In 1947 Dior launched his revolutionary ‘New Look’ – unpadded rounded shoulders, shapely bust, small waist, curved hips and billowy, calf length skirts.  Young people were instantly attracted to this mature, sophisticated look and it became symbolic of their future.  The 1957 Festival of Britain was a tremendous gesture of post-war optimism for British design; Vogue featured ready-to-wear clothes as getting back to fashion normal, with elegant swing back coats, narrow or full skirts and looks for various social occasions.  American casual clothes arrived – Californian styles – culminating in the blue jean (innovated by Levi Strauss in 1850).  Exaggeratedly pointed breasts were the shape to have and fashions for the masses, like the full dirndl skirt worn over ‘crinoline’ petticoats.  ‘Easy care’ synthetics, like nylon and terylene, which had first been discovered in the 1940s, were now enthusiastically advertised.  The modern age of textiles had begun.

23a John and Trudy, July 1957
Trudy wears a printed, glazed cotton dropped waist and form-fitting dress with a gathered, full skirt.  The neckline is square, and the sleeves cap style.  She has dressed it up with a chunky necklace and ‘gypsy’ earrings.  Her hair is softly waved and parted at the side. Cotton dresses with full skirts were universally popular in the 1950s, usually below knee to calf length, celebrating the end of wartime’s worst shortages, which had kept dresses skimpy and short in length.

Original photograph lent by Janet Waters

Main Garment
23b Holiday dress, red and grey rope print, 1956-59
During the 1950s, the British Cotton Board set out to promote its products in the face of increasing interest in synthetic fibres.  Printed cottons were popular summer wear and easy to sew at home.  Whilst the British are famous for their staid attitude to colour and pattern in everyday dress, a holiday is traditionally an excuse to throw caution to the wind. Our bold, rope print red dress is for a larger woman (38″ bust, 32″ waist, 42″ hips) perhaps someone who felt that ‘big and bold’ go well together.  Maybe her more conventional friends or family teased her (the dress is hardly worn).  It is skilfully home made, possibly from a pattern in a woman’s magazine.

Provenance Unknown

23c Six-way bra, cotton and foam rubber, early 1950s
‘6-way’ presumably refers to the versatility of the shoulder straps, which are detachable and have more than one pair of anchorage points.  Designed to boost a slim woman’s bust fashionably into a gentle pointed shape, it is lined with foam rubber, which is perforated for coolness.  Though not as extreme as the circle stitched conical bra of the 1950s, this example gives a good shape ideal under a woollen jumper.  Labelled  ‘Maidenform Prelude 6-way’.

Given by Lord Brabourne of Mersham-le-Hatch, Ashford, as part of the Brabourne Collection in 1980

23d Waist petticoat, white flock/paper nylon, c.1957
The ‘New Look’ developed into shorter, full-skirted lines for women and girls in the 1950s.  The new nylon was available as a stiff ‘paper’ version – ideal for supporting skirts – which washed and drip dried easily, though eventually loosing its original crispness.  Our version has a soft, elasticated nylon top half, an under layer of paper nylon and an over skirt of flock printed nylon with a scalloped edge.  These petticoats were designed to be seen (girls would flick their skirts about to show off) and heard (they rustled intriguingly).

Provenance Unknown

23e Suspender belt, paper nylon, ‘fifties style’, c.1965
Nylon stockings were universally worn in the 1950s and the suspender belt, designed around the First World War, was the way most young girls kept them up.  This version in ‘bubble gum’ pink paper nylon by Dorothy Perkins (whose fashion chain, like Etam, started with underwear and stockings in the inter-war years) is little changed from our 1930s example.  Not normally worn outside the petticoat of course, this is just for display!

Provenance Unknown

23f Hat, synthetic straw, ‘oystershell’ shape, c.1955
Hats were still generally worn by all on smart occasions in the 1950s, with related gloves and handbag.  This example has a distinct look of oyster shell about its shape and colour.  During the early to mid 1950s, London couturiers showed Paris hats in a miscellaneous variety of shapes, sizes and novel materials, to the confusion of fashion buyers and women everywhere.  1950s hairstyles were permed or set and had to be protected from wind and rain, either under a pretty chiffon or silk square or an ugly, pleated, polythene rain hood.

Provenance Unknown

23g Bucket bag, tangerine straw, c.1955
New versions of the wartime shopping bag were alternative to the handbag and escaped purchase tax if they were open at the top.  The stiffened ‘bucket’ shape (from France) was popular throughout the decade and started a fashion for large handbags (containing a working girl’s sandwiches, magazine, cigarettes and cosmetics).  Bucket bags were commonly made in plastics and could be smart or casual wear. This example is made of straw dyed a strong tangerine orange, and is lined with red and white spotted cotton.

Provenance Unknown

23h Packet of nylons, printed cellophane, c.1957
Advertising was of major importance in the mid to late 1950s. Commercial television was within reach of many who had purchased a first TV to watch the Coronation in 1953.  Brand names and contemporary sung jingles were widely used to attract young buyers with weekly wages or pocket money to spend. ‘Hi-Fi’ means high fidelity – a good quality sound from a radio or record player.  Micro mesh was a stocking knitting process which had every loop, or second loop, taken over two needles so if they were snagged they went into holes instead of ladders.  They had an irregular net appearance. American imagery was very fashionable during the 1950s as the USA was a leader in teenage casual wear.

Given by Veronica Tonge of Maidstone, in 1977

23i Sandals, light tan leather, ‘Roman’ style, c.1956
These very minimal sandals might have been worn with tapered slacks or separates, as smart casual wear.  They are derived from the sandal of ancient Rome – Italian fashion was very influential during the 1950s.  Their wood effect, composition sole reflects the current taste for dark woods in interior design, as does the rather angular, streamlined styling.

Purchased for the Museum Collection

23j Winkle-picker stilettos, black gathered leather, c.1958
1950s toes got steadily more pointed and the stiletto heel was first mentioned in 1953 – an Italian trend.  Inside was a metal spigot to prevent snapping.  Moulded, hard plastic heel tips made the stiletto banned from many public buildings where it wrecked floors.  So sexily elegant, the winkle-picker stiletto was worn even in the snow by fashion-conscious young women.  Many people never mastered the art of walking in them and many girls permanently distorted their feet.  Not since the cruel art of Chinese footbinding has the female foot suffered so much in the cause of allure!

Provenance Unknown

1950s – What’s New?

G-string, 1950s
The scantiest version of the bikini, first seen in Europe during the 1950s.

A-line, 1955
Dress shape or skirt which flares from the bust or waist became fashionable.

Lycra, 1958
A man-made fibre introduced be Du pont of Delaware , USA.  Lycra is elastic, abrasion resistant and has stretch and recovery powers.  Also known as Spandex, Lightweight yet strong, it is used in swimwear, lingerie and hosiery.