What they Wore – 1950s Summer Style

What they Wore – 1950s Summer Style

For the glamour and style you can’t beat a 1950s summer look. This is one of my favourite seasons combined with one of my favourite periods of fashion, so this article was a real treat to create.

As you may already know, the post-war economic boom meant that people were not only spending more money they also wanted luxurious new styles. As I have covered in my post about Dior, flared dresses using oodles of fabric and fantastic hats and shoes were all extremely popular. This economic boom also resulted in the return of fashion. The make do and mend mentatlity of the 1940s was coming to an end, and with it a new range of colourful clothing, and stylish shoes and accessories all came to the fore in the 1950s as a decade.

For summer, things got really fun. It was more socially accepted to show more skin, and specific items and a fashionable look was thought to help women satisfy their spouses or to help them land one (sexist I know, and I don’t believe this myself – vintage style not vintage values as they say). Many women found inspiration from film and TV shows as well as the starlets themselves and what they wore in their own time as well as the clothing and styles of their characters.

This guide will give you some pointers on how to get that summer vintage style for this heatwave and many more to come.

1950s Summer Dresses

As with Spring, bright and pastel block cotton dresses were very popular and were a tight fitting bodice that nipped in the waist with a full circle skirt. These would be colour co-ordinated with shoes, handbags and even parasols which is something that I always adore. Summer dresses were typically sleeveless to enable women to feel cool in the heat whilst remaining stylish.

Nautical colours and embellishments were also something that many women wore. The navy, red and white colour scheme wasn’t just reserved for the yacht. It was also something worn day to day as well as to picnics, to the beach and even some evening events.

As you can see, even in the heat, petticoats were worn. This was due to the societal standards of the time as well as the wish to have that circle skirt draped correctly. You can get thinner, one layer petticoats which I sometimes wear in the summer, it seems to help keep me cool as the petticoat is thinner. The heavier fabric of the skirt is kept away from my body which helps with air circulation.

1950s Summer Shorts and Capris

High waisted shorts and capri pants were cute and worn right on the natural waist. There are a great deal of high-street finds you can use alongside your true vintage tops that wouldn’t look out of place. These gave a young, fun and modern look for summer, and were very popular. Many came in prints like gingham or stripes as well as plain, neutral colours.

Shorts and capris and trousers were wide at the start of the decade, but became more figure hugging and tighter as we continued into the 1950s. Really tight shorts were starting to become popular by the end of the decade, but these were mostly worn by actresses and starlets. As with today, it was considered cute to borrow your husband’s or boyfriend’s jeans, cinch the waist with a belt and roll up the ankles to create the relaxed fit capris. Other lengths of bottoms included clam diggers or pedal pushers which were wide leg, knee length shorts, and Bermuda shorts that were just above the knee.

Shorts and capris were often paired with a tucked in, fitted blouse or top of cropped sweaters and shirts tied at the waist. They usually had a 2 inch cuff (sometimes matching the fabric of the blouse) and side slash pockets. Ladies shorts and trousers zipped up at the side, not in front as it made them “less like men’s clothing”. As always, the entire outfit would be completely co-ordinated.

1950s Summer Blouses and tops

Skirts and pants were usually paired with button down blouses. These were snug and tailored and were always tucked in. For summer, short sleeves and sleeveless styles were very popular (the same as today) and patterns like gingham, polka dots and florals were all very popular. Solid colours tended to be pastels – probably to ensure the look was still feminine but I imagine it was cooler than wearing black.

As you can see, there is a wide range of collar styles – classic point, boat neck and peter pan collars all show up on old 1950s adverts. Embellishments like trimming, pin tucking and embroidery were all a way that women could add a little something special to their blouse. I can’t decide on my favourite our of these lovely tops – I have some sewing patterns stashed away so I may have to make a few (lots) of these.

Peasant blouses were also popular, and took inspiration from movie stars like Marylin Monroe. These sweet and sexy tops show up in many movies released in that time. It’s no wonder they were popular!

Knit tops were also worn as an alternative to tailored blouses. These short sleeved, thin knit tops were worn with a skirt or some cigarette pants, and were short, just topping the hips. As with the blouses, there was variety in terms of style. Classic point, crew neck and rolled collars all feature, and many had buttons and embellishments too. If you’re a knitter, there are lots of vintage patterns available online on sites like ebay as well as free ones on Ravelry. I like to think that if I had more time I would knit more, perhaps I need to schedule some time in my diary.

The sweater on the right is more evening wear, it’s embellished with pearls which I find adorable. The right hand side shows some more casual looks, perfect for those days that are a little breezy or even a casual evening meal.

1950s Summer Playsuits and Play sets

Originally invented for small children (hence, the name playsuit), rompers evolved into adult styles of playsuits and lounge sets in the 1920s and were popular with young women who enjoyed their versatility. The trend really did take off in the 1940s with the desire to wear a fun, flirty playsuit extending into the 1950s. Many women wore playsuits as leisure and beachwear right through the 1950s. This vintage summer playsuit was fitted at the waist, skimmed over the hips and ended in short shorts – usually with buttons. The top half was frequently in a blouse or fitted shift with embellishments like collars, buttons and piping. Brightly coloured and in fun patterns like florals, hawaiian, checks, stripes and plaids these injected a little fun into an everyday vintage summer style.

Icons like the lovely Marilyn Monroe used playsuits to accentuate their hourglass curves, and of course, foundation garments and shapewear were used to get the desired figure.

Play sets were usually worn at the beach or picnic and consisted of a playsuit with items to cover up if it got cold or if you planned to go for a walk. Often, full skirts, tops and dresses were included in Lounge sets purchased along with those items included in sewing patterns. Theses usually matched the playsuit itself, or co-ordinated using the same colour for a chic look. I love the look of a playset, especially as I sometimes get cold if it’s a little windy. I

1950s Summer hats

In the 1940s and 1950s many hats were popular – they didn’t just serve as a fashion accessory, they were a mark of social standing right into the 1960s. The trend to go hat less was on the rise, especially among younger ladies who were advised to go hat less until they reached 20 years old. From the late 1960s, teens were a focus for fashion styles – many wanted to look completely different and separate from their elders.

two vintage ladies in summer hats
vintage 1950s lady in a summer hat

In the 1950s, many hat styles were popular, a classic, wide-brimmed straw sun hat was, and still is a classic design which was popular with women. There is something fabulous about a large wide-brimmed hat, especially if you have some lovely vintage waves too. They didn’t just look splendid, hats were worn to protect the wearer from harsh sun rays. This type of hat was worn since the 1920s, when women would wear large straw hats on the French Riveria.

vintage summer hats

Wide-brimmed sun hats weren’t just for beach wear. Women also wore this kind of hat when out anywhere to stay cool and stylish. To co-ordinate with their outfits – as we know they loved to do – accessories like flowers, ribbons and bows were used, often in the same colour as their outfits. These were held in place using a ribbon tied in a bow under the chin, or with combs and hat pins.

1950s Summer shoes

The main difference from the 1940s, was that the 1950s summer shoe trend had a larger amount of colour and strap design options. The wedge heel of the 1940s continued to be popular but was streamlined into the platform wedge. Straps could be wide or narrow and have a few or many buckles – there was no one particular style. Variety was available everywhere, and that included in the materials and textures featured on summer shoes.

Tropical vacations were in vogue, and this translated into a trend for sandals made with woven straw, rope and raffia. Embroidery also featured on accent areas of the footwear and would usually co-ordinate with a motif on the rest of the outfit.

It wasn’t just wedges that were popular. Flat beach sandals also feature as these were more practical to wear on uneven Sandy areas. This very flat style of footwear had many straps crossing over the top of the foot and around the heel with thick or thin straps offered in any colour. As with the ongoing obsession with the future, many flat sandals also took space age technology as an inspiration and had a single bar across the toe or one large strap up the centre.

Women still preferred heeled wedges or platforms for day to day to wear with summer dresses. Wedges with two wide coloured straps, crepe rubber soles and cut outs were really trendy and popular. Sandals were also starting to be made with casual sporty materials like canvas, denim and cotton twill making them washable.

1950s Swimsuits

Fabrics of swimsuits made in the 1950s were very different than the ones you tend to see in the market today, although this was improved compared to the 1940s. Nylon and elastic was added to jersey fabric to make it stretchy and to make it dry faster after a dip. Improvements were also made to the rubberised material from the 1940s Lastex. This, along with cotton, acetate and taffeta made up most of the swimsuit materials in the 1950s.

Bathing suits were made with a knitted fabric and would feel very thick compared to the thin lyrca suits we have today. Efforts were made to create swimsuits that hugged the body but didn’t show any lumps and bumps.

Bra tops were lined and sometimes had Pellon firmed bra cups. Some swimsuits also had boning in the chest and torso area – much like a longline bra. Separate rubber swimming panties were also worn to provide shaping and shooting to the stomach and lower body. The emphasis of a swimsuit was style over actually being able to swim.

Swimsuit patterns and colours became bolder compared to the floral patterns of the 1940s. Solid bathing suits in black, red, pink, aqua and white with contrasting piping in black or white were seen throughout the entire decade. Aside from solid colours, patterns like gingham, candy stripes and colour blocking were also popular. Towards the mid to late end of the 1950s artistic prints were a novelty and featured designs that were painted directly on to the fabric. Tropical themed prints as well as modern art based on the natural world were incredibly popular for this type of garment.

1950s Summer – Princess Bathing Suit

Several new styles of bathing suit made their mark on the deacde. The princess bathing suit was a classic look and one I always picture when thinking of the decade. The top usually had a sweetheart neckline with a short, tight skirt covering the front part of the bottom, which sometimes also extended around to the back. Most pictures you see of a princess bathing suit will show it as being a strapless garment. In reality, it was sold with thin straps that crossed at the back which could be attached or removed as desired. Straps were worn if a lady wished to swim and removed for sunbathing.

Ruching was also used on either side or the entire body of the bathing suit in the early 50s. This clever technique creates an optical illusion that slims the body and hides unsightly rolls. You can still find ruching on dresses and bathing suits today. Some bathing suits zipped up at the back to make them even more form fitting.

1950s Summer – Bubble Swimsuits

The bubble swimsuit was princess cut on the bodice which had puffy shorts instead of the fitted skirt of the princess suit. I think these are quite cute, but they didn’t go over well with women at the time. Instead of the puffy shorts, suit legs were trimmed with ruffles like bloomers or pettipants.

1950s Summer – Baby Doll Swimsuits

Baby doll swimsuits also had the bodice of the princess suit but instead of the short skirt or bubble hem, it finished in cute boy shorts. This was a new style for the 1950s. Playsuits and rompers were already available in short shorts, but it was finally acceptable for a swimsuit to finish in the same way.

Most Baby Doll suits had cuffed shorts with some also featuring pockets, ruffles and piping too. Another trendy style had gathered ties on the sides of the legs. The top of the Baby Doll suit could be strapless, but most had thick, flat straps making it look the same as the 1950s play set.

Summertime can be overwhelming with the heat, but you can stay chic and keep your vintage style whilst staying cool. By learning about the key styles of the decade you can buy modern reproduction, true vintage and even make your own clothing easily. I’ll be making my summer wardrobe soon, so make sure you keep and eye on my Instagram

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