1956 Fashion and Vintage Clothing
American women began 1956 dressing like the Empire and ended it dressing like the Edwardians, due to a new fashion influence—the theater. Clothes at the beginning of 1956 were very slim and elegant, all line with very little detail. The Empire figure, with its small, high bosom, uncinched waist, and rounded hips, was emphasized in suits, dresses, and coats. Gone were the rough-and-ready tweeds that had abounded a year. before (for such close fitting, the only practical tweeds were those that had had their “lumps” smoothed down to a slight graininess) ; the most widely used fabrics were gabardine, worsteds, mohair, smooth, hard flannels, and not-too-fluffy fleeces.
The most important item on every woman’s spring shopping list was a hat; not the demure Easter bonnet of previous springs, but a big, important hat—it had to be a head high or two heads wide, or it did not count. The simplicity of the slim Empire body line led all the interest up to the head, and the milliners made the most of the opportunity. Exotic, heretofore incompatible colors (pink and orange, turquoise and green) were intertwined in high silk turbans or chechias; gardens of improbable flowers grew on wide-brimmed straws; and romantic Leghorns were wound with chiffon in melting shades and set with a single pink rose. All this romance was immensely becoming—the faces beneath the hats bloomed as prettily as the flowers on the hats, and, for the first time in years, women who had never worn a hat willingly flocked to the milliners. Since these hats were alive with detail and color, the clothes beneath them were subdued. Black, gray, and pale beige were the spring col-ors, pushing navy almost completely out of the picture. Summer clothes stole many colors from the liveliest spring hats and were mainly Empire in feeling; a gentler, more civilized summer dress appeared, ladylike and, at the same time, seductive.
From Paris, from the spring collections of Dior and Chanel, came the first hints of a real change in fashion mood, a change to the romantic. Suits were softly bloused and belted between bosom and waist, lapelled with violets; white organdy shirtwaists were folded over dark, gently fitted suits; Empire evening gowns were exotically colored and sparingly draped, often startingly so (e.g., Dior’s rose-colored chiffon, which was swathed across the shoulders and knotted at the bosom and let loose from there to the hem—in motion, it was one of the most seductive and discreet dresses ever made). More romantic hints could be’ found in the pleated white organdy collars on Mme. Fath’s afternoon dresses, in the abundance of chiffon, and in the superabundance of flowers, printed or “in the round,” for late-day and evening.
In New York City, the American theater took over where the French couturieres left off. Particularly influential was “My Fair Lady,” the musical version of °Pygmalion,” with Cecil Bea-ton’s ornate, oddly elegant 1912 costumes. His show-stopper was the Ascot scene, with its 20 costumes, each a separate, magnificent variation on black and white. The show was a hit and stayed on Broadway; the costumes were a hit and went right over to Seventh Avenue, the heart of the clothing district. They were copied and adapted and watered down, and the end results were presented in the manufacturers’ fall showings. Fashion magazines were forced to supplement their advance predictions with last-minute “My Fair Lady” specials, showing the loose-bodied, higher-waisted cut and the ladylike colors that lucky theatergoers were applauding every night.
Thanks to their inherent good taste, native caution, and limited budgets, very few American women swallowed these dictums whole; very few women gave up wearing their contemporarily designed, well-fitted suits and dresses to wear nothing but a wardrobe dating back to 1912. On the other hand, almost every woman bought something inspired by “My Fair Lady”: a big hat of white fur or feathers; a coat tied softly under the bosom; a black serge suit belted 1912 fashion, between bosom and waist; a mauve silk dress draped anachronistically rather than flatteringly (these literal translations were the quickest to appear and the quickest to disappear) ; a long-stemmed velvet rose to pin on a lapel; a white silk, feminine tailored shirt; an ankle-length brocade evening dress; curvy-heeled, high-vamped pumps with long, pointy toes; a reticule instead of a big bag; a pouchy fur muff. And there were new subtle colors—mauve, pink, and ivory, mostly for evening, and ruby, taupe, plum, and black, for evening or daytime, depending on the fabric. The most popular daytime color was black, followed by taupe and a new dull green named loden green for the loden cloth worn by Alpine skiers. Often Loden cloth, itself, was used in suits and sportswear, especially for high-fashion, moderately priced clothes.
Once the initial excitement of the fall was over, the American woman could see her fashion course a little more clearly. All the new clothes were more romantic, but nostalgia and romance soon separated themselves, and it was apparent that clothes did not have to look like the past to be appealing. The handsomest suits were still beautifully tailored, but the tailoring was gentler; many suits had full skirts and softer, prettier jackets. Short jackets, which came in with the Empire trend in the spring, continued, often above gently flared skirts. The strict, hewn-to-thebody line of the previous spring had eased into an easier fit and a rounder silhouette. Many coats were slim in front with new fullness in back; some had fullness eased in so gently from the shoulders that they looked columnar in repose, only to swell slightly in motion. There was a great new coat fashion, the cape. Capes appeared in fleece; in tweed; in broadcloth; in fur, long-haired and short; they appeared in all lengths. Since they were easy to get in and out of but not overly warm, capes were usually shown for day-time over their own dresses or suits, and for evening (when it was presumed that glamour, not warmth, was the object) they were worn with long white gloves. One of the handsomest day-time costumes of the fall was a black-and-white tweed cape cut in a narrow oval that ended above the waist, worn over a slim skirt in the same tweed and a fitted black silk sweater. Black was the featured color of the fall, and it was used in elegant fabrics—serge, broadcloth, twill, plush, duvetyn, flat tweeds, jersey, fleece, seal cloth, and knitted fabrics.
Winter hats were even bigger than spring hats had been. Daytime hats were high, while those for nighttime use were more likely to be wide. Again chechias and toques appeared and, for a change, big fur berets and fur platters and feathered hats. The dinner hat, a wide feathered or furred concoction dating back to Lillian Russell, appeared in restaurants and, to the relief of everyone, was prohibited in theaters. An evening costume started with a hat; if a woman forsook her. hat, she went to work on her hair, adding poufs and bangs and curls to the sleek, basic French twists and chignons of the previous sea-son. No more pageboys, no more flowing, shoulder-length bobs; the pony tail was passe for any girl over ten. The most startling coiffure of the fall was the bouffant hairdo, a bouncy, highly inflated pageboy that flared out on either side of the face. Supposed to give the features an appealingly small, delicate quality, it was so unwieldy and often so unbecoming that it was tamed down into a wearable edition.
Country clothes changed far less radically. Tweeds were still abundant, and marvelous ones appeared—one heavy, nubby, beauty, in turquoise, deep blue, purple, and black, was gathered into a skirt of unpressed pleats. Another, in blanket-plaid squares of high-fashion colors—pinky red, apple green, turquoise, white, and violet—was gathered and worn with a jersey in one of the colors that appeared most often in the skirt. Second on the list were sweaters, especially those in a fur-nylon-wool blend which closely resembled cashmere. There was a big rush back to wool sweaters. The new Shetlands looked refreshingly shaggy after the close-clipped perfection of the orlon and nylon sweaters. These blends and woolens could not be washed in a washing machine, but water-soluble wool soaps, guaranteed to be nonshrinking, solved that problem. The leather coat continued to be popular. The exciting addition to country dressing (and campus dressing) was the blouson, heralded the spring before in the Dior and Chanel collections. American designers worked the line into dresses and suits, keeping them very slim below the waist and lightly bloused above it. Blouson tops sat down under the new softer suits or made old suits look new. Even evening clothes appeared with blouson tops; the most effective of these were in soft, drapable fabrics like chiffon or jersey. Another innovation that first appeared in country clothes, and was snatched up for city and campus wear, was the hood. In the city, hoods were shown on mink coats and tweed capes. In the country and on campus, they served a more practical purpose and were made in more durable fabrics—heavy tweeds, poplins, and canvas.
Long-haired furs continued to seep back into favor, often coupled with the flattest furs, e.g., leopard collared in lynx. Many furs that had been relegated to attics were brought out and worn with great aplomb. Silver fox was one of them, and raccoon another. Some of the handsomest town coats wore raccoon collars; so did some of the most elegant tweed suits. Also shown were lynx and black fox. The fur-on-fur coat was newly popular and, when done well, promised to be an enduring style. A black seal overcoat with a mink collar was one example, and a broadtail Chesterfield was shown with sable revers.
Jewelry and shoes were strongly influenced by the romantic, nostalgic trend. Costume jewelry design had been changing, and the new pieces looked inherited rather than recently purchased; the Edwardian craze speeded up the process. The handsomest pieces of costume jewelry featured colored stones set in black metal; sometimes darkened rhinestones were set in the same way, to imitate paste jewelry. Many pieces were lavish to the point of being improbable, but they were the only fitting accompaniment for subtle, quiet evening clothes. Even shoes were jeweled. A series of heels was available for evening pumps featuring rubies, pearls, diamonds, or emeralds, all fake, all beautiful. The shoes designed by Perugia in Paris thirty-odd years before, curvy-heeled, pointy-toed, slim pumps and sandals in soft, sad colors, were brought out of safekeeping and looked fresh and completely current. Del-man presented a slim heel which consisted of a round aluminum shaft no more than a quarter of an inch in diameter, sheathed with a thin coat of leather. It was possible to walk on it, but just barely. Handbags were smaller and more lady-like; often they dangled from a chain, like old-fashioned reticules. They, too, appeared in off-beat colors, taupe and loden green, as well as black, and in new, subtly grained leathers, pin seal, lizard, and reverse calf. Gloves were more important than ever in this new, ladylike era, and their colors were paler and more interesting.
The romantic era brought in romantic make-up to replace theatrical make-up. Doe eyes were re-placed by luminous eyes, shadowed in blue and lavender. Powder, foundation, and lipstick were paler, and a translucent, pearly glow was the result. Girls looked like girls again, but to achieve the effect they had to bleach their skin and powder every inch that showed in some of the new decolletages. (Instead of being strapless, most evening gowns were cut in a V—more lady-like and just as revealing.)
At-home clothes partook of the romantic offering. The feminine tailored shirt was worn at home in silk and chiffon with skirts instead of pants—long skirts at that. And the muted colors —mauve, pink, and ivory—were perfect to relax and look romantic in.