Retro fashion trends continue to be a feature of the contemporary clothing market, providing alternate configurations of womanhood from which women can fashion their identities (Hackett). This article examines the design attributes of 1950s-style clothing, that some women choose to wear over more contemporary styles. The 1950s style can be located in a distinctly hourglass design that features a small waist with distinct bust and hips. This article asks: what are the design features of this style that lead women to choose it over contemporary fashion? Taking a material culture approach, it firstly looks at the design features of the garments and the way they are marketed. Secondly, it draws upon interviews and a survey conducted with women who wear these clothes. Thirdly, it investigates the importance of this silhouette to the women who wear it, through the key concepts of body shape and size.
Clothing styles of the 1950s were influenced by the work of Christian Dior, particularly his "New Look" collection of 1947. Dior’s design focus was on emphasising female curves, featuring full bust and flowing skirts cinched in with a narrow waist (Dior), creating an exaggerated hourglass shape. The look was in sharp contrast to fashion designs of the Second World War and offered a different conceptualisation of the female body, which was eagerly embraced by many women who had grown weary of rationing and scarcity. Post-1950s, fashion designers shifted their focus to a slimmer ideal, often grounded in narrow hips and a smaller bust. Yet not all women suit this template; some simply do not have the right body shape for this ideal. Additionally, the intervening years between the 1950s and now have also seen an incremental increase in body sizes so that a slender figure no longer represents many women. High-street brand designers, such as Review, Kitten D’Amour and Collectif, have recognised these issues, and in searching for an alternative conceptualisation of the female body have turned to the designs of the 1950s for their inspiration. The base design of wide skirts which emphasise the relative narrowness of the waist is arguably more suited to many women today, both in terms of fit and shape. Using a material culture approach, this article will examine these design features to uncover why women choose this style over more contemporary designs.
This article draws upon a material culture study of 1950s-designed clothes and why some contemporary women choose to wear 1950s-style clothing as everyday dress. Material culture is “the study through artefacts of the beliefs—values, ideas, attitudes and assumptions—of a particular community or society at a given time” (Prown 1). The premise is that a detailed examination of a culture’s relationship with its objects cannot be undertaken without researching the objects themselves (Hodder 174). Thus both the object is analysed and the culture is surveyed about their relationship with the object. In this study, analysis was conducted in March and September 2019 on the 4,286 items of clothing available for sale by the 19 brands that the interview subjects wear, noting the design features that mark the style as "1950s" or "1950s-inspired". Further, a quantitative analysis of the types of clothing (e.g. dress, skirt, trousers, etc.) was undertaken to reveal where the design focus lay. A secondary analysis of the design brands was also undertaken, examining the design elements they used to market their products. In parallel, two cohorts of women who wear 1950s-style clothing were examined to ascertain the social meanings of their clothing choices. The first group comprised 28 Australian women who participated in semi-structured interviews. The second cohort responded to an international survey that was undertaken by 229 people who sew and wear historic clothing. The survey aimed to reveal the meaning of the clothes to those who wear them. Both sets of participants were found through advertising the study on Facebook in 2018. The interview subjects were selected with the requirement that they self-identified as wearing 1950s-style clothing on a daily basis. The survey examined home dressmakers who made historic-style clothing and asked them a range of questions regarding their sewing practice and the wearing of the clothes.
While subcultures have adopted historic clothing styles as part of their aesthetic (Hebdige), the more mainstream wearing of clothing from alternative eras as an everyday fashion choice has its roots in the hippy movement of the late 1960s (Cumming 109). These wearers are not attempting to “‘rebel’ against society, nor … explicitly ‘subvert’ items that are offered by mainstream culture” (Veenstra and Kuipers 362-63), rather they are choosing styles that both fit in with contemporary styles, yet are drawn from a different design ideal. Wearers of vintage clothing often feel that modern clothing is designed for an ideal body size or shape which differed markedly from their own (Smith and Blanco 360-61).
The fashion industry has long been criticised for its adherence to an ultra-thin body shape and it is only in the last decade or so that small changes have begun to be made (Hackett and Rall 270-72). While plus-size models have begun to appear in advertising and on cat-walks, and fashion brands have begun to employ plus-sized fit models, the shift to inclusivity has been limited as the models persistently reflect the smaller end of the “plus” spectrum and continue to have slim, hourglass proportions (Gruys 12-13). The overwhelming amount of clothing offered for sale remains within the normative AU8-16 clothing range. This range is commonly designated “standard” with any sizes above this “plus-sized”. Yet women around the world do not fit neatly into this range and the average woman in countries such as Australia and the United States are at the upper edge of normative size ranges. In Australia, the average woman is around an AU16 (Olds) and in the US they are in the lower ranges of plus sizes (Gruys) which calls into question the validity of the term “plus-sized”.
Closely related to body size, but distinctly different, is the concept of body shape. Body shape refers to the relative dimensions of the body, and within fashion, this tends to focus on the waist, hips and bust. Where clothing from the 1960s onwards has generally presented a slim silhouette, 1950s-style clothing offers an arguably different body shape. Christian Dior’s 1947 "New Look" design collection came to dominate the style of the 1950s. Grounded in oversized skirts, cinched waists, full bust, and curved lines of the mid-nineteenth century styles, Dior sought to design for “flower-like women” (Dior 24) who were small and delicate, yet had full hips and busts. While Dior’s iteration was an exaggerated shape that required substantial body structuring through undergarments, the pronounced hourglass design shape became identified with 1950s-style clothing. By the 1960s the ideal female body shape had changed dramatically, as demonstrated by the prominent model of that decade, the gamine Twiggy. For the next few decades, iterations of this hyper-thin design ideal were accelerated and fashion models in magazines consistently decreased in size (Sypeck et al.) as fashion followed trends such as "heroin chic", culminating in the "size zero" scandals that saw models' BMI and waist-to-height rations plummet to dangerously unhealthy sizes (Hackett and Rall 272-73; Rodgers et al. 287-88).
The majority of the fashion industry, it appears, is not designing for the average woman. Discrimination against “fat” people leads to industry practices that actively exclude them from product offerings (Christel). This has been variously located as being entrenched anywhere from the top of the industry (Clements) to the entry level, where design students are taught their trade using size 8 models (Rutherford-Black et al.). By restricting their designs in terms of size and shape offering, clothing brands collectively restrict the ability of people whose bodies fall outside that arbitrary range to fashion their identity but are eager nonetheless to participate in fashion (Church Gibson; Peters). This resulting gap provides an opportunity for brands to differentiate their product offering with alternate designs that cater to this group.
There are several key styles that could arguably be identified as “1950s”; however, one of the findings in this study was that the focus of the designs was on the voluptuous style of the 1950s associated with Dior’s New Look, featuring a cinched-in waist, full bust, and predominantly wide, flowing skirts. A count of the garments available for sale on the websites of these brands found that the focus is overwhelmingly on dresses (64% of the 4,286 garments on offer), with skirts and bifurcated garments being marketed in far smaller numbers, 10% (679) and 7% (467) respectively. The majority of the skirts were wide, with just a few being narrow, often in a hobble-skirt style. Both styles emphasise wide hips and narrow waists. The high number of dresses with voluminous skirts suggest that this design aesthetic is popular amongst their customers; these women are seeking designs that are based on a distinctly, if exaggerated, female form. Many of the brands surveyed have an extended size collection, outside the normative AU8-16, with one brand going as high as a UK32. Sizing standards have ceased to be universally used by clothing designers, with brands often creating their own size scales, making it difficult to make direct size comparisons between the brands (Hackett and Rall, 267). Despite this, the analysis found that many of these brands have extended their sizing ranges well into the plus-sized bracket, with one brand going up to a size 32. In most brands, the exact same designs are available throughout the sizes rather than having a separate dedicated plus-size range. Only one design brand had a dedicated separate "plus-size" range where the clothing differed from their "standard-sized" ranges. Further, many of the brands did not use terminology separating sizes into “standard” or “plus-size”.
Beyond the product offering, this analysis also looked at the size of the models that design brands use to market their clothes. Four brands did not use models, displaying the clothes in isolation. Eight of the brands used a range of models of different sizes to advertise their clothes, reflecting the diversity of the product range. Seven of the brands did not, preferring to use models of smaller size, usually around a size AU8, with a couple using the occasional model who was a size AU12.
There were two ideal body shapes in the 1950s. The first was a voluptuous hourglass shape of a large bust and hips, with a small cinched-in waist. The second was more slender, as exemplified by women such as Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, this was “a subdued and classy sensuality, often associated with the aristocrat and high fashion” (Mazur). It is the first that has come to be the silhouette most commonly associated with the decade among this cohort, and it is this conceptualisation of a curvy ideal that participants in this study referenced when discussing why they wear these clothes:
I'm probably like a standard Australia at 5'10" but I am curvy. A lot of corporate clothes I don't think are really made to fit women in the way they probably could and they could probably learn a bit from looking back a bit more at the silhouettes for you know, your more, sort of average women with curves. (Danielle)
The 50s styles suit my figure and I wear that style on an everyday basis. (Survey Participant #22)
As these women note, this curvy ideal aligns with their own figures. There was also a sense that the styles of the 1950s were more forgiving, and thus suited a wider range of body shapes, than more contemporary styles:
these are the styles of clothes I generally wear as the 50’s and 60’s styles flatter the body and are flattering to most body types. (Survey Participant #213)
In contrast, some participants chose the style because it created the illusion of a body shape they did not naturally possess. For example, Emma stated:
I’m very tall and I found that modern fast fashion is often quite short on me whereas if it’s either reproduction or vintage stuff it tends to suit me better in length. It gives me a bit of shape; I’m like a string bean, straight up and down. (Emma)
For others it allows them to control or mask elements of their body:
okay, so the 1950s clothes I find give you a really feminine shape. They always consider the fact that you have got a waist. And my waist [inaudible]. My hips I always want to hide, so those full skirts always do a good job at hiding those hips. I feel… I feel pretty in them. (Belinda)
Underlying both these statements is the desire to create a feminine silhouette, which in turn increases feelings of being attractive. This reflects Christian Dior’s aim to ground his designs in femininity. This locating of the body ideal in exaggerated curves and equating it to a sense of femininity was reflected by a number of participants. The sensory appeal of 1950s designs led to one participant feeling “more feminine because of that tiny waist and heels on” (Rosy). This reflects Dior’s design aim to create highly feminine clothing styles. Another participant mused upon this in more detail:
I love how pretty they make me feel. The tailoring involved to fit your individual body to enhance your figure, no matter your size, just amazes me. In by-gone eras, women dressed like women, and men like men ... not so androgynous and sloppy like today. I also like the idea of teaching the younger generation about history ... and debunking a lot of information and preconceived notions that people have. But most of all ... THE PRETTY FACTOR! (Survey Participant #130)
Thus the curvy style is conceived to be distinctly feminine and thus a clear marker of the female identity of the person wearing the clothes.
Participants were also negotiating the relative size of their bodies when it came to apparel choice. Body size is closely related to body shape and participants often negotiated both when choosing which style to wear. For example, Skye stated how “my bust and my waist and my hips don’t fit a standard [size]”, indicating that, for her, both issues impacted on her ability to wear contemporary clothing. Ashleigh concurred, stating:
I was a size 8, but I was still a very hourglass sized 8. So modern stuff doesn’t even work with me when I’m skinnier and that shape. (Ashleigh)
Body size is not just about measurements around the hips and torso, it also affects the ability to choose clothing for those at the higher and lower ends of the height spectrum. Gabrielle discussed her height, saying:
so I’m really tall, got quite big hips … . So I quite like that it cinches the waist a bit, goes over the hips and hides a little bit [laughs] I don’t know … I really like that about it I guess. (Gabrielle)
For Gabrielle, her height creates a further dimension for her to negotiate. In this instance, contemporary fashion is too short for her to feel comfortable wearing it. The longer skirts of 1950s style clothing provide the desired coverage of her body.
The curvy contours of 1950s-designed clothing were found by some participants to be compatible with their body size, particularly for those in the large size ranges. The following statement typifies this point of view:
the later styles are mostly small waist/full skirt that flatters my plus size figure. I also find them the most romantic/attractive. (Survey Participant #74)
The desire to feel attractive in clothes when negotiating body size reflects the concerns participants had regarding shape. For this cohort, 1950s-style clothing presents a solution to these issues.
The clothing designs of the 1950s focus on a voluptuous body shape that is in sharp contrast to the thin ideal of contemporary styles. The women in this study state that contemporary designs just do not suit their body shape, and thus they have consciously sought out a style that is designed along lines that do.
The heavy reliance on skirts and dresses that cinch at the waist and flare wide over the hips suggests that the base silhouette of the 1950s designed clothing is flattering for a wide range of female shapes, both in respect to shape and size. The style is predominantly designed around flared skirts which serves to reduce the fit focus to the waist and bust, thus women do not have to negotiate hip size when purchasing or wearing clothes. By removing one to the three major fit points in clothing, the designers are able to cater to a wider range of body shapes. This is supported in the interviews with women across the spectrum of body shapes, from those who note that they can "hide their wider hips" and to those women who use the style to create an hourglass shape.
The wider range of sizes available in the 1950s-inspired clothing brands suggests that the flexibility of the style also caters to a wide range of body sizes. Some of the brands also market their clothes using models with diverse body sizes. Although this is, in some cases, limited to the lower end of the “plus”-size bracket, others did include models who were at the higher end. This suggests that some of these brands recognise the market potential of this style and that their customers are welcoming of body diversity. The focus on a relatively smaller waist to hip and bust also locates the bigger body in the realm of femininity, a trait that many of the respondents felt these clothes embodied.
The focus on the perceived femininity of this style, at any size, is in contrast to mainstream fashion. This suggests that contemporary fashion designers are largely continuing to insist on a thin body ideal and are therefore failing to cater for a considerable section of the market. Rather than attempting to get their bodies to fit into fashion, these women are finding alternate styles that fit their bodies. The fashion brands analysed did not create an artificial division of sizing into “standard” and “plus” categories, reinforcing the view that these brands are size-inclusive and the styles are meant for all women. This posits the question of why the fashion industry continues this downward trajectory in body size.
The design of 1950s-inspired clothing provides an alternate silhouette through which women can fashion their identity. Designers of this style are catering to an alternate concept of feminine beauty than the one provided by contemporary fashion. Analysis of the design elements reveals that the focus is on a narrow waist below a full bust, with wide flowing skirts. In addition, women in this study felt these designs catered for a wide variety of body sizes and shapes. The women interviewed and surveyed in this study feel that designers of contemporary styles do not cater for their body size and/or shape, whereas 1950s-style clothing provides a silhouette that flatters them. Further, they felt the designs achieved femininity through the accentuating of feminine curves. The dominance of the dress, a highly gendered garment, within this modern iteration of 1950s-style underscores this association with femininity. This reflects Christian Dior’s design ethos which placed emphasis on female curves. This was to become one of the dominating influences on the clothing styles of the 1950s and it still resonates today with the clothing choices of the women in this study.
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