• Dating photographs from fashion in the 1950s

    The decade included a coronation, an economic boom and the arrival of the teenager

    We have reached the 1950s in our series on dating photographs from fashion. This decade saw the coronation of our own Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 - the 70th anniversary of which we are celebrating this year. Therefore, it seems fitting to start with a photograph of one of the many street parties held to mark the occasion (this one was in Lockleaze, Bristol), which gives us a fascinating glimpse into the fashions of the day. 

    We see the men are mostly sporting jackets and ties, with short hair cuts, while the women are in dresses or smart coats with curled or waved hair. The girls are wearing their party dresses with a cardigan or coat, while the boys mimic the men with their blazers and ties. It looks as though they were having fun!

    Street Party Coronation 1953

    Coronation 1953, street party

    Golden Age of Capitalism - and the teenager!

    The coronation aside, overall, the 1950s was a decade dominated by the post-World War 2 boom and dubbed the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’. It is also remembered, though, for the emergence of ‘the teenager’.

    In terms of photography, camera technology was continuing to advance with the introduction of the Pentax and Nikon F cameras; but photographs were still printed mainly in black and white. The use of cine film was increasing, too, capturing moving images of family events such as weddings and holidays.

    But whether you have photographs, cine film or both in your collection, dating them can create a challenge. So, let’s dive deeper into ‘50s fashion. With clothes rationing coming to an end in 1949, and the improving economic situation, the conditions were ripe for fashion to flourish.

    Women enjoyed the increased choice and made a special effort to dress appropriately for every occasion. The styles were based on elegance, formality and matching accessories. For men, when not dressing for formal occasions, the momentum continued towards a more casual day-to-day style.

    But, many fashions of the 1950s were heavily influenced by something new: the rise of the teenager. Until now, when young men transitioned from short to long trousers, for example, they would simply dress as younger versions of their fathers. Now, with higher wages and outside influences, young people wanted something new. They watched television, read magazines, bought records and danced to rock music. All of this influenced the clothes they wanted to wear. 

    James Dean Elvis Presley Marlon Brando

    James Dean; Marlon Brando; Elvis Presley (Wikipedia)

    Men: rebels and casuals

    So, let’s focus first on what men wore.

    From early in the 1950s, many young men opted to rebel against tradition by styling themselves on the icons of the time. Think Marlon Brando (‘A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951), James Dean (‘Rebel Without a Cause, 1955), or Elvis Presley (‘Jailhouse Rock’, 1957) – all of whom popularised the white t-shirt, jeans, and greased-back hair look.

    In Britain, many younger working-class men also created their own look with an adaptation of the ‘New Edwardian’ suit. This was a slim-cut suit with narrow trousers and a velvet collar, originally designed by Savile Row tailors for young men of the upper classes. Teenagers teamed the suit with crepe-soled shoes and ‘quiffed’ hair, and the ‘Teddy Boys’ were born.

    Otherwise, formal daywear and eveningwear for men continued along the same lines as the previous decade, with suits maintaining the baggy shape that had started in the 1940s. Small changes crept in, such as the ‘skinny’ tie and an increasing presence of colour in shirts and jumpers.

    For casual wear, men often wore a lightweight sports jacket, a coloured shirt, and a pair of slacks.

    1950s home photos

    Women: from full skirts to pencil skirts

    For the most part, teenage girls were less radical than their male counterparts. There was such a wide choice of stunning fashions that most simply tended to opt for more youthful interpretations of their mothers’ styles.

    Christian Dior's 'new look' (introduced in 1947) of the nipped-in waist and full-skirted silhouette remained the leading style in the first half of the 1950s. This core style was seen in evening gowns, day dresses, and separates. Materials used for day dresses tended to be patterned, while those for separates and evening gowns were plain.

    In the latter part of the decade, the fashions became straighter and slimmer, as ‘pencil’ dresses and skirts became popular, along with straight-cut suits. It also became increasingly acceptable for women to wear slacks for some occasions.

    Overall, the fashions leaned towards femininity and formality. Indeed, this was the decade when the ‘cocktail dress’ became popular. These dresses were the length of a day dress but embellished like eveningwear. 

    The full-skirted dress remained the mode for evening wear throughout the decade, and a new strapless bodice was especially popular, as the pared-down bodice balanced out the wide skirts.

    Women had different shoes for different occasions, ranging from closed-toed pumps to stiletto heels, and from wedges to sandals. While hats continued to be fashionable (such as the iconic pillbox, the veiled fascinator, or a large-brimmed straw hat for summer), women also tied colourful scarves over their hair instead. Their outfits were usually accessorized with a pair of gloves, a handbag or clutch purse, and jewellery (whether costume or real).

    Coats were usually either very fitted, semi-fitted, or full and swingy. Full coats had wide sleeves, a triangular shape, large cuffs, collars, and usually large buttons as well. They came in long (to mid-shin) or short (to the hip) lengths.


    Children’s wear

    Children’s fashion in the 1950s mirrored the adults’ trends. Young girls wore dresses with full skirts, and young boys’ clothes became more casual.

    In previous decades, young boys had typically worn collared shirts, ties, and blazers with a pair of shorts, until they were ‘old enough for long trousers. However, in the 1950s, as for teenagers and young men, it became increasingly acceptable for boys to wear jeans for most occasions. It became rare throughout the decade for young boys to wear ties and collared shirts were abandoned in the most casual settings. Colourful and patterned short-sleeved, collared shirts were popular options for everyday wear. Knitted jumpers and cardigans continued their popularity.

    In contrast, young girls’ wardrobes consisted mainly of formal dresses with natural waists, full skirts, and puffed sleeves. Styles became more varied as the decade progressed, and included dropped waists, smock dresses, and pinafores in bold colours and patterns. White ankle socks and shiny black patent leather shoes completed the look. Girls also wore blouses and skirts, with a matching jacket or cardigan, with slacks becoming popular later in the decade. Hair was adorned with ribbons and bows.

    Looking ahead

    Next time, we’ll take a look at photography and the fashions of the Swinging Sixties: a decade where anything could happen and probably did – though we’re reliably told that if you could remember it, you weren’t properly partaking!  The way people dressed was an obvious sign of shifting attitudes. In the 1960s, many chose, very publicly, to start looking different from the norm. We’re looking forward to exploring this one!

  • The 1940s and the explosion of female fashion

    In this blog, we are moving on to look at the fashions associated with the 1940s. Unlike during the first world war, when fashion development slowed down, female fashion developed rapidly during the second world war. Men’s fashion coincidentally did not change much at all.

    International Fashion in the Forties

    There were many glamourous female figures who showcased these fashion trends, such as Ava Gardner, Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn and Doris Day. They particularly highlighted the American trends, but Britain developed its own style. 

    Image of Ava Gardner

    Ava Gardner (Flickr, Lexinatrix)

    The development of British fashion mainly occurred because the French fashion houses were inaccessible to Britain under the German occupation of France. The French fashion houses kept going because if they closed down they could be taken over by the Germans. But they were only able to sell their clothes to the Germans.

    Utilitarian fashion designers

    At the start of the second world war, strict rationing on fabric was introduced. Clothing had to be bought with rationing coupons. What made this such a success was that the British Government got leading London designers involved with creating the clothes for people to buy. 

    What this effectively meant was that everyone wore a very similar style and it was all based on designs by the leading Saville Row fashion designers of the time. These were people such as Norman Hartnell (who designed Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress for her marriage to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1947), Hardy Amies and Edward Molyneux.

    The designs were submitted through the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (also known as Inc. Soc.). The clothes the designers came up with were utilitarian pieces, known as Utility clothing, with bright colours. This is not always obvious from the black and white pictures of the time (see above) but the clothes were often in rich blues, pinks, yellows and greens.

    The clothes were a simpler and more democratic approach to fashion. They were meant to last for years (which is why there is a market in ‘retro 1940s clothes’ and they can still be bought secondhand and worn). They were high-quality and very well-made despite the rationing. A British Utility dress could be bought for 7 coupons.


    Changes in dress design

    The dresses of the 1940s were shorter: knee-length instead of the mid-calf length of the 1930s. They created a much more masculine appearance but with an hourglass silhouette. The details included:

    • shoulder pads (extending just past the edge of the shoulder); 
    • puffed sleeves, gathered at the top, extending down to approximately the elbow;
    • boxy/square neck-line/shoulder angle;
    • nipped-in high waist; and 
    • knee-length A-line skirts. 

    These features appeared in the shaping of all suit jackets, blouses and dresses. 

    The exception to this was the evening dress, which was either spaghetti-strapped or halter topped and revealed the chest and shoulders (with mild amounts of cleavage on show). The skirts of these dresses started long and sleek, but were much fuller by the end of the decade.

    Alla modelling a dress from Galitzine's collection at her showroom. (Kristine, Flickr)

    The introduction of trousers into mainstream feminine fashion

    Up until the 1940s trousers had been mainly worn by men. However, when they started working in the factories women needed clothing that was safe to wear around machinery and that would not get caught in the moving parts.

    To start with women wore men’s trousers, but fairly quickly manufacturers started making trousers specifically for women. The design still looked masculine, but it was also:

    • fastened with a button or zip down the side;
    • wide-legged with wide cuffs at the bottom; and 
    • made out of cotton, denim or wool blends. 

    Trousers soon became homeware as casual clothes and were acceptable for a woman to wear in public.

    Suited to work

    Due to the shortage of fabric, the popularity of two-piece suits increased. These suits were popular because the skirts, jackets and blouses could be mixed up, they did not need to match. Women could therefore have a ‘new’ suit to wear every day using the same clothes. This type of suit was called the Victory or Utility Suit. 

    After the war, these suits remained popular because they were comfortable and practical to wear. The skirts of the suits were A-line meaning they flared out gradually from the hip to the knee. In the early 1940s, there were no pleats or gatherings to the skirts because of fabric rationing. Later in the decade, pleats started to appear and a wider A-shape. Some skirts even had pockets!

    The suit jackets were made from the same material as the skirts but they could also be mismatched. As with the dresses, the jackets had wide, padded shoulders, a high neckline and a nipped-in waist, that flared out slightly at the bottom. The lower edge of the jacket reached down to the mid-hip. They were worn buttoned with variation in lapel widths, some had points or were shaped. It was not necessary to wear a blouse underneath the jacket but it was more comfortable to do so.

    A different style of jacket was the Bolero jacket. This was shorter with a rounded edge and long, narrow sleeves. It was worn over a blouse and rarely buttoned-up at the front. Leaving it to hang open showed off the blouse. 

    Blouses were either worn plain or with a light cardigan or jacket. They could be a solid colour or have a fun, striped pattern. They were either short or long-sleeved with puffy gathers and tight cuffs. They had buttons at the front and either small v-necks or a round collar neck opening.

    A Swimming Success

    Swimsuits in the 1940s were either one or two-piece affairs. The one-piece had a tighter fit than swimsuits in the 1930s. It also had a padded bra for support and either thin shoulder straps or a halter. The neckline was in the shape of a ‘v’ but with little cleavage on show. The halter-style was particularly popular. The bottom of the swimsuit came down to the top of the thigh and was either skirt-shaped or was in the form of slightly looser shorts.

    The two-piece swimsuit was like the one-piece suit but with the middle section removed so the shorts came up over the belly-button leaving a 4-inch space between the top and bottom piece. The Bikini was invented in 1946 and was a similar style but tighter with a lower waist. These were too revealing for most women at this time. Incidentally, the word ‘bikini’ comes from the Bikini Atoll where the USA detonated two nuclear bombs in 1946.

    Three young women on a beach in swimwear, mid 1940s (Family photos of Infrogmation" CC BY 2.5, Wikimedia Commons)

    Another popular item of holiday clothing was the playsuit. This was a beachwear dress for wearing over a swimsuit. It was a buttoned, loose-fitting, light, cotton dress. Some also had high-waisted shorts or a swimsuit halter top. These were popular with teenagers and younger, single women. 

    Fashion for a distinguished age

    It was in the 1940s that plus-sized clothing also developed. Catalogues and department stores developed ‘stout’ clothing ranges for the more mature women. These ranges included dresses, tops, coats and shoes. They were designed to be more flattering to the fuller figure, which was not really suited to the hourglass style. There were also longer beachwear ranges that were more conservative for older women.

    After the war, and Christian Dior

    In the late 1940s rationing ended, and there was more fabric and more choice available. This was quickly taken up and designs became more colourful with patterns and contrasting trims. A newly invented fabric called rayon was introduced. Teenagers were particularly fans of the skirts which came in a range of designs – plaids, stripes or the latest style. These were easier to move in and so were good for swing dancing.

    In 1947 Christian Dior launched his “New Look” fashion line. The “Corolle” line was the main range in this style. It had rounded shoulders, a cinched-in waist and a long, full skirt. At the time it received a mixed reaction: after the war, some people thought it was wasteful (the “Cherie” dress had lots of tight-pleating), others felt it was a setback in the progress of women’s clothing because it was so blatantly feminine. But it became, and remained, popular.

    The post-war relaxation away from utilitarian fashion continues in our next instalment in the series, where we take a look at the fashions receding hemlines of the 1950s.

  • 1930s: Dating photographs from fashion in the pre-WW2 decade

    In our series of blogs on dating photographs from fashion, we have arrived at the 1930s.

    This decade heralded the beginning of the golden age of cinema. The ‘talkies’ had now firmly replaced the ‘silent’ movies, and going to the cinema was an inexpensive pastime for people. Many of them went every Saturday for their fix of the film stars. No surprise, then, that fashions of the time were inspired by the likes of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Clark Gable and Errol Flynn.

    Images of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Clark Gable & Errol Flynn from Wikipedia

    Greta Garbo, Marlene DietrichClark Gable & Errol Flynn.
    From Wikipedia

    While the knock-on effects of the Great Depression in the USA meant times were tough for many in the UK, women could copy the film stars’ make-up and hairstyles at relatively little cost; and the introduction of man-made fibres and the zip made clothing more affordable and accessible. Clothes catalogues were launched in the UK (Littlewoods) and the USA (Sears), and the option to purchase items and spread the cost was appealing. Glamour was now accessible.

    By this decade, many people owned cameras (such as the Kodak Box camera) as they were inexpensive and easy to use – having no focus feature and using a roll film. Lucky family historians, such as myself, have a wide range of photographs in their collection, taken in locations other than a photographer’s studio. However, while colour photography was now possible, black and white photographs were cheaper and still the norm.

    Women’s fashion

    Following on from the boyish look of the Roaring Twenties, femininity returned to ladies’ fashion in the 1930s. Thankfully, though, corsets did not reappear.  
    In this decade, the fashionable silhouette evolved into a slender, elongated torso with widening shoulders and a neat head with softly waved short hair. Though the lines were simple, the overall effect was one of complete sinuous femininity with a natural waist and skirts flaring out slightly at the ankle. Hemlines descended back to ankle length and waistlines moved back to their natural place. (See the photo of my grandparents, with my mother, taken in 1933.)

    In the evening, satin dresses with low backs were fashionable. A technique known as the ‘bias cut’ was introduced, whereby the fabric is cut on a 45-degree angle so it stretches and moulds itself gently to the body. This created a slinky, flowing effect in evening gowns and was sometimes used for daywear, too.

    Day dresses came in a variety of patterns: floral, plaid, and dots. They were darted around the bust and fitted around the hips, falling to a straight skirt which often had gentle flutes through the insertion of bias-cut panels or pleats. Cap, elbow length and wrist-length sleeves were worn, usually with volume at the top and narrowing towards the wrist.

    Fur was everywhere in the 1930s, for day and evening wear. It wasn’t only for fashion – it had a practical purpose: there was still no central heating. It was used for fur coats; coat linings, collars and cuffs; capes; and gloves and stoles. While fur was a luxury item, it came in all grades and prices, ranging from sable down to rabbit; and faux fur, made from cotton pile, was available for those who couldn’t afford the real thing.

    Hats included a style of cloche which allowed room for curls to be shown off; caps and pillboxes in a variety of shapes and colours to match outfits; and even berets. For the summer, there were wide-brimmed straw hats to match the colour of the dress.
    As the decade came to a close, and World War 2 began, the popular style of broad, padded shoulders, nipped in waists and shorter A-line skirts that would dominate the early 1940s had already emerged.



    While men still wore suits for formal occasions and work, casual wear such as knitted sweaters and soft-collared shirts became increasingly popular for day-time wear. Blazers and sports jackets with flannel trousers and open-necked shirts were styles influenced by sporting pursuits. This photograph, taken on the beach at Birchington, Kent in 1938, depicts the more casual approach to clothing that men, women and children were able to adopt in this decade.

    Oxford bags remained popular for men, and trouser legs continued to be wide at the bottom and worn creased and cuffed. When suits were worn, jackets had wide, padded shoulders and tapering sleeves. Of course, formalwear did not disappear altogether, and the tuxedo continued to be a popular choice, with white tuxedos being worn in warmer countries.

    Towards the end of the decade and the start of World War 2, military-inspired trends such as the trench coat and the leather ‘bomber’ jacket saw popularity as casual outerwear.

    Children's wear

    Girls’ dresses, mimicking women’s fashion, returned to the natural waist. Cotton and muslin were popular fabrics, and dresses were embellished with embroidery, piping, and ruffles. Peter Pan collars remained popular (see the photo of my mum and her sister, below, in 1938), and dresses could be made in plain or patterned material.

    The movies had an influence on girls’ clothing too, and the ‘Shirley Temple dress’ – with puffed sleeves, a high waist, and a short hem – was particularly popular for little girls. Older girls wore longer dresses that fell just above their knees.

    Sailor suits continued to be a popular style for young boys, and age continued to dictate whether a boy wore shorts or long trousers, with younger boys wearing corduroy shorts and cotton shirts.
    Older boys’ clothing largely echoed their adult counterparts, with wool and flannel suits. Trousers were worn with a belt or suspenders, while hand-knitted sweaters or sweater vests were worn over collared cotton shirts with ties.

    The end of fashion?

    Next time, we take a look at the 1940s. This was the decade in which World War 2 resulted in clothes being rationed for eight years (from 1941 to 1949). Resources and raw materials for civilian clothing were limited, which could have spelt the end for fashion. But we’ll discover how it survived and even flourished in wartime, often in unexpected ways

  • 1920s: Photography and fashion in the ‘Roaring Twenties’

    In our series of blogs on ‘dating photography from fashion’, we have reached the 1920s.

    The conclusion of World War 1 and the Spanish Flu pandemic meant this was a decade of relative economic prosperity. Social customs and morals were relaxed in a wave of optimism, and women were entering the workforce in record numbers.

    Reflecting the era’s social, artistic and cultural dynamism, the decade is known as the 'Roaring Twenties'. Jazz music sparked the need to dance, and dance sparked the need for appropriate clothing – particularly for women. Men also abandoned highly formal daily attire and even began to wear athletic clothing for the first time. Children’s clothes became more stylish and comfortable, too.

    Great strides were also made in terms of photography and cameras in the 1920s. Single lens reflex (SLR) technology enabled the photographer to view an image as it will appear on film before the shot is taken. Kodak created many widely used pieces of photographic equipment and, in 1927, General Electric invented the modern flash bulb. As a result, many family historians have a comprehensive record of this decade. Of course, this was also the decade of the first motion pictures.

    So, let’s take a closer look at the fashions.


    In this decade, the development of new fabrics such as rayon (a silk substitute) and new means of fastening clothing (metal hooks and eyes) had an impact on women’s fashion. And the use of mannequins became widespread, showing shoppers how to combine and accessorise the new fashions – which were all about ‘letting loose’.

    Day dresses had a dropped waist and a pleated or tiered skirt that hung anywhere from the ankle up to the knee, with sleeves that were long to mid-bicep. Hair was often bobbed, giving a boyish look, and the Cloche hat was a key accessory, sitting snugly over the new hairstyle. Take this image of my great aunt Irene. From the above description, it’s easy to name the decade. (It was actually taken in 1927, and the dog’s name is ‘Chum’, according to my grandmother’s pencilled note on the back!)

    Shorter skirts meant that shoes were finally visible – and women needed different shoes for different events, giving rise to the shoe market as we know it today. The ‘bar’ shoe, which fastened with a strap and a single button, was particularly popular for dancing.

    For evening wear, the term "cocktail dress" was coined, which was typically slightly longer than the day dress, in satin or velvet, and embellished with beads or a fringe. And makeup became popular for women, particularly for evenings and events, where the look was a smokey eye with long lashes, rosy cheeks and a bold lip – no doubt as a result of the first ‘walkie, talkie’ films. Both women and men looked to emulate movie stars such as Greta Garbo and Rudolph Valentino as their fashion icons.



    The suits men wear today are still based on those worn in the late 1920s. The early part of the decade was characterised by extremely high-waisted jackets, often worn with belts. Lapels on suit jackets were not very wide as they tended to be buttoned up high. Trousers were relatively narrow and straight, worn rather short and sometimes cuffed at the bottom. By 1925, however, wider trousers commonly known as ‘Oxford bags’ came into fashion (as sported by my grandfather in the photograph below), while suit jackets returned to a normal waist and lapels became wider and were often worn peaked.

    For formal occasions in the daytime, a morning suit was usually worn, but the short tuxedo was preferred for evening wear. Sporting clothes included sweaters and short trousers.

    Men's hats were usually worn depending on their class: a top hat or homburg hat for the upper classes; and a fedora, bowler or trilby hat for the middle classes. During the summer months, a straw boater was popular for both. Working-class men wore a standard flat cap, all year round.


    Fashion for children started to become more stylish and comfortable in the 1920s. Clothes were made out of cotton and wool rather than silk, lace, and velvet. Clothes were also made more sturdy to withstand play, and minimal layers became the new standard.

    Dresses and skirts for girls became looser and shorter (knee length), and shoes were made out of canvas, making them lighter and easier to wear. For boys, knee-length trousers were worn all year long, accompanied by ankle socks and canvas shoes, with pullovers and cardigans when the weather turned cold.

    Next time, we’ll look at the 1930s: a decade in which the fashions of the late 1920s lingered, but were then impacted by the Great Depression, leading to more conservative styles.