Dressing the 50s

Posted by Julie Ann on

A recent visit to an estate sale turned up a fabulous little book published in 1953 entitled “The Clothes You Buy and Make”, by Caroline E. Wingo. Being a home sewer, I picked this up for the vintage sewing advice but it also contains a treasure trove of hair, makeup, and fashion tips for the mid-century diva. The title of Chapter 6 neatly summed up 1950s fashion sense for me “Plan Costumes – Not Dresses”. Now, they don’t mean a Halloween costume, they mean your ensemble. These women did not just throw on a dress, they dressed.

50s how to dress book
Image Source: “The Clothes You Buy And Make”, Caroline E. Wingo


Part of what draws many of us to 1950s style is that flare, the drama created from putting a costume together. Many modern designs just don’t have the extra attention to detail that comes with a garment from this era. After World War II, restrictions on fabrics were lifted and women’s fashion design exploded with indulgence. Yards and yards of fabric went into a skirt, and extras like special collars and pleats appeared. For a truly authentic look I often make my own dresses from vintage patterns. Many of the 1950s patterns that I own call for 5 to 6 yards of fabric, quite a bit when compared to a modern pattern which uses maybe 3 yards – if it has a full skirt.

Finding a beauty like Trashy Diva’s Rockette Dress is a rare occasion. This dress is a statement of the 50s, from the wing collar to the flared skirt, everything about it says “Atomic Era”. Details like the self-belt (a belt covered in the same fabric as the dress) also add an authentic touch. And modern fabrics with some stretch make this dress super comfy - take my word for it; I’ll be cutting a rug in this at the next swing dance!

vintage pattern 50s dress have collarsTrashy Diva 50s style dress with collar

Wing collars and full skirts were popular in the 1950s


Ok, I admit that sometimes you can’t dress so literally 50s. Fortunately, designers like Trashy Diva offer other styles with the same attention to detail and special touches that made mid-century fashion distinctive. With careful details such as the sweetheart neckline and bustle-like pleating of the Sophia dress you can still have the 50s style without broadcasting it quite so loudly as with the Rockette.

50s dress with gatherstrashy diva sophia 5th ave floral dress - behiand has gathers

Details like gathers and pleats added special touches to 1950s dresses


Dressing retro is as much about bringing the fashion sensibility of the past into today as it is about recreating a distinctive period look. Keeping in mind Caroline Wingo’s idea to plan a costume brings another dimension to dressing. Be a retro diva and have fun planning your ensemble!

Of course, Cats Like Us has a fab selection of 50s style dresses so be sure to check them out here!


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