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Teenage Fashions of the Nifty Fifties
By Neysa Dilly, Annette Romero and Ruth Beltran
Black leather jackets. Thick-soled suede shoes. Poodle skirts. Corsets. Dungarees. These are a few of the styles that helped shape the fashions of the 1950s.
Drawing by Paul Robles
Fashion has always been a form of self-expression. In the 1950s, young people opened up a whole new market in fashion. Girls as well as boys between the ages of fifteen and twenty-three began to use clothes for group identification. Influenced by teenage idols, fashions were both elaborate and complex.
For the first time in a long while, it was fashionable for young men to look stylish. One look for men was known as the "Teddy Boy" look. The original Teddy Boys were rebels from England's East End. They hung around street lights or movie theaters and liked looking good. Their haircuts and clothing styles were copied here in El Paso and across the U.S. during the 1950s.
To create the Teddy Boy look was not cheap in those days: one suit could cost three to four weeks' pay. Young men wore narrow "drainpipe" trousers, with four-inch cuffs and long single-breasted drape jackets with sloping padded shoulders and velvet trim. Underneath they wore a flashy satin waistcoat over a poplin shirt and a shoestring tie. On the feet were suede shoes with thick soles called "brothel creepers," worn with vivid Day-Glo colored socks.
It wasn't just the Teddy Boy's clothes, habits and attitude which set them apart from every one else: it was also the way they wore their hair.
"Their greatest glory was their sideburns, which had to sprout well past the ear lobe, and their hair, which was worn long and swept up at the front then dragged back at the sides and slopped down with hair oil," writes Nick Cohn in his book Today There Are No Gentlemen: The Changes in Englishmen's Clothes Since the War. James Dean and Elvis sported the look in the U.S., and ordinary teens followed suit.
Other popular haircuts of the 1950s for boys were the ducktail and the crew cut. The ducktail consisted of overlapping wings of hair combed from the side of the head to the back where they met to resemble their namesake. The crew cut was an extremely short cut that resembled a brush. It was a cut worn mostly by servicemen (and still is), yet it was also a favorite among the teenagers of the fifties.
Others teenagers who had a very distinguished fashion were those boys considered "rebels." They wore black leather over white T-shirts and blue jeans. Many displayed their club or gang logo on the back of their jackets, and they usually rode motorcycles.
Their female counterparts wore fashions calculated to catch and keep a man. Dresses and skirts designed to fit hourglass figures and tight fitting clothes complete with thin high-heeled shoes, like the Marilyn Monroe look, were the craze. To achieve this look, girls had to be squeezed into stiffly boned corsets. This enabled clothes to look almost like a second skin. Corsets, undergarments worn to shape and support the body, actually became part of the typical teenager's wardrobe.
Gathered skirts worn with several billowing, ruffled petticoats also accentuated the waist. Several yards of material were gathered onto a tiny waistband. Girls who did not naturally have a small waistline wore a device called the "waspie," a short corset, sometimes only five inches deep, made of rigid material with elastic inserts and back lacing. It was shaped sharply into the waist and laced tightly. It early lost popularity because it was too painful and restricted breathing.
Girls in the 1950s also wore men's white shirts outside their jeans, then known as "dungarees," which were rolled up to their calves. Bobby socks and loafers or saddle shoes and hair done up in a ponytail completed this look.
One of the most popular type of clothing worn by teenage girls in the fifties was the circular poodle skirt, often made of felt, with a large applique of a poodle on a leash on the lower part of the skirt. It was usually worn with a tailored cotton blouse tucked in or a matching sweater set and penny loafers or saddle shoes. A gray skirt worn with a pink cardigan and pullover sweater set was considered really "cool."
Besides the ponytail, girls experimented with other hairstyles such as the beehive and the poodle cut. The latter was short and curly, hugging the head. The beehive used a wire and mesh frame for structure. The girl backcombed her hair and shaped it over the frame and used several coats of hair spray to maintain the rather high hairdo. A person sitting behind a young lady with a beehive at a movie theater could have difficulty seeing the screen.
Fashion for young people in the 1950s had a definitive flair. Men began wearing pink shirts, often paired with black or gray baggy pegged pants. Women succumbed to the torture of corsets but also began wearing short shorts and tube-shaped knit dresses.
Parents looked at these styles and the flamboyant hairdos of both boys and girls and knew civilization had begun its downfall. Today it all looks pretty calm.