1954 Fashion and Vintage Clothing
At the beginning of 1954, every American woman worth her salt was holding her breath—not in anticipation but in order to look her best while wearing the fashion of the year, the molded princess dress. Started in Paris by Dior the preceding year and continued in the American collections of the fall and winter of 1953-54, the dress was put out at all prices and in every size. Although it was not universally be-coming, the princess dress was almost universally worn.
The suit as a fashion had disappeared, and in its place was the costume, a dress worn with a jacket or coat. This was the second great fashion influence in 1954, and a powerful one. Clothes were accessorized and colored to look all of a piece, and slipshod or “go-with-everything” hats, shoes, and bags no longer served their purpose. Tone-on-tone color combinations abounded; a great favorite was many tones of beige worn together, sometimes with a touch of white; one of the most spectacular combinations was Dior’s all-red costume, shades of geranium from hat to hem. Costume fabrics, like tweeds, were often woven in different weights, the heaviest for a coat and increasingly lighter weights for skirt, blouse, or dress.
Then in the spring and summer came a new fashion influence—the little-girl look, the baby look. Traina-Norell started it in his collection, and it sifted down fast from there. Dresses, shirts, separates, even shorts, were frilled and ruffled and beribboned. The effect was utterly charming; paradoxically enough, much more charming on sophisticated rather than baby-faced women. Lingerie colors and effects, given impetus by this, continued into the fall, and there were even wool and silk baby dresses, although by then they were overshadowed by newer fashion influences.
The most surprising of these, considering its initial reception, was the Chanel revival. Al-though reporters and fashion experts were in al-most complete accord about the failure of her spring collection, American collections, as well as many rival French collections, slowly but surely started to look like Chanel: the old Chanel of the Twenties or the new Chanel of the Fifties. It made little difference; her style had not changed radically. Where she had been good, she was still good—in easy jersey dresses, understated, young-looking suits, crisp blouses. And this was where the American manufacturers were quick to see a new trend. By fall, Chanel-type suits, blouses, and separates were flooding the American markets. They were perfect for American figures, and their casual, easy-going elegance was perfect for the American kind of life. Jerseys, for two years an American favorite, grew better-looking than ever. The middy crept in during the summer and stayed to appear in wool and silk, sometimes even fur, for fall and winter. The T-shirt dress, an American invention in the spring of 1954, was made for as little as $4 and looked wonderful on any average or better-than-average figure. Suits came back into favor again, but they were not mannish and they were not dressmakerish; they were Chanel suits, little-girl or little-boy suits: straight-jacketed, straight-skirted, with crisp white shirts that often buttoned down to the skirt by means of visible tabs.
The jumper, always a favorite with a discriminating few, appeared as a big fashion for any woman from college age up. Cut like a little girl’s jumper, it came in very grown-up fabrics, rare tweeds, flannels, and for the evening in velvet, satin, and brocades.
The fall collections in Paris re-emphasized the great influence of Chanel. Although she presented no collection herself, Dior, Fath, and many of the great couturiers reflected the silhouettes of the Twenties in their best designs. Dior made head-lines by raising and flattening the bosom, and although it was not the same bound-down look that the flappers had borne in the Twenties, it was a drastic change from the Hollywood-starlet curves everyone had striven for. His patented bras bound up the bosom, raising it two or more inches and modifying the curve so that there was not much curve left. His “H” silhouette—straight jacket, straight skirt, a low, loose belt—made top news. And Fath’s “S” silhouette—a blouse-backed top with a slim skirt—also looked very Twentyish, although not so redolent of Chanel. What had happened, really, was that after the tight, strained, precise silhouettes seen earlier in the year, American women were ready for a change, and both French and American designers felt it. When Chanel reappeared, she lit a fire that was already laid.
Coats. The full-length coat continued to be the most popular; unless a woman had a whole wardrobe of coats, it was the most practical. But it narrowed down so that it was often very little fuller than the narrow dresses it covered. As the year wore on, bigger, bulkier coats came into view, with bigger collars, many of them like middy collars, others like capes. The chesterfield, always a favorite, reappeared in more feminine versions. The officer’s coat showed up in every-thing from cashmere to chinchilla. And in the fall, with the great tweed revival, coats got even bigger, but not like tents—they were wide, straight, usually flat in back and in front. The three-quarter coat continued to be a second coat for the lucky woman who could afford it, as did the fitted coat. Fabrics varied from the polished broadcloths and zibelines that had top priority in the beginning of the year to luscious tweeds in untweedy colors: purple, lilac, sapphire, ruby, and a great range of oranges and golds called tawny. The leather coat was a special fashion all its own. The most luxurious leather coats were lined in fleece (one especially handsome one was black capeskin lined in black fleece) and could be worn either side out. They appeared in all lengths and all colors—turquoise, pink, white, red. Many were washable, so that pale colors were not as unfeasible as they seemed. The alpaca fleece coat continued to be a great favorite, as did the newer, synthetic fiber fleeces. These filled the place of fur, were light and warm and got better-looking as the textures of the fleeces improved and designers learned how to handle them.
Suits. Suits as fashions had almost disappeared before Chanel and her influence revived them. The only suits that appeared before that—with any fashion value—were a few box-topped suits with slim skirts. After the rebirth of Mlle. Chanel, the fall collections abounded in suits, many of them directly reflecting her influence. Another big suit fashion was slim and fitted, with a matching, bare blouse. It could be worn to work and, after five, when its wearer took off the jacket she revealed what was to all intents and purposes, a dress. This looked best in fine tweed or flannel or, for more elegance, in broadcloth. The huge tweed revival in the fall brought forth marvelous tweed suits, often classically fitted or boyishly tailored (the man-tailored suit’s replacement, courtesy of Chanel and her disciples), often covered by matching coats. Many suits had overcoats instead of jackets—hip-length or three-quarter coats lined in Milium. In the fall, Dior’s “H” suits and his riding-jacket suits created a splash and were copied in all manner of tweeds and flannels.
Dresses. The shapely, skin-tight dress appeared in a number of fabrics; in broadcloths during the winter, in silk and rayon taffetas, peau de soies, and prints for spring. If the fabrics were not stiff enough to hold the line, they were buoyed with Pellon linings. One designer, Suzy Perette, built bodies right into her dresses, so that they had figures even on the hanger. The summer rash of baby dresses died out by fall, mostly as a result of the rediscovery of Chanel and the backing of the Chanel-type silhouette by Dior’s new silhouette. Hemlines changed very little, remaining at about 15″ from the floor. Evening dresses were less bare than they had been, and 95% of them were short, with full skirts. Fabrics were less bouffant than in former years; more and more satin appeared, and in the summer, fresh, starchy cloque piques were popular. The T-shirt dress, discussed earlier, went from summer-weight cotton into fall-weight wool jerseys or blends without a tremor, and its more expensive predecessor, the sweater-dress, continued to be popular. The middy dress, originally a college fashion, was often translated into more sophisticated versions—velvet, broadcloth, even lame—and the Chanel kind of dress, loosely fitted and loosely clinging, rose higher and higher in repute as fall wore on. Dior’s sleek tube dresses and his low-waisted, flaring skirts, shocking at first, proved very wearable after some modification.
At-Home Clothes. At-home clothes grew handsomer and more exuberant as TV screens got bigger and bigger. Tight pants, in velveteen or patterned jersey, were very popular, often worn with handsome tailored shirts. Full-length at-home skirts, while not as fashionable, were more comfortable and, for many, more becoming. At-home jewelry was lavish and grew more so as the year wore on. Colors were marvelous—many women who stuck to safe beige on the street blossomed forth at home in daring combinations: pink and orange (also heavily endorsed during the summer for street wear) ; blue and green; and red, pink, and orange.
Fabrics. There were more miracle fabrics than there had ever been. Dacron. Orlon. and Vicara were combined with other man-made and natural fibers for shirtings, suitings, and sweaters; and there also arose a blend of two natural fibers, worsted and silk. This received great acclaim in the spring and summer, when it was seen in higher-priced costumes and dresses. It held its shape beautifully, did not wrinkle, and kept cool. Later, it was copied in rayon and acetate blends. Sharkskin came back for the summertime, acetate sharkskin, which did not yellow in the sunlight. Silk became more available and less expensive and, therefore, was used extensively by designers of lower-priced clothing. Silk peau de soie, silk satin, and silk brocades were seen in the fall. Cut velvets and French satins luxuriously flowered in velvet were high-fashion fabrics, quickly copied for moderate-priced clothes. The Orlon and nylon fleece coats were perfected until they felt luscious, as well as looked it, and were very popular, especially in pale colors. They were noted particularly, because they could be cleaned by a quick run through the automatic washing machine.
Accessories. While the Italian haircut was at its height (through the winter and early spring), attention was focused on earrings. Hoops abounded, as did shower earrings, especially in the evening. Later, when women started letting their Italian cuts grow out, golden metal hairbands be-came very popular, and earrings were somewhat replaced by necklaces. The Chanel influence brought back beads by the carload—rope upon rope of colored beads were worn with everything, even light summer dresses. By fall, these ropes had become quite opulent, simulating diamonds, pearls, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and semiprecious stones. The handbag of the year was the tote bag, a market bag of leather or fabric which could accommodate anything. It first appeared in leather, then in tapestry or needlepoint, and quickly was available at any price and in every color. By the end of the summer it, too, had run its fashion course, and smaller, more ladylike bags were in fashion. Often a small bag would be looped around the handle of a tote bag, to make the transition less painful.
New developments in leather made top shoe news. The lustre leathers—calf or kid, sometimes even snakeskin, with a mother-of-pearl gleam—were seen in every price range and in every style, from street shoes to evening slippers. A topflight shoe designer, Herbert Levine, brought out a shoe which consisted of a sole, a strap across the toes, and a high spindly heel—it stayed on! The secret was an inner sole of elastic which rose up and clung to the foot. This was copied rather quickly, but less effectively, by manufacturers of more moderate-priced shoes.