1955 Fashion and Vintage Clothing
American women dressed better than ever in 1955. They could afford it—prosperity seemed to be here to stay, and clothes reflected it. If a woman did not own a mink coat, she owned a Borgana one (a new, furlike blend of Orlon and Dynel, quite luxurious, light and very warm). If she did not own a raft of cashmere sweaters, she had Orions that felt and looked almost as good. If she did not own 30 carats of diamonds, she had 20,000 carats in rhinestones, splashier and much more effective. What the American pocket-book did not provide, American inventiveness made up for—and the American designers, as well as the fabled few in Paris, made the fashion head-lines that every woman followed, albeit often unconsciously.
In Paris, the alphabet game started by Messrs. Dior, Fath, and Balenciaga at the end of 1954 continued well into 1955: the letters might be the same but the shapes had changed. At the beginning of this game (late in 1954), Dior sponsored his famous “A” and “H” lines, both of them revolutionary and faintly distressing to the curve-conscious American male. The bosom was raised and somewhat flattened, the hips were flattened and the waist was, for the most part, politely ignored. The general effect, a straighter up-and-down line than heretofore, was unbecoming enough so that American manufacturers promptly set about adapting the line and softening its impact. Generally speaking, the higher-priced the American clothes, the more closely they approximated the lines laid down by Dior. By the time his “A” line reached the $39.95 bracket, it was softly rounded and much more feminine than he would have liked. Balenciaga, always a stern disregarder of feminine ins and outs, showed his usual barely fitted suits, beautifully tailored, short-jacketed affairs with slim skirts. This time American copyists took his example more to heart than they ever had before. The overblouse, a Balenciaga pet for a few seasons, seemed a necessity under the loosely fitting suits that now appeared in such multitude.
Dresses were for the most part gently, but not insistently, fitted and slim-skirted, at least until sundown. Fabrics often determined fashion. There was such a multitude of beautiful tweeds in every weight, for instance, that to show them off best designers concentrated on pure, simple line rather than shocking innovation. Daytime dresses were understated and rather tailored.
Suits came hack, sponsored partly by the Chanel influence and partly by the beautiful tweeds that were being turned out in such profusion. The Dior “A” and “H” lines showed up well here—one especially memorable suit came in a supple, furry black-and-white tweed, had natural shoulders, a mildly indented waist, and a skirt that was tight as far as the hips, then gently flared. This natural, or loosened waist-line, courtesy of Dior, seemed appropriate on suits but took less well to dresses.
Coats, too, felt the impact of the alphabet. The majority of them were either narrow at the shoulder, then widened out toward the hem (the “A”), or approximately the same width all the way down (the “H”). These last-mentioned columnar coats, slim from beginning to end and fitted nowhere, had been gaining in popularity ever since Trigere had shown them a few years before. In 1955 they were shown in every price range, and style-conscious customers who had been altering their ready-made coats to the desired slimness now found just what they wanted on the racks.
The middy influence, also part of the Chanel craze, showed up everywhere: suits, even the very high-priced ones (presumably to be worn by women over college age), had middy collars and were tied with middy scarves. The most elegant of these scarves were in satin or fur. The middy it-self, very little altered, was often the jacket for a suit or dress. Middy dresses were abundant in tweed, jersey, and broadcloth. Middy collars were shown on every kind of coat, from fur on down to raincoats. The college crowd adored the middy, and most college fashions were built around it—there were velvet middy dresses for the evening, canvas middies for campus, Reece middies for cold weather, and silk middies for warm weather:
Jumpers, too, were high fashion. Women who had discarded them 15 or 20 years before as being dowdy and schoolgirlish sported them with great aplomb. Many jumpers were strictly for daytime, but many more could be worn with a blouse until dark, then could go out alone as an evening dress. Plaid jumpers, tweed jumpers, jersey jumpers, and velvet jumpers were all shown, for every group from college students to canasta-playing house-wives.
Tweeds continued to be the number one fabric, and the only contenders were some of the new oxford-brown flannels and, for late-day costumes and suits, the smoother, elegant fabrics like broad-cloth.
The tunic, a fashion that Balenciaga had presaged a year earlier, finally came into its own and was shown by leading American designers in all price ranges. There were separate tunics to be worn over skirt and tops, tuniclike suits and tunic dresses. A new kind of costume evolved: a slim, tuniclike coat over an equally slim dress or suit. Sari dresses, started by the fabulous real ones from India, became the most exotic summer evening dresses around and were available in every price range. They were ideal with suntans and golden summer jewelry, and the light, gauzy fabrics were suited to one of the hottest summers America had ever known. Also light and gauzy, and equally romantic if less exotic, were the Camille dresses, so-called because of the revival of the film of that name, in which Greta Garbo wore full-length pastel shirtdresses in fragile organdies and laces.
The summer of 1955 also saw the beginning of the return of the long skirts for formal and in-formal evenings. Even the ubiquitous T-shirt dress, still a topnotch fashion, appeared in floor-length versions, knitted in cotton and striped or diamond-printed to be doubly striking. Long-skirted ball dresses were the formal fashion for the summer and the fall, and separate long skirts were shown in formal fabrics like satin and velvet and in informal tweeds and jerseys for feminine at-home clothes. By fall, all the collections, even for junior sizes, showed at least one full-length evening dress. One especially striking dress was a full-length gray flannel evening dress topped by a white satin jacket, a judicious combination of formal and casual fabrics.
This was the state of fashion for most of 1955, until the memorable days of late August and early September, when Dior, Givenchy, and Balenciaga entranced several hundred buyers and several million women with their new ideas. The first of these was the Oriental influence—especially at Dior and Givenchy—not ,Oriental fabrics (they had appeared in the sari dresses mentioned earlier), but Oriental shape, line, and restraint. The caftan, a straight-falling, narrow-shouldered Chinese coat, slit from the armholes down to the hem, was a dominant note in Dior’s collection. He showed it in black satin, and under it he showed the simplest, slenderest sheaths, also black satin, jeweled once and otherwise left alone. Givenchy’s touch-me-not dress, Oriental in cut and restraint, was a slim, barely fitted sheath, collarless, waist-less, slim-sleeved. Although it seemed to have no figure on the hanger, it gave a perfectly beautiful figure to most wearers. Givenchy did this dress in many fabrics and many colors—one of his prettiest, a touch-me-not sheath in oatmeal tweed, had as its only decoration a bone button at the throat.
The second idea affected the entire silhouette. The look to be achieved was that of a very slim body line, balanced by a big hat or a bulky stole, or, more rarely, a big-shouldered coat. The biggest hits, whether from Dior or Givenchy or Balenciaga, were slender and longlined, usually unbelted. The Balenciaga suits were long-waisted or unwaisted and slim down to the hem. Fantastic hats to balance this body slimness appeared, many in fur. The fur casque and the fur plateau were the most striking and often the most becoming; they were widely copied for American con- – sumption.
The news from abroad fitted in well with the American trend toward less complicated dressing. Indeed, the Chinese simplicity and lack of strained fit, the slim, easy body line might have originated in America rather than Paris. The gaga touches—the fur hats, the bulky stoles, the draped chiffon evening dresses, were left pretty much where they had started—in the high-priced, high-fashion brackets. The costume, still a top-ranking fashion, got an added impetus with the restatement of slim line from abroad—and an extra touch of luxury from the craze for fur that showed up in the fall 1955 collections. Even moderate-priced coats and suits had fur collars or fur linings. Although the fur might only be mink-dyed rabbit, it was fur, and it looked wonderful and felt wonderful; the fashion was in for the winter.
Shoes went along with the. slim line, and the high-heeled, beautifully turned opera pump appeared in marvelously colored leathers. Oxblood, gunmetal gray, and dark green were just a few of the shades that were high fashion, and they looked best when blended with, rather than matched to, the handbag and gloves of the wearer. Handbags were smaller and more delicate than they had been. The tote was purely a matter of convenience rather than a fashion, and the reticule, long, slim, and flat, was the most esthetically satisfying with all the slim, understated clothes of the new season.
Hairdos underwent as striking a change as any designer ever created. At the beginning of the season, the most fashionable coiffure was a shoulder-length bob, smoothly waved, often worn back from the face with the aid of a headband. By the summer, the chignon, a discredited hairstyle after the exaggeratedly large ones of a few years before, had returned in smaller, more youthful versions. And by the early fall, when the slim body line and the Oriental influence appeared in Paris, it seemed inevitable that practically every model should have hair long enough to wear either in a chignon or the French twist. It seemed inevitable, but to an observer it was incredible, since just a short year before the Ondine or gamine haircut, barely two inches long, was the style. American women, the fashion-conscious ones, had grown enough hair to cope with a new fashion entirely opposite to the one they had worn the year before. These new, sleek hairstyles balanced the slim clothes they appeared above and did not overweight the bulky hats they appeared under.
Jewelry fashions, too, had changed. From the Chanel fashion of countless ropes of beads draped over a “flapper-y” dress the style had changed to one huge, important jewel—or at the most, one pin, worn, as Dior showed it, dead center, and balanced with earrings. (There were fewer bare necks in 1955, even with the abundance of ball dresses. Most ball dresses had sleeves and a be-coming, rather than a starkly bare, neckline). Rhinestones were joined by colored stones: fake sapphires, emeralds, rubies, topazes, and amethysts, magnificently set, often in dark enamel to look antique. Gold jewelry, too, had an antique finish; instead of the shiny, glittering gold of previous seasons, the best-looking golden jewelry was yellower than before and mat-finished. It looked either Oriental or antique, but it never looked freshly minted.
Maternity clothes, long an overlooked branch of fashion, came into their own with the advent of the one-piece maternity dress. Not the drawstring-tied affair that had been worn five or ten years before, this was a loose, flowing dress, often Oriental in feeling. The pioneer in this field was a house known as Ma Mere, which made headlines in the fall of 1954 with its one-piece ball dress, a long flow made up of nothing but thousands of pleats in pleated black organza. The birth rate in America kept on rising, but women discovered that they could look attractive though pregnant.