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Essay: Fashion in the ‘50s and How it Shaped the Social Status of Women

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Introduction

Women have always been told where they were supposed to sit in society. From how they should dress to how they should act. Fashion has been a major influence on women’s position in society as a whole. For years, fashion has been something that further enforced what gender roles have put in front of women as acceptable. As women’s rights have become a larger topic of discussion over the past decade, fashion has once again shaped the way society views the gender. Women in power are no longer always seen in dresses in heels, but pantsuits and flats are beginning to be more prevalent, and no longer a shock when they are worn in the place of dresses and heels (Factor). Highly influential women like Hillary Clinton and Blake Lively are becoming more and more commonly seen in pantsuits. Clinton has been seen at major political events including the Presidential debates of the 2016 election, Fig. 1, and at her election defying campaign stop in Iowa, Fig. 2. Lively is regularly seen at media-heavy outings such as Variety’s Power of Women event, Fig. 3, and on the movie posters of her newest cinematic role in A Simple Favor, Fig. 4, in such attire. Both of these women use these fashion pieces to make a statement about gender roles in fashion and show they are equals, in the case of Clinton. Many women want to wear controversial pieces, just to prove that society no longer has such large control over the gender as a whole. One of the eras that we see the major role fashion plays on societal standards of women is the Victorian era of the 1950’s (Factor). Women were considered housewives and that was about it. They were supposed to watch the kids, clean the house and please their husbands. Women were pictured in aprons and were very confined to the social norms of the time. The 1950’s was the period of conformity in America for both men and women, and everyone was stuck in the view of society (Getchell).

Fashion over the Decade

The 1940’s brought major fashion names to surface like Christian Dior. The forties were the age of squared shoulders, boxy, more natural body shapes, and short, straight skirts, Fig. 5 (Peacock). The other major trend seen in the ‘40s that basically disappeared in the ‘50s, was the natural style of Women’s bodies as well as fashion as a whole. In 1947, Christian Dior unveiled a totally new style to women’s fashion that many quickly opposed to. He brought soft shoulders, hourglass figures and large, voluminous skirts that fell right at the mid-calf. He brought the look of tight bodices and accentuated waists back from the 1850’s, Fig. 6. A style change was one of the major lifestyle changes that began in women’s lives throughout the 1950’s. There was no longer a need for the conservation of money and supplies for the war effort behind World War II, and women became more able to spend more time and money on their appearances (Walford). Dior’s new style was beginning to spread but did not catch on for a while. Women felt they had just gained freedoms throughout the workplace and throughout the fashion industry, but just as quickly as they had earned it for themselves, it was taken back by a male designer. As women slowly warmed up to the style, everyday appearances began to change. Women found themselves in corsets as well as bust and hip pads to achieve the newly introduced and highly praised hourglass figure. Women felt this was unreasonable. They were no longer appreciated for the type of body they had, they now had to conform to the new style. Heels and gloves, purses and coordinated belts helped complete looks and many believed outfits were not complete without them. The constant maintenance and coordinated accessory count felt unreasonable, but everyone was ready for a change after World War II. The “new style” was protested, but still was able to catch on. By the early fifties, it was seen everywhere and on everyone. Slowly, fuller fabriced styles such as swing dresses were welcomed, Fig. 7. Casual wear was seen more and more at home and at casual outings like afternoon picnics, while the more put together look was seen outside of the house in most other types of events. In 1957, Hubert de Givenchy revealed his sack dress, Fig. 8, which was a loose fitting dress that had little to no accentuation on any part of the woman’s body and inspired the tunic style of the 1960’s (Sessions, fashion). The 1950’s paved the way for new styles and clothing types, but nobody expected the changes to come in the following years.

Gender Roles

One of the biggest ways that fashion was able to contribute to the social status of women was due to the strict gender roles apparent in the 1950’s. There was no differentiation between households because all the men were at work all day while women stayed home and the kids went to school. According to society, women were supposed to stay at home unless the paycheck was essential to support the family. This was uncommon however, due to single incomes from the male parent of the household becoming the normal of the time. Even when women did work, just to support their family, they did not get paid as much as men did. Between 1950 and 1960, women saw a 59-64 cent wage gap for every dollar of a male peer working the same job (Rowen). Women were regarded as “submissive and inferior beings” despite the efforts they put in during the war to keep the home front together and were never given the chance by society to live up to anything more (Gardiner). If the woman of the house worked when the paycheck was not needed, the woman was considered selfish and frowned upon by society (Brosnahan). Women were expected to work to please their husbands 100 percent of the time. The ideal wife of the time was a stay at home mom that kept the house cozy and husband happy all the time. As men were coming home from war, Marriage rates were at an all time high and the baby boom began (Getchell). To be married, and pregnant usually, at a younger age than ever before was another one of the major changes that this time period saw that had never been seen yet in history (Boucher). At the time, an MRS degree, or being married, was way more important than a college degree as a woman. The youngest ever average marriage age was seen so far in all of history (Brosnahan). Only 23 percent of the American population was recorded to be single and the almost 50 percent of all brides were married by the age of 19. Men were marrying at the average age of 22 while women’s average age was 20 (Boucher). Most couples got married and began having families immediately. There was no need for them to be in the workforce, when the average size of a family was 5-6 people. The amount of three and four children households, had doubled and quadrupled by the end of the decade. It was more cost-efficient to keep the kids at home rather than paying for all of their kids to be kept by someone else while both parents worked. These were all the major factors that led to women being put into the label of housewives and stay at home mothers without jobs.

One of the major times we see a break in gender roles was when the men were deployed for World War II. Women had no choice but to step up, out of the role of housewives that was the previous normal and take on all the empty roles. The men had been deployed and everything from the factory jobs making the weapons, to still taking care of the making of clothes and keeping of children had to still be completed. It did not last long though. When the war ended and the men came home, women were expected to quietly give up their positions they had worked into the last four-to-six years, and return to being housewives. They returned to kitchens, aprons and the life of the inside of the home pleasing their husband. The image of American women in delicate dresses with aprons around their waists, and hair in updos were used as propaganda against the Russians and Russian housewives during the cold war. The image of the women tending to their home and children was the ultimate picture and representation of democracy, freedom and capitalism during the time period to the American Media, Fig. 9 (Brosnahan).

Social Standards

Social standards made women unable to have lives of their own. Women conformed to fit the way society viewed them and never had much individuality throughout the 1950’s. One if the main things we see women conform to as a fashion trend is the body shape that all women wished and wanted to have. The ideal body shape considered perfect in the ‘50s, was broad shoulders, relatively large breast, a narrow waist with round, broad hips (Ainsworth). This body type is basically unattainable without some sort of body shaping undergarments. Broad shoulders and hips generally do not come with a narrow waist, and people with naturally narrow waist are not commonly seen with naturally large breasts. The bullet bra was a clothing item worn to help women get the look of fuller breast that was the societal norm at the time, Fig.10 (Sessions, Lingerie). These were brought into popularity through celebrities and movie stars of the time including Patti Page, Lana Turner and Jane Russell. Bullet bras were uncomfortable to say the least. They forced the wearer to stand up straight at all times to avoid pinching around the rib cage. The bras were stiff and uncomfortable, but women wore them to give their breast a larger look that was the “in” look of the time (Rowley). The bras were described as “the bra that gives you the lovely figure you’ve always wanted” in many advertisements, even though many women disagreed with the new style (Brown). Another piece of clothing that was strongly disagreed with, but still made its way into the everyday life of women was corsets. Corsets were also a piece that was popular solely because it is what was normal in society and it helped women achieve the ideal look put in their minds by society. Corsets could be tight enough to damage internal organs and majorly restricted a woman’s movement, making even breathing hard. Women were so pushed to conform to the social norms, that they were no longer worried about their health or comfort because that was not something talked about throughout society or something that people were concerned with. The desire to fit the ideal body type and shape was enough to make the sensibility of the fashion pieces during the era disappear.

Teen Dress

Teenage girls had more freedom in fashion than adult women of the time. Casual dress for teenage girls included tapered pants usually with shoestring type ties at the calf, and a casual t-shirt commonly tied up at the natural waist, Fig. 11. Shirtwaist dresses were popular in the ‘50s and were most commonly seen in varying colors of dotted cotton. Bare arms were not unusual as well as wide, full skirts, ruffled slips, Fig. 12, cropped jackets and princess style dresses, Fig. 13. Prints such as peppermint stripes on tops, Fig. 14, party print petticoats, Fig. 15, circus stripes, Fig. 16, and button front tops and dresses were seen for most occasions as teenage girls were not under as strict of fashion rules as married women or women with children (Rich). Teenagers were the main wearers of casual dress, and they helped make it more mainstream as the trend progressively got more and more popular. Girls still wore dresses, but pants were not a rarity like in older women. The most common trend that was constant throughout all women’s fashion, teenagers or adults, was the addition of petticoats under most dresses and skirts. These gave the fuller skirt look that was new to the era (Harris).

Media

The media was very one sided when it came to showing the actual life of women. They were never shown in the factories, even when it was a huge role of women during the war. They were never portrayed anywhere but the house, wearing an apron, making dinner for their family and taking care of the kids. This is the main reason people see women as “happy homemakers” throughout the ‘50s. Nobody knew much different of them and even today, when you look up women in the 1950’s on the internet, your search results are flooded with women wearing aprons in kitchens with plates of cookies or children in their arms, Fig. 17 & 18. Domesticity was idealized through the media and many young mothers and wives knew nothing different.

When I Love Lucy premiered in October of 1951, it quickly becomes one of the most popular shows on television. The main character Lucy, and her husband Ricky were just like every other suburban family. Uncommonly though, the show was focused on the female lead Lucy, and her want for more out of her typical housewife life. She wanted to be anything more than a housewife, and episode after episode, we saw how she did a million different things to break the cycle, but never could (Egge). Another uncommon characteristic we saw was the non-conformity to the normal television series presented in the ‘50s. Most shows portrayed the typical happily married couple and gender roles of the time, while I Love Lucy presented the monotony of the life of the American Housewife of the time. Though this idea was presented throughout the show, it was not a way that women were encouraged to think. The producers ensured that every episode and new task Lucy and her companions tried to accomplish to escape the house, was always met with disaster. At the end of each episode, the women were always shown returning to their homes and housewife lifestyle. Possibly in the most famous episode of I Love Lucy, Lucy and her friend Ethel go to work in chocolate factory while their husbands stay at home and do the housework. Lucy and Ethel quickly find themselves overwhelmed and looking for any way to save their new jobs. They end up with chocolates everywhere, except wrapped on the conveyor belt and are sent home. This specific episode was a way the producers voiced their opinion that women do not belong in factories, and men do not belong in the house. They portrayed the factory as too high speed and overwhelming for a woman, and that as a gender, housework is a much more suitable livelihood. Lucy and Ethel were still in the typical housewife apron, even in the factory and the husbands put on aprons the second they began the duties of their wives (Oppenheimer). The apron was a symbol of the time and the role that women were inescapably stuck in as a gender.

New types of Clothing

While the apron was such a strong symbol of women in the 1950’s and showed their roles in society, there were many types of clothing that slowly started the fashion revolution that arose throughout the following decades. Womens fashion was beginning to expand and their position in society began to be seen differently as the 1950’s came to an end and the 1960’s were on the horizon. The new pieces of clothing and styles being introduced allowed for women to gain a slight sense of individuality from societal norms and welcome new fashion standards. The introduction of the bikini in the late 1940’s, gave women a new sense of self as they were slowly becoming able to show off more of their bodies, outside of the bedroom. Bikinis shocked the world when they were first introduced, but as society and women became accustomed to the new style, bikinis quickly became a staple in American women’s fashion. Bikinis gained popularity throughout the ‘50s, but were still not anywhere close to what they are today. Even some of the most revealing bikinis covered the entirety of the woman’s breast and went high enough on the torso to cover the belly button, Fig. 19 (Britannica). The ‘50s are known for corsets, and puffy skirts that were cinched at the waist, but, pants and casual wear slowly appeared more and more throughout the 50’s. Casual wear was becoming more acceptable as well as common for women in the everyday life (Factor). T-shirts and jeans were introduced by post-war teenagers (Laver). Fabrics including nylon and elastic began to be more available and were no longer having to be conserved for the war efforts. The incorporation of new fabrics and accessories lead to the formation of new styles and clothing pieces (Sessions, fashion).

Conclusion

Overall, the 1950’s were a time a social conformity for women. Fashion styles changed and new clothing pieces as well as undergarments surfaced and slowly were integrated into women’s everyday attire. Strict gender roles of the time played a huge part in the illustration of women as housewives and the picture of women in the kitchen adorned with an apron and a smile defining the decade. Fashion was one of the major reasons women were able to be confined to the position and not get much leeway to get anything more out of their lives. The apron is the strongest standing symbol of women of the ‘50s because it is a small piece of fabric that represents so much more to society. An apron has always been a symbol of the kitchen, cooking or cleaning. Seeing pictures and advertisements and TV shows constantly portray women in aprons taught everyone to believe nothing different. The media only ever showing us that women cook and clean and men are always out working in the high-paced factories and tending just about every job out there, further pushed the gender roles into a strict reality for women throughout the decade. Women’s lives became nothing but a monotonous cycle of cooking, watching the kids, pleasing their husbands and making sure they looked good to society, while comfort, health and concern for personal wants outside of the home were never even considered. While it is never something you think about when you first see such pictures, shows and advertisements, once you began to dissect their everyday life, you began to see how far we have come as a society. Women are no longer shut in their homes. They are no longer shamed for not being married with children by their mid-20s and they can aspire to be anything they want. Everyday women are making new strides to becoming more equal in society, almost a century after they had little to no authority. Womens fashion today is more of a statement of being who they chose to be not what they are told to be. Whether it was an apron representing the tedium of the life of a housewife or a corset to achieve the “right” body type, fashion strongly contributed to the way society viewed women in the 1950’s.

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