Sunday, October 26, 2014

Cultural Shifts: How World War II Brought Us the Poodle Skirt

What?  A link between crinolines, wiggle dresses and the oversexed, over-the-top 1950s and World War II?  Well, yes.  In a pretty straightforward manner.  We are all familiar with Rosie the Riveter, the icon of women's contribution to the war effort.  Women moved into the workplace en masse as the men went to Europe to fight.  War needs machinery, and machinery needs to be built by someone. Women worked in factories and took on many jobs that were ordinarily open only to men. They dressed in dungarees, work shirts. Or work uniforms. They also worked in more traditional jobs such as stenographers, secretaries and the like. Their beaus, brothers and husbands were mostly on the battlefield.  The Great Depression brought privation and WWII brought even more.  Silk hose was gone.  Old dresses were taken in, let out, repurposed (yes, repurposing isn't a new phenomenon -- we just rediscovered what was a way of life in previous decades!) All the material that could be used for the war effort was not available for clothing and accessories.  And this was just in America. European privation was on another scale all together, as was what was expected of women.  Everyone sacrificed.  The war years were exceedingly difficult.
Sewing Pattern courtesy of

But with the war won and over, along with the grinding Depression that preceded it, the economy revved up into a full roar. It was time to party a little bit!   The closed well of  flirty femininity reopened as a gusher. (Although Rosie would never be put back into the box again, that is a different story.) Flouncy, frilly and frou frou were in!  Full skirts, held out by crinolines, red, red lips, sexy, form fitting "wiggle" dresses and bright, sparkling costume jewelry became the silhouette of the 1950s.  Yves St. Laurent, who startled the fashion world with what became known as The New Look in 1947, led the way, just as Coco Chanel had led in the 1920s. The New Look was also about sophistication.  The Whole Look -- full parures or matching sets of necklace, bracelet, brooch and earrings were worn, along with hats, gloves and the right shoes.  We may think of this as so much excess today, but looking at old Vogue Magazine shots from that time, one is struck by the elegance and great beauty of the best designs that incorporated all the accessories into one seamless package.

Dress courtesy of
The one thread that carries through the vintage clothing and jewelry  we so love is that of presentation. Both men and women saw it as normal, and right, to present themselves in public put together.  It was a cultural norm that began to unravel with the upheavals of the late 1960s.  But we are still in the well-coiffed 1950s for this article.  No amount of beautiful clothing could hide the isolation of so many women tucked away in their new suburban homes with new refrigerators and vacuums.  It may have been only June Cleaver who vacuumed in high heels. It was the attempt to keep women in the kitchen after the relative freedom of the war years that led to the visceral reaction that became the women's movement in the early 1970s.  Ah, but we are writing about clothing and jewelry.  Except that fashion always is about a statement of some sort.  It is not separate from the cultural milieu in which it finds its expression.
Pattern Courtesy of

So were women completely reduced to sexual objects and dutiful housewives in the 1950s?

One only has to review old black and white photographs of Dovima and other powerful women in fashion and the public eye in the 1950s to feel the power and magnetization that the clothes of that era could bestow on a woman. Rockabilly and great elegance and sophistication existed together. Sexy, feminine and even frivolous?  Perhaps. Grease and Audrey Hepburn!   But there were an awful lot of very strong women wearing those clothes.

Jewelry courtesy of