Out of all of women's fashion styles from the 20th century, dresses from the 1950s might be the most memorable. You don't need to have seen A Place in the Sun or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to appreciate the striking silhouettes from the 1950s that are so different from today's styles. And, with people's fascination with dress history on the rise, there's no time like the present to take a deep dive into the dress-side of the 1950s.
Popular Dress Styles of the 1950s
Thanks to the countless films and television shows that've recreated the 1950s on screen, most people of today are familiar enough with postwar fashion to be able to visually identify some of the more popular styles of the period. You probably know a lot more about the different kinds of dresses from the 1950s than you give yourself credit for! While the following four types of dresses aren't the only styles made at the time, they are the most common that you'd see if you were to fall down a rabbit hole and into the past.
To the untrained eye, a shirt-waist dress just looks like a button-down shirt turned into a dress. These daytime dresses were usually made out of lightweight fabrics and unique patterns and prints like gingham and plaid and included buttons, cinched waists, and practical necklines/sleeve-lengths. They were made for more physical activity than some of the other styles; you could find women cleaning their homes and running to do errands in these dresses.
Another really popular style of dress during the 1950s was the coatdress. Coatdresses were fashioned in a similar style as shirt-waist dresses were, with the required sense of practicality to them but an added air of sophistication. They were usually buttoned up instead of zippered, and were crafted out of heavier fabrics than your everyday dresses were. However, the most defining feature of the coatdress was its heavily constructed collar that created the illusion of an overcoat.
Sheath dresses developed in the 1950s in opposition to the more voluminous full-skirted shaped dresses that were introduced with Dior's New Look. This dress style focused on following the curves of the body and bringing the skirt in close around the hips and legs. The first of the sheath styles was the pencil skirt, which brushed against the hips and down the thighs, but didn't hug them. In contrast was the second sheath style aka the wiggle dress. These dresses were significantly tighter and hugged a person's curves. These dresses were most often made out of solid colors, and came in all sorts of fabrics. Similarly, you could find sheath dresses with knee-length to calf-length, but never too much above the knee. That trend would appear a decade later.
Both evening gowns and formal wear (including prom dresses) were drafted out of two distinct styles: the elegant and refined and the colorful and feminine. Evening dresses were typically floor length, though you commonly saw people wearing tea-length gowns throughout the decade, and they were made out of a variety of fabrics and colors. Usually these dresses focused on the waist and included lots of skirt volume created by layers of petticoats. You could find dresses made out of rich colors like navy and also pastels like lavender. Additionally, they'd have layers of lace or tulle overlay, especially for the younger crowd.
Tips for Wearing 1950s Dresses Like an Atomic Age Bombshell
Although anyone can wear a dress from the 1950s, there are a few important cosmetic practices that people followed at the time which, when worn without, might make the dresses appear ill-fitting. To really nail the look you're going for -- whether it's a bombshell beauty or a suburban socialite -- follow these tips:
Wear Period Appropriate Undergarments Underneath
Women's undergarments in the 1950s were made differently than today's. To properly fill out the seams of the dress, wear period-appropriate undergarments. One of the fundamental pieces of this silhouette is the bullet bra, which you can find modern recreations of for sale at retailers like What Katie Did. In addition, cinched natural waistlines were also popular, made possible with shapewear like girdles. Since the waist measurements for many true vintage 1950s dresses are shockingly small in comparison to their bust and hip seams, shapewear will help you actually fit into these tiny dresses.
Pair the Dress With Vintage Accessories
Another easy way to complete your vintage look is to wear vintage accessories. Things like bakelite and lucite purses, short scarves, chunky costume jewelry, pins, gloves, and stockings will bring your vintage-inspired ensemble together - without looking like you're headed to a costume party. Fashion is more relaxed now, so it might feel a bit weird to show up in full dress and jewelry to run to the post office, but don't let that deter you from showing off your beautiful outfit.
Wear a Slip With Your Dress
Alongside undergarments, many dresses - particularly evening gowns - were made to be worn with a slip (either half or full) over the undergarments and under the dress itself. Slips of the period were made out of a variety of fabrics and were used to smooth undergarment lines and the body's natural shape to provide a seamless surface on the dress. Modern fabrics and undergarments have come such a long way that it's not really necessary to wear slips anymore, but you'll likely still need to wear one with an older dress. Thankfully, you can buy modern-day slips for about $15-$30, and they'll work just as well as any vintage slip.
Ways to Spot Real Vintage From the Reproductions
Since there's a huge market for vintage clothing right now, there's a ton of companies taking advantage of the trends and making vintage-inspired pieces or genuine reproductions to sell. Unfortunately, these pieces can follow actual postwar patterns so that it can be difficult for someone without a lot of experience with 1950s fashion to pick out the real pieces from the new pieces. With a few tips, you can hone your eagle eyes to spot the real vintage from the reproductions.
Check the Tags
Vintage tags look different from modern tags; usually they're thicker to the touch, and might be embroidered or printed with vintage fonts. They also might have sizing that seems wrong for the piece you're looking at (ie. a 36 for a nightgown is likely the band size, not the overall dress size).
Assess the Fabrics
Compared to the fast fashion market of today, mid-century fabrics were often made out of more durable materials so that the pieces would be worth their investment. If a piece feels cheaply made, like it came out of a Halloween costume kit, then it's probably a modern piece.
Look for Fashion-Forward Elements
Sometimes a vintage piece might just feel off, and that can be because it's actually a reproduction that took some liberties with the period design to seem more fashion forward and appeal to modern audiences. Things like lower waistlines, higher hem lines, and back zippers vs side zippers, are signs to look out for.
Best Places to Shop for Vintage 1950s Dresses
If you like 1950s fashion style, there're many places online where you can indulge. A few favorite places to browse for vintage clothing and accessories are:
- Etsy - In recent years, Etsy has become one of the top places to go to if you're looking to add vintage pieces to your wardrobe. There are hundreds of thousands of vintage clothing sellers on the website who have every type of 1950s dress imaginable, from designer to daytime - and everywhere in between.
- Thrilling - Thrilling is a retailer that's dedicated to selling vintage clothing. It's easy to navigate and has pretty standard prices for vintage items. Pay close attention to the listings that've appeared in your search, since they don't always match what you're looking for exactly.
- GEM - GEM is an app and website that sources vintage clothing item from all over the internet. From auction websites to independent retailers, this resource is great to browse through if you're not looking for a specific item but have an idea of something in mind. Since you're not actually purchasing from the company, you should be cautious about the listings that you see and check over them to make sure that they're reputable.
- Ballyhoo Vintage - Ballyhoo is a lesser known vintage retailer that's been in business for over thirty years. While their inventory may be smaller than retailers like Etsy, they've got a good variety to choose from.
The Realities of Buying Plus Sized Vintage Clothing
There have always been plus-sized people in the world, including the 1950s! So of course there were people back then who wore these popular dress styles - and their waists weren't 20 inches. Sadly, there's a severe lack of genuine plus-sized vintage goods from this period available for sale. As with many vintage goods, collectors are lucky to find the pieces that they have because someone preserved them long enough to be resold. Plus-sized and mid-sized people might have trouble finding true vintage wear. This is especially true for dresses from the 1950s, a period that had such a stylized 'ideal body shape' that was only achieved with structured undergarments.
If you wear larger sizes, don't think you can't sport a vintage aesthetic. It may not be as easy to find authentic pieces as it is for someone who typically wears a small size, but you can purchase vintage-inspired plus-sized pieces from companies like Unique Vintage and Mod Cloth to help you create the 1950s wardrobe of your dreams.
Embrace the Atomic Age Aesthetic
There's no time like the present to get your Grease on and find the perfect vintage 1950s dress for you. From vintage-inspired pieces to the petticoat-ladened real thing, you can dress yourself up (or down) with a vintage number that was made long before you were born.