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Everyday Fashions of the Fifties
As Pictured in Sears Catalogs
By JoAnne Olian
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Show me the dress of a country and I can tell you its history—Anatole France
To leaf through the pages of a 1950s Sears catalog is to be transported into a Norman Rockwell vision of middle-class America with "clean-cut" young men, "ladylike" women, and "girl next door" teens. College students stroll through ivy-covered halls in blazers and Bermudas, well-girdled wives of aspiring executives dress up in hats, gloves, and high-heeled pumps, while their hatted husbands dash off to offices in suits and ties. On summer evenings they gather around the backyard barbecue, wives in capri pants, the kids in peasant blouses or Roy Rogers jeans and Davy Crockett coonskin caps. Even grandma, alias Gracious Lady, is there, growing old ever more gracefully (in dresses up to size 52) with each succeeding Sears decade. Nor are the customers who crave high fashion and find it in the catalog at a price far below that of Fifth Avenue or Paris forgotten. In short, if future historians were to reconstruct history from the pages of Sears, what they would doubtless arrive at would be nothing short of the American Dream.
Even Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was deeply impressed with how well dressed Americans were. When he met with Nelson Rockefeller in 1959 he was astonished that "the biggest capitalist in the world" was dressed just like everybody else. As Claudia Kidwell pointed out, "The other side of the coin was that everybody else was dressed like Rockefeller." This equality of dress is the fundamental characteristic of American clothing. In the fifties, two elements conspired to achieve its success. First, increasing prosperity propelled unprecedented numbers of Americans into the middle class, and second, manufacturing know-how and technology enabled mass-produced garments, made of newly developed easy-care synthetic fabrics, to be sold at affordable prices. Sears, with the foresight to capitalize on the demographics and the power to command the manufacturing resources was, by mid-century, the nation's largest retailer of general merchandise (selling not only apparel for the entire family but providing it with its furnishings, appliances, and sporting and entertainment paraphernalia), whose annual sales would ultimately equal one percent of the gross national product.
The number of families moving up to the middle class was increasing by over a million every year, according to Fortune, whose editors projected that by 1959 half the families in America would have moved up to this category. For many of them, veterans of World War II, the American Dream meant a secure job with a large corporation, marriage and a family, and a brand-new house in the suburbs, often financed by a low-rate GI mortgage. In the fifties, 13,000,000 new houses were built, many of them on the assembly line system developed by William J. Levitt, who housed 82,000 people in 17,000 single-family Cape Cod style homes in the first Levittown alone. A New York Times ad proclaimed, "All yours for $58. You're a lucky fellow, Mr. Veteran. Uncle Sam and the world's largest builder have made it possible for you to live in a charming house in a delightful community without having to pay for them with your eye teeth ..."
This new suburban lifestyle required a new kind of wardrobe, and Sears was equal to the challenge. Along with frilly aprons they sold capri pants, sweaters, storm coats, and jeans. Men were able to buy suburban coats, sport shirts, corduroy slacks, and stylish sweaters.
Everyday dress for each sex was very different; women stayed home in what were essentially single-sex communities during the day, while their husbands, generally the sole breadwinners in the family, donned suits, ties, and the inevitable hat, for the commute to the city.
Daytime garb for the housewife, unless she was dressing for a luncheon or taking in a matinee in town, consisted of a sweater (often of washable Orion) and skirt or pants or the ubiquitous shirtwaist dress, worn with a short "topper" or a car coat when carpooling behind the wheel of the family car. She sipped her morning coffee with neighbors in a nylon "duster," one step above a short bathrobe. Sears' fashion consultant, Mary Lewis, advised Women's Wear Daily that a housewife and a career girl wear very different kinds of clothes. Suburbanites "live in pants ... when they do put on a dress it has to be very dressy ... so reserve promotion of the oversimplified styles for city and career girls."
Evening wear presented a sharp contrast to the demure "happy housewife" image. One writer remembers, "In the daytime we wore tight, revealing sweaters, but they were topped by mincing little Peter Pan collars and perky scarves that seemed to say, 'Who, me? Why, I'm just a little girl!' At night our shoulders were naked, our breasts half-bare, the lower half of our bodies hidden in layers of tulle." If day clothes can be thought of as Doris Day or Debbie Reynolds, the intent of after-five clothes was to transform the wearer into a femme fatale along the lines of Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, or Dorian Leigh, the sophisticated, alluring, raven-haired model in Revlon's "Fire and Ice" ads. Fabrics were typically brocades, tulles, or velvets, and, depending on the formality of the occasion, a dress would be long or short, sleeved or strapless. There were cocktail dresses that were slightly décolleté and worn with hats and gloves, theater suits, long and short strapless evening gowns, and ball gowns. Gloves, stiletto heels, and pointed, strapless bras or waist-cinching Merry Widows were de rigeuer with such finery.
Appropriateness was the byword. In an era when wives were considered barometers indicative of their husband's ability to succeed in a corporate world, volumes were written on the subject of suitable dress and behavior for the helpmeet. Such disparate authorities as William H. Whyte, whose cogent study coined the phrase, "The Organization Man," and Anne Fogarty, the designer responsible for the doll-waisted, full-skirted, petticoated young look of the fifties, a lighthearted, Americanized version of Dior's New Look, offered sartorial advice. In a lengthy Fortune article based on a study of the wife's role in the social and caste system of the modern corporation, Whyte admonished: "Be attractive. There is a strong correlation between executive success and the wife's appearance." In her 1959 book, Wife Dressing, Mrs. Fogarty, a Coty Award winner, claimed to be first and foremost, a wife, advocating "ultrafeminine fashion." Not only did this please a husband, "it also helped his career, since in the new corporate environment a wife's appearance was an issue, especially when 'promotions to high-echelon jobs are in the offing.'" She disdained blue jeans and recommended wearing a girdle with everything. Mattel's Barbie doll, introduced in 1959, was the Fogarty look incarnate.
Togetherness, a word coined by McCall's magazine, defined the attitude toward family in the fifties. In the years after World War II, Americans were marrying in record numbers, and at a much younger age. By 1959, 47 percent of all brides were under nineteen and two out of three women who started college dropped out before graduation—usually to wed. They rushed to newly created suburbs to buy homes and fill them with laborsaving appliances, freezers stocked with frozen food, television sets, and most important, kids! In America, the birth rate had risen so high that by 1957 the average family consisted of 3.2 children, and it was estimated that a baby was born every seven seconds. Two doctors were household words: Dr. Seuss, author of "The Cat in the Hat, the children's classic that revolutionized reading," and Dr. Spock, the ultimate authority on the American family, whose Baby and Child Care was the mothers' gospel of the 1950s, second in sales only to the Bible. He advocated the child-centered home with an aura of warmth and security, which could be created only by stay-at-home mothers. This philosophy was emphasized by wholesome family TV shows like Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best, fashioned by scriptwriters into paradigms of the ideal family and watched faithfully in the two out of three homes which boasted at least one television set.
Not surprisingly, in the early fifties issues of Sears, baby and children's clothing takes pride of place in the front pages of the catalog. Girls wore sister dresses, boys and girls wore jeans, often with Roy Rogers' imprimatur, and felt circle skirts with poodles, later to become a cliché for nostalgic fifties parties garb, were ubiquitous. Subteen, preteen, and teen categories occupied steadily increasing space in Sears. A brief look at the popularity of teen idols who sang such favorites as "Penny Loafers and Bobby Sox," "White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation," "Pink Shoelaces," "Venus in Blue Jeans," and "Blue Suede Shoes," offers a profound indication of the burgeoning teenage population (think Archie and Veronica). Retailers were quick to cater to this brand new group of fad and fashion-conscious trendsetters with money to spend. Teens helped popularize coordinated sportswear, sweater sets, and jeans. In 1952 Vogue introduced "Young Idea," a feature aimed at seventeen to twenty-five year olds, while magazines such as Seventeen catered exclusively to this new market.
Little kids were quick to imitate the teen look. In 1959 they welcomed Barbie, the American teenage ideal, who was the first non-baby doll from Mattel. Children's apparel was no less smart than that of adults. In 1954 the Ladies' Home Journal noted: "Everybody looks young, feels young. Mothers are like big sisters in their shorts, pullovers and printed shirts."
From the New Look on, Paris continued to dominate high fashion as one silhouette followed another: A-line, H-line, chemise, trapeze, the hobble skirt, and high- waisted Directoire look. Buyers for American retail stores continued to make semi-annual forays to Paris to buy couture models which were given to manufacturers for the purpose of turning out mass-produced line-for-line copies of French designs, such as those by Monsieur X, whom everybody recognized instantly as Christian Dior. Perhaps the most significant influence on American fashion occurred when Gabrielle Chanel, the doyenne of prewar Paris fashion, reopened her house in 1954. In spite of a less than glowing reception by the press, her simple cardigan suit was welcomed by American women who understood the subtle luxury of style inherent in wearability and comfort. The "Chanel suit" soon became one of the most overworked phrases in fashion, and versions of it can be seen from the middle of the decade.
The most expensive fashions in Sears' pages, shown on the same high-fashion models photographed in Vogue, were somewhat toned-down versions of what was being featured on the runways of New York and Paris. Balenciaga's sack, Givenchy's chemise, and Yves Saint Laurent's trapeze were all available by mail or phone from Sears, but it is the simplicity of Chanel and her Seventh Avenue contemporaries, essentially based on sportswear, that pervades most of the clothing sold by Sears. Available from the catalog in every style and size range, including maternity separates, sportswear was America's forte. Women were leading rich and varied lives, requiring a broad range of garb, much of it sportswear, for many different occasions. Valerie Steele listed the wardrobe of a typical middle-income American woman as tabulated by an IBM machine at the U.S. exhibit in Moscow in 1959. It included a "winter weight long coat (fur-trimmed or untrimmed), one spring weight coat, one raincoat, five housedress type dresses, four afternoon 'dressy' type dresses, three suits, three skirts, six blouses, three sweaters, six slips, two petticoats, five nightgowns, eight pairs of panties, five brassieres, two corsets or girdles, two robes, six pairs of nylon stockings, two pairs of sport type socks, three pairs of dress gloves, one bathing suit, three pairs of play shorts, one pair of slacks and one play suit as well as accessories." Although the numbers were somewhat inflated for the benefit of the Soviet audience, the range is indicative of the lives American women were leading and the broad scope of their daily activities as well as their leisure.
Accessories included "seven pairs of shoes, four handbags, a dozen pieces of costume jewelry, four hats, and assorted scarves, belts, and other addenda." Notice the models in Sears—they wear hats with just about everything until the end of the decade, when juniors lead the way in hatlessness. Nor was an outfit complete without gloves appropriate to the occasion. Even Claire McCardell, the quintessentially American designer of modern clothing, extolled the virtues of hats and gloves:
Once upon a time you had to wear a hat. You don't have to today, but suddenly you may realize that your hair can't live up to all kinds of wind and weather. A hat should really be a hat. Ladylike. With great dignity and charm and distinction....
A woman without gloves is a marked woman. It's like going barefoot to be without them. Gloves are traditionally a sign of dignity.... Everyone needs a good glove collection: short, long, glacé, doeskin, pigskin, cotton.... And Grandma's words of wisdom, 'A lady is known by her shoes and gloves,' still holds.
If this statement conjures up an image of Grace Kelly, it is not far from the mark. Her ladylike demeanor swept Prince Rainier of Monaco off his feet and they were wed with fairytale splendor to international fanfare in 1956.
The elegant, full-skirted dresses worn on and off-screen by the future princess were made of sumptuous, rigid fabrics. Brett Harvey, author of a women's history of the fifties was asked by a friend, "Did you ever think about the fact that all the fabrics we wore were stiff?" She remembered instantly: faille, taffeta, felt, piqué, stiffened nylon petticoats—everything was crisp, nothing was allowed to drape or cling.
Sportswear relied heavily on the new synthetics with Orion and Acrilan sweaters, Orion and wool-blend skirts in plaids or the ubiquitous Donegal, or salt-and-pepper, tweed for both sexes. Aside from denim for jeans and work clothes, corduroy appears to have been the fabric of choice for children's play clothes (sometimes warmed with linings of plaid flannel), men's sport jackets or slacks, and for just about every article of clothing made for girls and women including jumpers, skirts, shirts, long and short pants, and outerwear. The Ivy-league look was the hallmark of sportswear throughout the latter years of the decade. Every skirt, pair of shorts, or slacks boasted a cloth tab and back buckle, while button-down collars, penny loafers, and Bermuda shorts were favored by both sexes. The early fifties square-shouldered, double-breasted man's suit with draped trousers bowed to the Brooks Brothers "natural shoulder" single-breasted "Ivy league" style worn off campus as well as on. The beginnings of a youth rebellion could be seen in the popularity of black leather motorcycle jackets, immortalized on film by Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Winter coats sported cozy Orion pile linings and many a raccoon was reborn as a collar, not to mention a coonskin cap like the one worn by Davy Crockett, aka Fess Parker, TV's "King of the Wild Frontier."
Special occasion clothing, long an American institution, included a new spring outfit every year for the entire family. Doubtless, every town had its version of the after-church Easter parade when new spring finery was displayed. Tradition required light-colored or navy blue suits for everybody, topped with straw hats for mom and the girls.
Sears understood America, and the catalog, described by David L. Cohn in The Good Old Days, a History of Sears, reflected the:
tastes, wants, and desires not of a few wealthy women in the cities, but of millions of simple women living in the small towns and on the farms of America.... things in the catalog are the things people want....
The catalog is based purely upon public acceptance of the goods it offers, and not until the public has clearly signified that it wants a thing does that thing appear in its pages. We know, therefore, beyond all doubt, that the catalog's pictures of American life are drawn not from the imagination, but from the living model.
Excerpted from Everyday Fashions of the Fifties by JoAnne Olian. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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