Grandma Had it Goin’ On: Your Guide to Vintage Fashion of the 1950s

Lucy WoodhullStyle4 Comments

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This is the second in a series I’ll be going for Persephone (you can find the first here).  It’s based on my experience as a seller and collector of vintage clothing.  I adore “granny” clothes, as my husband calls them.  There’s something delightfully subversive about being a Feminist while wearing the trappings of the 1950s Patriarchy.  Plus, ZOMG PRETTY DRESSES!!1!

1950s peggy wood red faux wrap dress

1950s vintage Peggy Wood Hawaii red with gold paint faux wrap dress (from my collection).

1950s peggy wood red faux wrap dress tag

The tag tells me it's the real deal!

I’m going to primarily focus on the 1950s through the 1980s, as that’s the bulk of what’s out there, and it will be fairly easy to care for and find in a way that the older stuff is not always.  Also, these posts will about women’s clothing, because that’s what I know about.  Sorry, gents.

Today’s episode:  the fabulous fifties!

Identifying a 1950s piece:

There are no hard-and-fast rules about dating vintage clothing, but there are lots of clues you can use to help figure out the general era of the adorable pleated dress in your hand at the Goodwill.  These little tidbits can also help you tell whether the item on Etsy is the real thing or mutton dressed as lamb.

1.  The zipper

More than likely, a 1950s dress will have a metal zipper.  These became prevalent in the late 1930s and were used until the mid-’60s or so, when the nylon zipper came to be.  Typically, the zipper will be center back of the dress, but not always.  A side metal zipper can be a hallmark of an older piece.  If you’ve got an item with a nylon zipper in it, it may be 1960s or later, but there’s always a chance of the zipper being replaced on a older dress.  The zipper is only one clue, however.  When I’ve made dresses from old patterns, I will finish them with side snaps or metal zippers, because I’m a troll like that.

2.  The seams

Many seams in 1950s clothing will not be finished.  See the below pic from one of my dresses.  I have seen some vintage home-made dresses with a zig-zag finish to the seams, but I find that raw seams are a big clue that the garment is 1950s rather than say 1980s.  More on that later.

1950s vintage dress (inside).

Inside a 1950s cream prom gown (from my collection). Note the metal zipper and raw edges at back dart and waist.

Outside 1950s prom dress

The outside of the 1950s cream prom dress (from my collection).

3.  The style

One of the best ways to get an eye for the typical characteristics of a certain era is to look at sewing patterns.  All the below are from site sovintagepatterns.com.  If you’re interested in the era, browse around this page to get a feel for the shapes and fit typical of it.

Typical 1950s shapes:

The full skirt.  This is the look most often associated with the fifties – a defined waist and full skirt.  FYI, most folks did not run around with a barking poodle on their clothing, no matter what the movies tell you.

1950s vintage dress pattern with full skirt, courtesy of So Vintage Patterns.

1950s vintage dress pattern with full skirt, courtesy of So Vintage Patterns.

Here’s a version with another very typical ’50s feature, the portrait collar.

1950s vintage dress pattern with full skirt, courtesy of So Vintage Patterns.

1950s vintage dress pattern with full skirt and portrait collar, courtesy of So Vintage Patterns.

The “wiggle” dress

This slim-fitting dress is usually called a wiggle dress on online shops – use that term to search and you’ll be channeling Joan Harris in no time.  The red Hawaiian dress I posted above is a wiggle.  Here it’s shown for evening, or day with a cropped jacket.

1950s vintage wiggle dress pattern, courtesy of So Vintage Patterns.

1950s vintage wiggle dress pattern, courtesy of So Vintage Patterns.

Smart, figure-hugging suits were also popular.

1950s vintage suit pattern, courtesy of So Vintage Patterns.

1950s vintage suit pattern, courtesy of So Vintage Patterns.

The 1950s marked a return of the sleeveless look.  This trend continued into the 1960s.  I have this pattern, but I’ve never made the dress.  Someday I will, because damn, it’s so cute!

1950s vintage sleveless dress with full skirt pattern, courtesy of So Vintage Patterns.

1950s vintage sleeveless dress with full skirt pattern, courtesy of So Vintage Patterns.

Here are some amazing, adorable ’50s playclothes.  These cigarette pants are classic ’50s, as is the idea of the matching overskirt.

1950s playclothes with skirt and pants pattern, courtesy of So Vintage Patterns.

1950s playclothes with skirt and pants pattern, courtesy of So Vintage Patterns.

Pullovers and cardigans abounded — most of the shapes hit right around the waist.  I adore ’50s cardigans and own quite a few, most of them thrifted.  Note the shape most prevalent – nipped in at the waist and ballooning at the bust.

Here are a few of mine:

1950s atomic print cardigan in grey and sea foam green (from my collection).

1950s vintage atomic print cardigan in grey and sea foam green (from my collection).

1950s grey and red wool pullover sweater (from my collection).

1950s vintage grey and red wool pullover sweater (from my collection).

1950s vintage sea foam green and rhinestone cardigan (from my collection).

1950s vintage sea foam green and rhinestone cardigan (from my collection).

A close up of the 1950s vintage sea foam green and rhinestone cardigan (from my collection).

A close up of the 1950s vintage sea foam green and rhinestone cardigan (from my collection). I never met a rhinestone I didn't hoard.

 

Coats are a wonderful way to get into a 1950s look if you don’t like or feel you can’t wear the hourglass shape that’s so prevalent.  I own a couple of coats in this shape (the top two).  This style is wide and swingy and roomy!  They really add a touch of chic to an otherwise blah outfit.

1950s vintage cropped swing coat pattern, courtesy of So Vintage Patterns.

1950s vintage cropped swing coat pattern, courtesy of So Vintage Patterns.

1950s cropped grey swing coat made from Orlon (a synthetic) (from my collection).

1950s cropped grey swing coat made from Orlon (a synthetic) (from my collection).

1950s crop swing coat grey orlon tag

Here's the tag from the above coat. I love '50s synthetics because they are super durable and easy to care for.

Here’s a longer version.  Online these are often called swing or trapeze coats.

1950s swing coat pattern, courtesy of So Vintage Patterns.

1950s swing coat pattern, courtesy of So Vintage Patterns.

Then there’s the rarer but über-’50s “bag dress” by Givenchy.  I’ve never found this style of dress in the wild, but it’s a super-chic vintage option for the lady who is not into the hourglass.

Givenchy's Bag Dress, courtesy of Fast Eddie's Retro Rags.

Givenchy's Bag Dress, courtesy of Fast Eddie's Retro Rags.

4.  The material

Older clothing just feels different.  It’s hard to explain, but to get an idea I’d encourage you to stop by a vintage store and browse by era.  (With clean, gentle hands, of course!)  Cotton was heavier.  Rayon was thicker and more luxurious.  And I promise, you’ve never felt softness like a vintage silk velvet.  Many new synthetics were invented and marketed as wonder fabrics because they were wash and wear.  These hold up beautifully even today and I adore finding synthetic sweaters and coats from the ’50s.

5.  The label

Once you’ve seen a few ’50s labels, you can tell the newer ones just by sight.  Beware the garment with the label cut out or missing.  It may have fallen off, but I’ve seen more than a few online examples of a “missing” label coupled with a less-than-honest or unknowledgeable seller.

Even with a great deal of due diligence, though, sometimes there’s just not that much info available about a brand or store.  Here’s a sweater I have from Wieboldt’s department store.  The WPL number tells me the store was issued the number between 1941 and 1959, but that doesn’t tell me about the date of the garment itself.  (Read about WPL and RN numbers and how they can be used in dating vintage at Ikwewe’s great guide here.)  My best guess is 1950s for this sweater, but it could be early ’60s as well.

1950s vintage sequin cream cardigan (from my collection).

1950s vintage sequin cream cardigan (from my collection).

Wieboldt's tag from the 1950s vintage sequin cream cardigan (from my collection).

Wieboldt's tag from the 1950s vintage sequin cream cardigan (from my collection).

An amazing resource I find myself using all the time is the Vintage Fashion Guild label resource.  Look up the date of your item via the designer label database.  Here’s the page for one of my vintage holy grails, the designer Ceil Chapman.  It features her labels from the 1940s through the 1960s.  As God is my witness, some day I will find a Ceil Chapman dress that fits me!  (Without paying $500 for it on the Internet.)

For your eye candy pleasure, I present a Ceil, picture courtesy of Decades, Inc.

1950s Vintage Ceil Chapman wiggle dress, courtesy of Decades, Inc.

1950s Vintage Ceil Chapman wiggle dress, courtesy of Decades, Inc.

6.  The colors

Each decade has its own color palette, and the prevailing color scheme in your garment can help you date it.  To get a feel for your favorite decade’s colors, I suggest browsing old magazines or vintage advertisements.  Check out the Vintage Ad Browser.  I’ve linked to the clothing-specific ads broken down by decade, 1790-2000.  You’re welcome for the time suck.

* * *

Between the closure, seams, label, general style, and feel of the garment, you should be able to make a pretty good guess that what you’ve got in your hands is from the 1950s or the early 1960s, when styles were similar.  One thing to watch out for, however:  1980s throwbacks.

Fashion always repeats itself and there was a big, nostalgic swing to ’50s styles in the 1980s.  Maybe Marty McFly can be blamed.  But maybe we all just realized that ’50s stuff is loverly.

How can you tell if it’s a ’50s or an ’80s piece?  Seams will be finished (or serged) in ’80s clothing.  The zipper will be nylon.  You might have a ’50s shape, but the super pastel colors typical of the ’80s.  And the label, of course, will just plain look newer.  If you’re buying online and care about the era, always ask the seller for a pic of the label and seams if they have not been provided.

I recently purchased an angora cardigan that was labeled as ’50s.  I was pretty sure it was ’80s, but there was no pic of the label.  I didn’t care that much, so I bought it anyway.  Sure enough, I had a thirty-year-old piece arrive at my house and not a sixty-year-old one.

1980s vintage angora cardigan (from my collection).

1980s vintage angora cardigan (from my collection).

Tag from the 1980s vintage angora cardigan (from my collection).

Tag from the 1980s vintage angora cardigan (from my collection).

To the seller’s credit, I googled my butt off and could not find a great source regarding Sportempos labels through the years.  However, I did find examples from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, and they looked quite different from this one.  ’80s (or possibly early ’90s) is my best guess for the look of this label.  I did find another extremely similar sweater from Sportempos that had sold on eBay once upon a time and that seller identified the item as ’80s as well.  Vintage dating is sometimes more a crowdsourced art than a science.

Who should try out 1950s stuff?

Everyone!  I wear a lot of hourglass shapes, but then again, I’m pretty much a textbook hourglass naturally.  That may sound like a humblebrag, but while I savor vintage shopping, I cry when confronted with a pair of jeans, those evil, denim bastards.  I don’t wear vintage shapewear because I don’t need it usually.  A bullet bra is not necessary in my world, but you can definitely buy them for yourself online if you want to go whole hog (and pointy-boob)!  Remember that not all dresses are made alike.  The red dress at the beginning of this blog fits me pretty well in the waist and hips, but is WAY too big in the bust. The lady who wore that was a D or DD at least.  Yes, I’m jealous.

1950s vintage black bullet bra, courtesy of Blog for Better Sewing.

1950s vintage black bullet bra, courtesy of Blog for Better Sewing.

Modern shapewear such as Spanx can help smooth out your shape for the 1950s, too.

If you’ll never be an hourglass no matter how you hurt yourself with restrictive underpants (and there ain’t a damn thing wrong with that!), then I encourage you to try a sweater, some cigarette pants, or a swing coat or two.  Hell, you can roll up your jeans and add a scarf around your neck and pull off a pretty good Marilyn or Audrey.

Casual Marilyn is sexy Marilyn.  Pic courtesy of Dandies.fr.

Casual Marilyn is sexy Marilyn. Pic courtesy of Dandies.fr.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday

Yes, a well-tied vintage scarf will get you Gregory Peck. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Throw a square chiffon scarf around your ponytail (I love to do this with a side ponytail) or wear a cropped swing coat over your AC/DC tee shirt and jeans.  Mixing it up is one of the pleasures of vintage, and you’ll never look boring.

But I don’t want to look like Halloween’s come early!

The best way to avoid looking costumey (I like to look like I stepped off the set of I Love Lucy, but your mileage may vary) is to mix it up.  Wear the 1950s dress but with a modern shoe shape and leave the crinoline at home.  Mix a modern bag with your jeans and vintage sweater.  There’s so much mix-and-match that can be done without breaking the budget that you’ll be on your way to The Land of Va-Va-Voom in no time!

 

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Lucy Woodhull

Lucy Woodhull is a novelist, humorist, parodist, and all-around geek. Her latest book is THE DIMPLE STRIKES BACK, sequel to THE DIMPLE OF DOOM, a rom-com about a depressed secretary/wannabe actress and the art thief who ruins her life. And then makes everything better. Way better. As in sex. There's lots of sex. "Utterly un-putdownable!" says a reviewer who is not Lucy's mom. Check out www.lucywoodhull.com for buy links and samples.
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Lucy WoodhullGrandma Had it Goin’ On: Your Guide to Vintage Fashion of the 1950s

4 Comments on “Grandma Had it Goin’ On: Your Guide to Vintage Fashion of the 1950s”

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  1. Profile photo of [E] Slay Belle
    [E] Slay Belle

    I own that same sleeveless dress pattern with dreams of making it, but I am lazier than I am ambitious. I am totally jealous of your cardigan collection.

    Love this feature! I am excited to go home and reevaluate some of the vintage pieces I’ve been collecting.

  2. Profile photo of [E] Selena MacIntosh*
    [E] Selena MacIntosh*

    I love this post so much, I want to take it to a fancy tea.

    My favorite dress ever was a beaded shift from (I guessed at the time) the late 50’s. I paired it with a men’s green velvet blazer and clunky mary janes in the early 90’s and felt like a Sassy model. I’ve got some serious hip-and-assage going on, so finding cool vintage stuff has always been hard for me, the stuff in our local shops all seems to come from a much more willowy demographic. This piece was colorfully called “BIG GIRL DRESS” on the handwritten price tag, and this big girl snatched it up like the last Cabbage Patch Kid in 1986.

    I am, needless to say, grossly envious of your closet.

  3. Profile photo of AC IP
    AC IP

    Oh, I love the red Peggy Wood dress!

    Another couple things about closures/fasteners and dating:   Except on handmade clothing, bare metal findings wouldn’t be very common on 80s or later garments; I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an 80s cardigan with metal hook-and-eye closures up the front, for example. (Warning:  they DID return in the 90s and you see them now, too, but the styles should be significantly different.) Also, plastics are different across the decades, too. Older vintage buttons, like vintage fabrics, will generally feel different than newer buttons. It is always possible that buttons have been replaced, but they do serve as another piece of evidence to use in dating.

    And on tags — you don’t want to only look at the back of the neck or at the back of the waist! Designer/manufacturer labels are often deep inside vintage garments. Sometimes you have to turn garments inside out to find them.

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