Vintage Dresses: Achieving a 1950s Retro Style

Updated February 9, 2022
1950s Woman serving appetizers at party

Out of all of women's fashion styles from the 20th century, dresses from the 1950s might be the most memorable. You don't need to have seen A Place in the Sun or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to have an appreciation for the striking silhouettes from the 1950s that seem so dissimilar to those being worn today, and with people's fascination with dress history on the rise, there's no time like the present to take a deep dive into the dress-side of the 1950s.

Popular Dress Styles of the 1950s

woman modeling dress 1950s fashion

Thanks to the countless films and television shows that've recreated the 1950s on screen, most people of today are familiar enough with postwar fashion to be able to visually identify some of the more popular styles of the period. Thus, you're probably much more knowledgeable about the different kinds of dresses from the 1950s than you give yourself credit for. While dress historians can attest to the fact that these four types of dresses from the period aren't the only styles of dresses made at the time, the four styles are assuredly the most common that you'd find were you to fall down a rabbit hole and into the past.

Shirt-Waist Dresses

1950s family portrait

To the untrained eye, a shirt-waist dress just looks like a literal button-down shirt that's been molded onto a dress form. These daytime dresses were usually made out of lightweight fabrics and unique patterns and prints like gingham and plaid and included buttons, cinched waists, and practical necklines/sleeve-lengths. In essence, these dresses were made for more physical activity than other styles; you could find women cleaning their homes and running to do errands in these dresses.

Coatdresses

woman wearing a grey coat-dress with a white collar and cuffs

Another really popular style of dress during the 1950s was the coatdress. Coatdresses were typically fashioned in a similar style as shirt-waist dresses were, with the required sense of practicality to them but an added air of sophistication. They were usually buttoned up rather than zippered, and were crafted out of heavier fabrics than your everyday dresses were. However, the most defining feature of the coatdress was its heavily constructed collar that created the illusion of an overcoat.

Sheath Dresses

1950s women modeling sheath dresses

Sheath dresses developed in the 1950s in opposition to the more voluminous full-skirted shaped dresses that were introduced with Dior's New Look. This dress style focused on following the curves of the body and bringing the skirt in close around the hips and legs. The first of the sheath styles was the pencil skirt, which brushed against the hips and down the thighs, but didn't hug them. In contrast was the second sheath style aka the wiggle dress. These dresses were significantly tighter and hugged a person's curves. These dresses were most often made out of solid colors, and came in all sorts of fabrics. Similarly, you could find sheath dresses with knee-length to calf-length, but never too much above the knee. That trend would appear a decade later.

Evening Gowns

evening gowns at homecoming dance in 1950s

Both evening gowns and formal wear (including prom dresses) were drafted out of two distinct styles: the elegant and refined and the colorful and feminine. Evening dresses were typically floor length, though you commonly saw people wearing tea-length gowns throughout the decade, and were made out of all manner of fabrics and colors. Usually dresses were created with a focus on the waist and typically included lots of skirt volume created by layers of petticoats. You could find dresses made out of rich colors like navy and also pastels like lavender. Additionally, you'd often find dresses with layers of lace or tulle overlay, especially for the younger clientele.

Tips for Wearing 1950s Dresses Like an Atomic Age Bombshell

1950s fashion woman wearing summer striped dress with gloves and hat

Although anyone can wear a dress from the 1950s, there are a few important cosmetic practices that people followed at the time which, when worn without, might make the dresses appear ill-fitting. In order to have the desired effect that you're going for -- whether it's a bombshell beauty or a suburban socialite -- you'll need to follow the subsequent tips:

Wear Period Appropriate Undergarments Underneath

Women's undergarments in the 1950s were constructed far differently than those that're made today. To properly fill out the seams of the dress, you'll want to wear period-appropriate undergarments. One of the fundamental pieces of this silhouette is the bullet bra, which you can find modern recreations of for sale at retailers like What Katie Did. In addition, incredibly cinched natural waistlines were also popular, and this effect was only achieved with shapewear like girdles. Since the waist measurements for many true vintage 1950s dresses are shockingly small in comparison to their bust and hip seams, shapewear can help you actually fit into these tiny dresses.

Pair the Dress With Vintage Accessories

1950s woman with flower brooch and pearl necklace accessories

Another easy way to complete your vintage look is to include vintage accessories to your outfit. Things like bakelite and lucite purses, short scarves, chunky costume jewelry, pins, gloves, and stockings will bring your vintage-inspired ensemble together without making it look like you're heading to a costume party. Fashion has increasingly relaxed, so it might feel a bit weird to show up in full dress and jewelry to run to the post office, but you shouldn't be deterred from showing off your beautiful outfit.

Accompany the Dress With a Slip

Alongside undergarments, many dresses --particularly evening gowns--were constructed to be worn with a slip (either half or full) over the undergarments and under the dress itself. Slips of the period were made out of a variety of fabrics, but they were used to smooth undergarment lines and the body's natural shape to provide a seamless surface on the dress. Of course, modern fabrics and undergarments have come such a long way that it's hardly ever necessary to wear slips to achieve their historic effect, but these older dresses will require the assistance of a slip. Thankfully, you can find a ton of these slips sold by modern manufacturers for about $15-$30, and they'll work just as well as any vintage slip will.

Ways to Spot Real Vintage From the Reproductions

Since there's a huge market for vintage clothing right now, there's a ton of companies taking advantage of the trends and making vintage-inspired pieces or genuine reproductions to sell. Unfortunately, these pieces can follow actual postwar patterns so that it can be difficult for someone without a lot of experience with 1950s fashion to be able to pick out the real old pieces from the new-old pieces. Yet, with a few tips, you can hone your eagle eyes to spot the real vintage from the reproductions in no time.

Check the Tags

Vintage tags have a very different appearance than modern tags do; usually their thicker to the touch, often embroidered or printed with vintage fonts. Similarly, they may employ sizing that seems inaccurate to the piece you're holding (ie. a 36 for a nightgown equating band size not overall dress size).

Assess the Fabrics

In comparison to the fast fashion market of today, mid-century fabrics were often made out of more durable materials so that the pieces would be worth their investment. In short, if a piece feels cheaply made--like it came out of a Halloween costume kit--then it probably is and was made today.

Look for Fashion-Forward Elements

Sometimes a vintage piece might just feel off, and that can be because it's actually a reproduction that took some liberties with the period design to seem more fashion forward. Things like lower waistlines, higher hem lines, and back zippers vs side zippers, being added to appeal to modern audiences are indicators to be on the look out for.

Best Places to Shop for Vintage 1950s Dresses

If you like 1950s fashion style, there're many places online where you can indulge. A few favorite places to browse for vintage clothing and accessories include:

  • Etsy - In recent years, Etsy has become one of the top places to go to if you're looking to add vintage pieces to your wardrobe. There're hundreds of thousands of vintage clothing sellers on the website who have every type of 1950s dress imaginable--from designer to daytime and everywhere in-between.
  • Thrilling - Thrilling is a retailer that's dedicated to selling vintage clothing. It's an easy enough website to navigate and has pretty normal prices for vintage items. Though, you should pay close attention to the listings that've appeared in your search since they don't always match what you're looking for exactly.
  • GEM - GEM is both an app and website that sources vintage clothing item from all over the internet. From auction websites to independent retailers, this resource is a great one to browse through if you're not looking for a specific item but have an idea of something in mind. Since you're not actually purchasing from the company, you should be cautious about the listings that you see and check over them to make sure that they're reputable.
  • Ballyhoo Vintage - Ballyhoo is a lesser known vintage retailer who's been in business for over thirty years. While their inventory may be smaller than retailers like Etsy, they've got a good variety to choose from.

The Realities of Buying Plus Sized Vintage Clothing

First and foremost, there have always been 'plus sized' people in the world at any given time. This means that there were absolutely people living in the 1950s who were wearing these popular dress styles with waists that weren't 20 inches. However, when it comes to the current vintage resale market, there's a severe lack of genuine plus sized vintage goods from this period available for sale. This lack of product isn't necessarily only a seller's problem; as with all sorts of vintage goods, collectors are lucky to find the artifacts that they have because they were preserved long enough to be resold. Yet, this doesn't mollify the fact that plus sized, and mid-sized individuals to a certain extent, find it difficult to source true vintage wear, and this is especially true for the 1950s in a period that had such a stylized 'ideal body shape' that was only achieved with structured undergarments.

Thus, if you wear clothing outside of a certain range dictated by the fashion industry, then you should absolutely keep looking for those perfect vintage pieces. But, you should be aware that it won't be as easy for you to find the ones you're looking for as it is for someone who typically wears a size small. Yet, if you love the vintage aesthetic and are willing to forgo the historic aspect of it, then you can purchase vintage-inspired plus sized pieces from companies like Unique Vintage and Mod Cloth to scratch that fifties itch.

Embrace the Atomic Age Aesthetic

There's no time like the present to get your Grease on and find the perfect vintage 1950s dress for you. From vintage inspired pieces to the petticoat-ladened real thing, you can dress yourself up or down with an atomic age number from long before you were born.

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Vintage Dresses: Achieving a 1950s Retro Style