In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Historic Clothing Collection

1950-1960

Introduced in 1947, Dior's "New Look" featured neatly rounded shoulders, small tight waists, and long flared skirts held out by petticoats. Following the austerity and fabric shortages of the War years, this feminine look was happily embraced by some, but a point of controversy among those who thought the fashion too extravagant, and perhaps a little backward looking. Nevertheless, in due course, this new fashion influenced most wardrobes to some degree, and is most recognizable in the mid 1950s teenage girl's, almost ubiquitous, full skirts and dresses worn with bobby socks and penny loafers.

Perhaps the collection’s nearest to a teen bobby sockster’s dress is a white collared blue and white cotton gingham with a full gathered skirt and stiff net petticoat, associated with Ann Clark, and labeled "A David Crystal Fashion." In the absence of a famous poodle skirt, the next best example is a flared white cotton "circle" skirt, printed with a 1950s design of clean-cut orange, teal and black abstract fish and other shapes, labeled "Jo Collins," the Junior Label of the Mandell Manufacturing Company of St. Louis.

The emergent youth culture, with its rock & roll and pop music, and move towards less formal dress stimulated growth of a new branch of the clothing industry, one that specialized in the design and manufacture of clothes for the young market. Parallel with these developments in the late 1950s to early 1960s, the custom of girls and young women dressing or wearing hair and make-up like their mothers, faded away.

Denim jeans and more casual dress, the uniform of the emergent youth culture, became synonymous with rebellion against established culture and society. This attitude played out in the now classic movies, "The Wild One" with Marlon Brando (1953), and "Rebel Without a Cause" with James Dean (1955). At this point the T-shirt moved out from being underwear to become an icon of masculinity and rebelliousness. As a vehicle of expression, the T-shirt has since moved on to its present position as the message T-shirt or graphic tee we know in the 2020s. The collection holds numerous more modern message T-shirts, but as of yet, no roll hemmed '50s jeans, or much in the area of 1950s teen clothing.

The 1950s were not only the years of the "New Look," and rebellion, they were the years when new fabrics made of new synthetic fibers began to appear. Nylon, hitherto retained for war purposes, now reached the fashion scene, to be followed by polyester, wool-like acrylic and many others. Nylon's crease resistant, wash and drip-dry qualities were novel and exciting at that time.

From young and casual versions, to the more mature and formal, the collection's "New Look" examples all have fitted waists and are well below knee in length. Ida May Lane's speckled navy and pale blue dolman sleeve dress, with a long back zip and black belt, is mid-calf length with a fully flared skirt stiffened with a navy rayon taffeta lining. Another example, associated with Mabel Graney, is a special occasion square neck, mushroom colored heavy rayon taffeta dress featuring machine embroidered swirls embellishing the full skirt, which is designed to be worn with a supportive underskirt. The label reads "The Betty Barclay Frocks Collection," which was used by manufacturer Jonathan Logan.

Additionally, there are two particularly striking and unmistakably "New Look" inspired examples in the collection. A tiny black and white check rustling nylon seersucker dress, with red piped details, pointed collar, dolman sleeves, red plastic belt, and very full ‘circle’ gored skirt with an attached heavy frilled red rayon underskirt. Sharing the same color scheme, a two-piece ensemble is comprised of a gored, very flared stiff paper nylon skirt of black and white checks, overprinted with a black flock floral design. The red fine knit dolman sleeve sweater was originally worn with the skirt and the collection also includes the black high heel shoes that completed the outfit.

After the initial excitement and novelty of long full skirts, Dior's more formal and very wearable day fashions became better known. The originals, afforded by the wealthy, were famously crafted with hidden details such as corsetry, padding, darts and pleating to shape the style to fit the client’s body. Glamorous designs were reserved for evening wear.

Of course many women still wore older styles, one of which is a very wearable lightweight gray/green rayon crepe, with small yellow printed flowers, capped sleeves, and a high waist with ties to the back. Then there were individuals who opted for conservative versions of current fashions, as seen in a simple below knee rib rayon princess-line dress with a small blueberry-like spot print. Well-worn everyday dresses tend not to remain pristine, and are thus not saved, whereas the extreme and special occasion garments such as the described flared skirts, tend to survive. This, of course, impacts collections held at museums and like institutions where everyday fashions are fewer and far between.

As earlier noted, American designers and the now highly successful garment industry, were well able to mass produce fashionable garments, and the U.S. casual wear for which American designers are best known. But, in some segments of the market, French design still held its old cachet. While pirating French couture designs was an old practice, in the 1950s some U.S. manufacturers contracted and made arrangements with French designers, including Dior, to legally bring their designs to the average American woman.

Said to be a Dior design, but lacking any labeling, the collection's 1960s bouffant short prom dress and matching stole could fall into the category of garments based on a Dior design, and made under license in the United States for the retail market. This practice became common and many European couturiers came to rely on revenues earned from licensing. While French fashions inspired design, fashion conscious U.S. consumers began to recognize and appreciate the work of American designers such as Pauline Trigère, Claire McCardle, Galanos, Adrian and others.

The collection's small group of late 1950s dressy garments include a raspberry pink rayon taffeta cocktail dress with small bows at the waist and a balloon skirt shaped with stiff interlining and a net underskirt. The label reads "Pat Sandler for Highlight"; and a two piece consisting of a dress, with a black rayon knit bodice attached to a black and white tweedy skirt and matching tweedy three-quarter sleeve edge to edge jacket with small tab ties at the lower front hem. Last in this group, a structured black rayon taffeta theater coat associated with Marion Johnson is high waisted, featuring a dramatic wide spreading collar, and a statement single button front closure. One of its inside labels reads "Ben Zuckerman New York" and the other, "Lord and Taylor."