consistent throughout the time and did not go through major changes. Following the war, a time of military wear, men returned to their pre-war dress, which was mainly suits. The suits were generally neutral colors, most commonly black, grey, brown, or navy (“Fashion and Accessories of the 1950’s”). In the United States, men’s suit jackets were usually loose, and the trousers were wide-legged (Mendes and Haye 151). In contrast, Italy and France took an interest in expanding men’s fashion, and throughout the 1950s this movement progressed, and men’s fashion shows began overseas (Mendes and Haye 151). During their free time, men finally started expanding past the typical work suit into relax wear, which consisted of slacks and cardigans (Mendes and Haye 152).
Like their parents, the children of the 1950s looked polished and neat. It was very common to see the children dressed similarly to their parents, and it was trendy for young girls to wear matching clothing with their mother. At home, young girls could wear jeans, but out in public, knee length dresses were the norm. Often the dresses would be inspired by sailor dress with navy and blue coloring. At home, boys would often wear t-shirts and blue jeans. When out in public, young boys usually wore short pant suits. As they grew older, they would switch to long pant suits, as this look was growing ever so popular. The overall style of these young folks could be termed as “preppy”.
The 1950s were not only about the clothing style of young children and parents. They also brought with them a whole new distinct generation. As a result of the growing economy, young adults were able to work and earn money for themselves. In this era, the word “teenager” was coined and used in common vernacular. These teens no longer had to work for their families, but instead could now use their own earnings on themselves. As a result, teens could buy cars, go out on dates, and take an interest in fashion. Automobiles were much more accessible than they had been previously, and they granted teens something they did not have much of before: freedom. They were able to take their dates out, away from their parents (“The Invention of the Teenager”). This also resulted in an increasing popularity of prom. Girls would dress up in their gowns, as their dates would arrive by car to take them away to a magical night of lights, music, and dancing. All of this new freedom resulted in something else that was not as common until this time period: rebellion.
Conforming was a common theme of the 1950s for men and women, as the dress was fairly uniform and men and women fulfilled their assigned house roles. However, the teenagers did want to be confined. Years of rules and obedience had played its toll, and many wanted to make their own decisions on music, clothing, and the overall culture they lived in. Rock and Roll became popular in the mid-1950s, largely due to The King, Elvis Presley. It was a new sound, with R&B influences, and it caught the attention of the teens. Not only was it new and exciting, but it was in direct disobedience to the parents who called it the “Devil’s music” (Powers). No longer did they have to be replicates of their parents, but instead they now had their own music and style.
The thriving financial situation of the time did not just bring a group of rebellious teens, it also provided money for various forms of entertainment. One of the fads during the 1950s was 3-D Films. The increasing technology allowed for a new method of screening 3-D films using stereoscopic linear polarization (Cunningham). The film would be screened by using two projectors. The viewers used Polaroid glasses that were clear (“Fads of the 1950s”). 3-D films had been around before, but this new technology allowed viewers to watch the films more clearly thanks to the new projection system and glasses. However, this fad quickly died off as viewers experienced headaches from visual straining.
Another fad of the time period was the hula-loop. This fad began in Australia, where children would swing around bamboo hoops during gym class (Rich). Richard Knerr and Arthur Melin were inspired by this idea and this led their company, the Wham-O Company, to manufacture plastic hula hoops, that were both lightweight and durable (Rich). Their intuition proved to be successful and the fad hit off, producing over 25 million sales within the first few months (“Fads of the 1950s”). Hula hoops proved themselves to be an exciting and memorable form of entertainment, but like most fads, it quickly ended as the next fad came along.
Outdoor entertainment was a common theme in the 1950s. Following the hula hoop trend, Frisbees were the next big fad that led into the 1960s. Clearly understanding how to run a successful business, the Wham-O Company was also a major player in this trend. The invention of the concept of a Frisbee is a bit unclear, but the original form of the Frisbee toy was developed in the year 1948 by Walter Morrison and Warren Frascioni (Rich). These two decided to make a toy out of plastic that was based on metal tins people threw around as entertainment.
The two were not very successful, and eventually Frascioni abandoned the idea. Morrison continued on, and began making some profit off the toy (Rich). Knerr and Melin, the owners of the Wham-O Company noticed Morrison’s toy invention and bought it off him, renaming it the “Frisbee”, based off the name Yale students would call as they let their metal tins fly through the air. People loved the concept and it led to hours of entertainment at the beach or in parks with family and friends.
A time of peace brings a time of prosperity, as the 1950s clearly demonstrate. Even though many of the trends distinctly mark the time period, they still have continued to impact the world for years to come. Fashion leaders like Dior, Balenciaga, and Chanel, are still held in high esteem today. The clothing of the time still is popular in fashion, even 60 years later. Working in the office, women continue to wear pencil skirts as comfortable, presentable attire, and poodle skirts can still be seen as fun pieces to wear to parties. Even short-lived fads make comebacks. 3D films have been improved to be less visually straining, and other trends like Frisbees and hula hoops, while not as common anymore, still can be fun sources of entertainment for children. The Boom generation, left in its wake a booming impact.