1957 Fashion and Vintage Clothing
At the beginning of 1957, American women were still under the aegis of “My Fair Lady,” and although the clothes in the shop windows were not doubles for the Edwardian costumes on Broadway, the same pale, delicately blurry colors and nostalgic feeling were used. Black was the fashionable daytime color, worn with pale, long gloves, ladylike pointed pumps, smaller bags, and romantic flowered hats. Black serge, black broadcloth, and fine-grained black tweed were used for what suits there were. More often, the suit’s stand-in was a beautifully fitted dress and cape or a skirt and cape. Evening clothes were pale, delicate and fragile; the Edwardian colors abounded: pale greens, mauves, ivories, and pale pinks, often in dull satin or draped chiffon.
With the spring collections, however, a great power in fashion re-emerged—Gabrielle Chanel, who had been the darling of the 1920’s and the surprise of 1954. Suddenly, American manufacturers were infected with the same kind of relaxed elegance, and Chanel-type suits were the spring suits of 1957. The open-jacket policy, a Chanel idea decades before, was presented in American fashion magazines. Its way had been prepared by the abundance of beautiful, feminized silk shirts that had come into fashion with the Edwardian look. Under an opened jacket, they could be worn inside the suit but still showing. Most of the open-jacket suits were adaptations of a basic Chanel line, featuring a loose, straight jacket, usually buttonless, over a slim, straight skirt. What made the 1957 versions look new and interesting was inside the jacket—beautiful linings, usually matched to accompanying overblouses or shirts. Although Chanel’s suits had first appeared in jersey, the American adaptations and free translations appeared in any handsome fabric that could hold a line. One of the most striking spring suits was a crimson wool; the jacket was lined with royal-blue silk, and a white silk shirt worn with it was flowered in the same royal blue. Another suit, more like a Chanel version in its loose, easy line, was made of a bold, thick, navy-and-white herringbone tweed, worn with a red jersey overblouse that matched the red jersey jacket lining and the red jersey turn-back cuffs.
The more formal clothes in the spring collections turned away from the Edwardians. Capes abounded, and one designer built a whole wardrobe under a navy-and-white plaid woolen cape, lined in white silk. Including an evening dress with a shirtlike, navy jersey top and flared white chiffon skirt, the wardrobe also featured a series of day dresses in navy jersey, most of them sheaths that were more or less fitted.
The sheath line returned, and it went right on into summer; but right next to it was an easier, more varied style based on a rediscovery of American fashion classics and a new, almost reverent, treatment of them. The shirtwaist dress, a synonym for dowdiness at certain points in U.S. fashion history, was brought out of anonymity and properly treated. Indeed, the shirtdress became more elegant as the weather grew hotter. Sharkskin, that most elegant and heretofore most impractical of fabrics (all sharkskin used to yellow under sunlight), was finally feasible when made of a new synthetic named Arnel. Sharkskin shirts and shirt-dresses and shorts and pleated skirts, all classics, were high summer fashion. The easy middy tops and overblouses that were so dear to Chanel’s heart and had become standbys in American fashion looked marvelous with all of these. Vividly striped, knitted fabrics of all kinds were used in easy sheaths or in loose tops with free-flowing sharkskin pleated skirts.
The fashion of flowered fabrics, big news in 1956, still continued, and many of the prettiest summer sheaths were flowered linen, often in lush, tropical colors rather than the pastels of the previous year. There was also a great rage for flowered or fur-printed chiffon cardigans; weightless, and not particularly warming, they gave their wearers a sense of psychological protection against another American fad—air-conditioning.
The handsome swim suits of the summer were still maillots; better knitting processes made even sleeker fit possible.
The fall collections in America and Paris both featured the same general idea: more of the same relaxed easy-fitting clothes that the summer had seen. In Paris, however, such clothes had not been shown during the summer, and the change from careful fitting to no fitting, or what looked like no fitting, constituted headlines in both the French and American newspapers. Reporters said this was the biggest fashion change since Dior’s “New Look” of 1947. They made dire predictions that every woman’s wardrobe would be passe and would have to be replenished with a full stock of sack dresses (for that is what these chemises, or unfitted sheaths, were called), all with hemlines 19 in. from the floor! As usual, the reports of the death of the waistline were greatly exaggerated; although several sack dresses were shown, they did not constitute the majority of the new fashions. Many daytime clothes, and all evening clothes, were fitted. Although the raising of the hemline upset women as much as a drop in the stock market would have upset their husbands, the designers who showed 19-in. hemlines did not actually expect to sell them. There was, however, a rise of an inch or two to mid calf length or a little shorter.
Two new designers were heralded as the designers for the young: Pierre Cardin and Guy Laroche, both under 30 themselves, made news, paradoxically, with sack dresses that were more American than French in feeling. As simple and clearly cut as paper dolls’ clothes, they resembled American creations in that the idea behind them was more important than the fitting or dressmaking in them. Cardin draped his sack dresses to a cowl in back and Laroche let them hang free, but both of them created designs that were promptly taken over by American mass production.
Christian Dior, too, created some sack dresses, but his great stars of the season were his tiny-waisted, full-skirted day dresses, ultra-feminine and highly becoming, his beautiful, imaginative straight coats, and as magnificent a collection of evening clothes as had ever been seen in his salon. This was as it should have been, for the man who had ruled French (and influenced American) fashion for ten productive years, died, late in October 1957, of a heart attack. For lovers of beauty or admirers of creativity, it was an irreparable less; his genius and his understanding of his art had no equal. See also Obituaries.
Back on Seventh Avenue, the Americans were creating some pretty astounding fashions themselves. Many, like Traina-Norell, had created chemise dresses before the French had ever heard of them. Now they continued on their way, designing for Americans, not solely to outdo their French colleagues.
The full-backed line, in suit jackets and coats, was real, lasting news in the American collections. So was the three-quarter-length coat, usually in a bulky, shaggy tweed, over a slim skirt. Coats with waistlines, in fur and cloth, were featured for the first time in a decade at least.
Fur itself was very popular. It was used in lining in coats—Trigere made a marvelous gray fleece coat lined in cross fox. Fur collars appeared on suits —raccoon and lynx were the favorites among the designers for the young, and mink and sable were for the more elegant. Overblouses were possible in ocelot and American broadtail, even on a secretary’s salary. Fur hats were as fuzzy as a British busby or as luxurious as a Russian princess’ hat. And fake fur and the rougher, less expensive furs, like raccoon and river otter, were used in handbags.
The biggest color for fall was brown, and black ran it a close second. The most startling color for fall was blue—any blue so long as it was not baby blue. The winter print was an established fashion and showed up on daytime woolens as well as evening silks and satins, on inexpensive jerseys and velveteens as well as hand-loomed woolens. Challis came into its own in beautiful prints: it was used as the blouse and lining for a crimson wool jersey suit and as the top for a scarlet chiffon-skirted evening dress. Challis sheaths or chemises abounded for informal evenings.
The news, to summarize, was that any one look as such was out, but a general easing of line was fashionable, whether it was in a chemise dress or an easy-waisted, belted suit with a full skirt. The elegant classics of the spring and summer went right along with the new ease, their fabrics making them spectacular. For shirts, botanical prints of flowers that might have grown in a jungle were used, or embroidered cottons or silks, or ivory damasks; for skirts, tweeds and plaids in jewel colors appeared, stained-glass colors with thick, rich, textures, to give them added life. The printed velveteen skirt was popular for at-home clothes, as were velveteen culottes in lovely apricots and oranges, replacing, to some extent, the ubiquitous toreador pants of the past.
Hats were smaller and more luxurious. Feather helmets were all the rage, and the feather importers and dyers did a landslide business in coq and pheasant feathers, with guinea feathers inching in as close seconds. The fur hat was extraordinarily popular and, for anyone who could afford it, the handsomest hat of the season. Among the more fashionable were a leopard slouch hat, a mink or broadtail beret, and a chéchia of otter. The pretty, flowered hat, although a big hit in Paris, was not so successful in America as the fur- or feather-bearing one, but hairdos might have had something to do with that. The ideal length for hair was shoulder length or shorter, and bangs were frequent—long, fluffy, pretty bangs, marvelous under hats in the daytime and exciting in evening hairdos with the rest of the hair piled high or swirled back into a chignon or twist.
Shoes were more exciting than ever, with the pointed-toe pump definitely established as the shape of the shoe of the year. It appeared for daytime in grained leathers—in lizards and pinseals as well as the conventional smooth-finished leathers, and in exotic offbeat colors, like bronzy-green and blued-red and all manner of taupes and browns; and for evening, it was seen in dress fabrics, satins, silks, brocades, prints, cut velvets, challis. Open shoes were much less popular than they had been, and the handsomest evening slippers were either plain pumps, or T-straps, or closed-toe, open-back slippers. The midway heel, long a favorite of the young, came into high fashion as it got slimmer and slimmer. The high, skinny heel stayed upright because it was secured by an aluminum pin run right through its middle; the pin served the double purpose of keeping the heel from splitting and keeping it on the shoe. Bags were most fashionable when they were slimmer and longer, but some of the most exciting bags of the year were fat and very furry. Gloves were still long and were featured in every conceivable shade of brown, to blend with or match all of the new browns. Some gloves appeared with fur cuffs, although that meant the wearer had to restrict her furs to her gloves alone, which most women were unwilling to do. Jewelry was still lush and improbable, with the Chanel rope remaining a favorite; miles of golden chains were worn long and looped up on shirts and pullover tops, often dangling a fake jewel or military order. Earrings and pins of colored stones were more popular than they had ever been, and many managed to look quite real; emeralds, sapphires, and rubies were the favorites in the “fake” world and pushed rhinestones somewhat out of the picture.