Let's explore some distinguishing common features of original 1950s dresses. There are some good vintage inspired reproductions on the market place so how can we spot an original?
Over a ten year span of course styles are going to vary and change plus there will always be exceptions to the rule. Here I am highlighting some common elements of design and construction that should help you sus out authentic 1950s dresses.
Congratulations if you are fortunate enough to spot a 1950s designer dress. They are well documented and really set the direction of mainstream clothing which is what I am concentrating on here. A dress you might pick up at a vintage fair or vintage boutique, less likely nowadays a charity shop. But you never know!
It was still early days for mass produced clothing as we know it today so a lot of the 50s dresses you source are going to be the homemade variety with no labels to guide us. Women put the sewing skills they honed during wartime rationing to good use making their own dresses from an array of pretty fabrics available from companies such as Horrockses and Viyella. The labels you might find could be from stores like C&A, St Michael or Littlewoods but also catalogues such as Polly Peck and Kays.
The most common silhouettes were a fitted bodice, nipped in waist and full skirt. In contrast as the decade progressed narrow pencil like silhouettes became equally as popular. There was a move from the androgynous styles and square shoulders of the 1940s to a feminine rounder less structured shape.
Fabrics are still going to be predominantly natural such as crisp cottons, wool, silk and linen. However wartime innovations led to the development of other clothing materials such as nylon, acetate, acrylic and polyester. Synthetics maintain their vibrancy whereas cotton is prone to fading. Popular prints feature sketchy designs, cabbage roses, dense or simplistic florals and silhouette designs. Border patterns were utilised to create impact on skirt hems and bodices. For occasion wear authentic dresses will be made from satin, tulle, taffeta or velvet.
Necklines & Collars
Popular necklines found on 1950s vintage clothing include round, square and wide set boat necklines. Collars with stands were popular for button down shirt waist dresses but you might also find oversized one piece collars such as wing, shawl and sailor styles. Wrap across bodices were popular for occasion dresses.
Not much of a help as you will find original dresses with all lengths of sleeve however other than the wide 'grown-on' cap sleeves they were nearly all ‘set in’ straight styles ie without gathering at the sleeve heads. Three-quarter lengths were still popular with the addition of cuffs.
Belts were usually narrow and covered in the same fabric as the dress. Look for metal eyelets or hand stitched with a buttonhole. Buckles were also covered in matching material or for something a little more special they may have been produced in Lucite. Belts became wider as the styles became straighter. The belts can often let down an otherwise perfectly preserved dress they might be frayed away from the backing or have rust stains from the eyelets and buckle over time. I would not recommend washing the belt.
The skirt portion of most fifties dresses were full. They fell from the waist with narrow open pleats, evenly spaced or in bunches or small even gathers. For evening wear you might find more of a full circle style heightened glamour. For pencil or wiggle styles look for thicker fabrics and high waistlines.
Skirt lengths were usually around 27”.
Notions and Trims
Look at the materials and quality of the buttons. If the buttons are clear, you’re most likely looking at Lucite, a transparent type of plastic invented in 1931 that gradually replaced casein.
Look inside your dress. Check the seams. It was early days for overlocking and certainly at a domestic level so a quick fix was to halt the fray with a pair of pinking sheers so look out for seams with a zigzag cut serrated edge.
Examine the skirt hem, a modern dress would have a narrow machine stitched hem. An original will have a deep turn up which may have darts to allow the hemline to lay flat without puckers. It may have a tape finish. Some evening skirts may even have little weights inserted into the hem crease. Day frocks were rarely lined as ladies wore under slips. 50s occasion wear might well be, look for paper like linings or attached net petticoats.
Zips were still predominantly metal with cotton tape. You still find zips at the side of 50s dresses but you also get a lot that are inset into the back seam to draw in the waist to compliment the nipped in waist silhouette.
Lace trims will generally be cotton such as Broderie-Anglaise, you may get some machine embroidery and appliqué but most of the time embellishment was reserved for evening dresses.
Care & Sizing Labels
You will rarely see a care label in an original fifties dress, they started to appear on clothing in the 1950s at the same time as washing machines were becoming popular and modern synthetic fibres started to be used. The first labels were predominantly text-based and not standardised in the UK until 1966.
These pointers should also help to distinguish a good vintage inspired fifties dress. We are very mindful of these key features when we select our reproduction dresses. We select dresses as close to the originals as possible.
Happy hunting, we would love to hear all about your favourite 1950s dresses.