When you start to research the 1950s and what people wore back then you’ll usually be bombarded with designers such as Dior and high-fashion models walking the catwalk. This truly wasn’t what most everyday women would wear though.
After the war, the number of women who would be in the home and focused on domestic duties peaked during the 1950s, and making sure one was groomed and looking after the home in style was a huge part of the culture at the time.
Many women would get “made up” during the morning, and I do admit that I enjoy putting my makeup on before I head out to work when I am in the office. I take it as a sort of meditative practice which gets me in the right mindset for the day ahead.
One of the classic styles we all think of when it comes to vintage fashion is the 1950s housewife.
A little bit of history
There was a great emphasis on looking polished and being in the “correct” attire for the homemaker during the 1950s then there was in previous decades and those that would come after. And it certainly wasn’t an accident. There was a big push from industries and government to encourage women to return to the home after they had moved into the workforce during World War Two. During the war, over 62% of married women worked outside of the home and once 1950 hit, that number plummeted. It’s thought that just 21.6% of women were in the workforce by the start of the 1950s. There was some statistics that stated that 70% of women would want to remain in the workforce but the general thought at the time was that it was simply not plausible economically to do so.
Many thought at the time that men needed the jobs. There was huge media influence to prevail the thought that homemaking was a woman’s patriotic duty and therefore housewives were elevated in everything. Glamorising the role of course helped to spread the excitement – and the glam brought about a whole new wardrobe – whether one planned to leave the house or not.
1950s Housewife clothing
The most popular style of dress has to be the button-down shirtwaist dress. This style of dress was initially designed in the 1900s to mimic the utilitarian design of a man’s shirt. After World War 2 it was embraced by women looking for a pretty and practical dress. This was the most popular day dress style and was often seen on television being worn by Lucile Ball in I Love Lucy.
The shirtwaist dress would have a modest neckline, sleeves and came in bright fun prints like checks, stripes, tartans and plaid, gingham and floral. These would be made or purchased in tough, easy to wash fabrics like cotton and some featured white collars and cuffs just like the waitresses you see of the time. There was no need for anything too fancy – that was saved for special occasions.
A shirtwaist dress was often ( but not always) buttoned down the front like a shirt and met at the waist with some lovely gathering before extending out into a circle skirt. This skirt would extend past the knees. Save your petticoat – despite what you think they were only worn for special occasions, not everyday.
1950s Housewife footwear
If you thought that the housewife would clean the entire house in high heels then you would be forgiven and not alone. Society of the 50s felt that high heeled shoes were the most proper footwear to wear in public so this would be shown in media, even the busy 1950s housewifes who were running around with a hoover keeping the house clean.
This is one unusual area in which fashion would bend to suit a woman’s lifestyle. Although she would usually wear heels outside of the home, flat ballet pumps, slippers and sometimes even barefoot would be the choice of many homemakers when at home.
1950s Housewife accessories
After you have the main elements of your outfit sorted, like your foundation garments, shirtwaist dress, shoes and a kelly bag you can also look at accessories.
Aprons were worn to protect ones clothing from getting damaged or dirty, particularly when doing housework which was still extremely hard work. These weren’t just practical however, as with everything in the 1950s, they were designed to be attractive and pretty too. The apron was an essential part of a homemakers wardrobe.
A woman needed to work all day in maintaining the home in her best shirtwaister dress and prettiest apron and was always ready to welcome her husband home or entertain house guests at a moments notice. It was also common to have your daughter wear a matching apron with you. This showed you were preparing the next generation to fulfil their role in the home (note: this is not something I believe but I wanted to add this for context).
1950s aprons quickly became a novelty item with different varieties for each chore, every holiday and every season. Most women would have a drawer full of aprons with each one only being worn a couple of times a year. Newspapers and magazines would share instructions on how you could make your own aprons at home, with sewing patterns being made available for complicated designs.
Plain aprons were out of style with novelty print patterns ones being “in”. Themes included food and travel and holidays as well as the personality of the wearer. These designs would also sometimes match the housedress – blurring the line where apron began and dress ended.
1950S housewife hair
Compared to the 1940s, hair in the 50s was much shorter and was curled or set at nighttime under a scarf. As with many of the other subcultures in a vintage society, having perfectly groomed hair was seen as a duty to oneself.
Some women would choose to set their hair in the afternoon when their husband was at work so they could go to bed with soft hair whilst others preferred to sleep in their rollers or pin curls. What’s most common is that many 1950s housewives would put their hair up and cover with a scarf – particularly if they were dusting or doing something else dirty. A popular style of the time was the poodle updo made popular by Lucile Ball. This style features curls piled attractively on top of the head and is one of the most iconic vintage hairstyles.
Although I love the style oft the 1950s housewife, there is no way I would want to be one – I love my freedom to choose a little too much. There is a sentimentality for the style and look but as I always say ” Vintage vibes not vintage lives”.
I do love the style though and there really is something to be said for the women who not only ran the house and looked after the family, they also looked good whilst doing it. I especially love the idea that something so simple as an apron could be so fun and a way for women to express themselves.