Retro Dee is a regular contributor to The Grooveyard’s website, writing about music, fashion and other trends of the 1950s. Check out her blog, Retro Dee’s Guide to the Best Era Ever here, and her column here every Wednesday.
As fashion savvy dames have known for decades, no outfit is complete without the proper accessories!
For this edition of Fifties Fashion Fix, we will look at the commonly used accessories of that era.
Before you get too super excited, there is a small caveat to this topic. At least, I see it that way. While accessories are sometimes the most fun of completing any outfit, the accessories of the 1950’s era were a bit… oh what’s the word I’m looking for? “Old ladyish”. (I know, not a word, but seriously the best description I can come up with.)
That not withstanding, there’s a lot you can do and still much fun to be had with mid-century adornments. Let’s have a look at the categories below:
Normally I get excited over hand bags; purses, pocketbooks or whatever you call them. They are a burning passion for many women. Unfortunately, most of the handbags of the 1950’s were the kind that you might imagine an old lady smacking someone over the head with. I’m not even talking about Sophia from “The Golden Girls”. Her wicker purse was tres chic compared to what we’re up against with purses of the 1950’s era. I think the main problem (if you can even call it that) is that hand bags of that era were just not very interesting. There was not a lot of creativity or thought put into them. They were merely what you carried your necessities in.
True vintage 1950’s bags were on the small, flat side. They had a single handle (often times a chain) with a short 7″ or 8″ drop. There were no cross-body bags. Most bags were black, sometimes with a small bow or rhinestone closure, but the adornments, if any, were few. Some bags were patent leather which is always a nice classic choice, but most were just bland leather or velvet. Beaded purses outsourced from Japan were were popular, but definitely not Haute Couture. There were tapestry ones which, IMHO, are really ugly. I’m referring to the needlepoint ones that look like upholstery on someone’s great- grandmother’s dining room chair set. There were also a few lucite box-shaped purses that are very expensive on the vintage market… but by and large the handbags all looked the same. Black, flat and with a some kind of simple gold-toned frame and metal closure. A trapezoid shape was also common, while others were merely “pancake flat”. On the contrary, the bags that emerged out of the Sixties had cute box-like shapes, many colors to choose from, floral accents, and detailed closures. Yes, the bags in the 1960’s were stylish and cute, and are still frequently emulated by designers today. But as far as fashionable handbags go, the Fifties just simply, weren’t there yet. And that’s okay.
Hats and Gloves
What anyone learning about the 1950’s must know is that hats and gloves were considered crucial to any proper lady’s outfit in the 1950’s. They weren’t just fun add-ons for the heck of it. A hat and gloves was practically part of a dress code; an unwritten law that every lady followed diligently. Ladies simply didn’t go anywhere without a hat and gloves!
A very common type of hat in that era were the chic hats that women wore into the city back when going to the city was a major, fashionable event. They weren’t quite“pill box” hats yet (that style was made popular by Jackie Kennedy in the early 1960’s) they were a bit less structured, and had netting. Some were just circular in shape, with the netting but with no inside! The common materials were wool and velvet. Black is most often seen, but they had white, beige and even red. If you have a pretty face and know how to pair a hat with the right outfit, this classy look never goes out of style. Just don’t wear one when you go to a baseball game (believe it or not, in the 50’s, women did!)
Some of the hats worn in that time were what my generation would call “dorky”. They were shaped kind of like a bonnet that was worn close to the head, sort of like a really wide headband. These hats stay on more easily than you might think because of the way they grip the sides of your head. Some were made with flowers and other embellishments which make them even more “dorky”. I’m not sure what to call them, but they are very, quintessentially 1950’s.
On little girls and very young teens, they were rather cute and charming. They just are not something you’d wear today unless you were in a stage production taking place in that time. While many styles of the 50’s have come back again and again, these hats never seem to reappear. They just are really, really “dated”.
I purchased a similar style in black, as seen in the photo below. I think this would make a good hat at a Retro funeral. No, that’s not funny. It’s actually a lot more chic than prairie old-fashioned looking thanks to the shiny black finish.
Gloves can be found easily, in good condition. This is because there were SO many made. White, black, beige and brown, even blue. The most common color is white. Although, sometimes you won’t be able to tell if the true vintage gloves you buy are off white or were at one time pure white and just turned yellowish over time. I personally love wearing gloves. The look finishes off an outfit and makes you feel so refined! Yes, you might get some weird looks if you are going somewhere that’s not featuring retro styles, but too bad! Gloves are great, just make sure you know your size if you’re buying them online. I definitely suggest you choose true vintage over reproductions. You’ll find a pair that fits your budget and in good condition if you take some time searching. You can even find a lot of gloves for sale at bundle bargain prices.
This is an overview guide to accessories, so all I have to say about jewelry will be summed up as quickly as I can.
The most iconic, classic fashion staple in any retro jewelry wardrobe are, of course, pearls. Pearls can be very versatile and don’t have to be old-fashioned, just look at all the things Madonna did with pearls in the 80’s… but we’re not going for an 80’s look here. So in this case, YES you are going for classic, basic pearls. But that still does not mean they have to be boring! You can chose from a single or triple strand. White, black or red. (I’m taking costume aka faux pearls here) I like my plain ole black strand of pearls by Marvella which probably were made in the 70’s but are very classic and go with almost everything. I also have a couple of white strands and even a red one. But no matter what color you chose to have your pearls, keep them very basic, and no longer than 16″. They did not do wacky things with their jewelry in the 50’s. It was all about being perfectly polished!
Although, if you would like something a little bit more exciting than pearls to finish off your ’50’s outfit, you can chose some true vintage pieces by companies like Coro and Trifari. (Many sellers online also offer great ads of Jewelry by these companies. You might want to have a look so you can study up on the styles!) Coro is great because they made really cheap jewelry that was sold for only a couple of dollars at Woolworth’s back in the day. If you buy it now, you will still find it affordable and it’s true vintage! In the 50’s they loved their plastic. It was the material of Modern Times. Factories in the 50’s were just learning how to make colorful jewelry out if it. They found thermoset and “moon glow” jewelry an exciting new trend. But they still had plenty of rhinestone jewelry with the “new” aurora borealis coating that gave regular rhinestones are sort of shimmery, chameleon finish. Then there was the painted metals: white, pink or baby blue on gold. Many necklaces had matching bracelets, earrings and brooches. All of these pieces are often found anywhere that sells vintage jewelry. So shop around and you’ll find a lot is out there. Just watch out for things like flaking finish and yellowing glue.
Unlike later eras, young people in the 50’s actually wanted glasses. Glasses were a trendy fashion statement, especially for teens. Cat eyes and horned rims were all the rage. The girls loved their cat-eyes and some were adorned with rhinestones. Many true vintage cat eye glasses are aluminum, although there are a lot of plastic ones too. If you want to buy true vintage glasses in good condition, remember that they are now being considered antiques and that will cost you. Many repro companies make cat eyes, but watch out for cheap ones that give you that Halloween costume look.
Scarves and Socks
A 21″ x 21″ chiffon scarf around the neck completes any young gal’s 50’s outfit! They can be worn in a ponytail too. They are easy to find and it doesn’t matter if they are repros, they pretty much all look the same. Mixing and matching colors is fun too. My biggest problem is that I’m a bit too old for this look but I love it so much, that I sometimes end up wearing that iconic “50’s scarf” regardless of how silly it looks on a lady over 30.
Socks, too were for the younger set. Teens were the ones who wore the classic, turned down cuff socks with their saddle shoes to the sock hop. You can still get these anywhere. You can even get them with cute poodles sewn on, although to the best of my knowledge socks in the 1950’s were just socks and didn’t have cute crap added to them. So if you want a little over-the-top costume-y flair, then buy poodle socks. Otherwise, go without.
Other Must-Haves We Don’t Need
Glove Holders: I found a pair of these in my junk drawer and it took me literally 5 years to figure out what they even were. I think you hook the chain to the inside of your purse and put your gloves through the tongs part so you don’t loose them. I used them once and they were kind of cumbersome. Cute retro item, though.
Sweater Clips: These are so cute and hard to resist for retro jewelry collectors. I only have 2 pairs that I use sometimes as an added touch, but they aren’t 100% necessary to pull off a mid-century look.
Hankies: Yes, all females carried a hanky with them in the 1950’s. Come to think of it, most males did too… a hanky to dab your eyes at a wedding or to gingerly wipe your nose. Or to just take up more room in your already too-small purse. I started off liking the hanky idea, now they just get in my way! Of course, carrying one is another charming aspect of the proper Fifties.
Rain Bonnets: The fashionista in me wants to say “Oh NOOO, honey!” Rain bonnets are the quintessential old lady item… Then again, if it is raining, how else can you save your pretty retro hairstyle that took you 3 hours to do, hmmm?
Compact Ashtrays: Since nobody smokes anymore, these would just be more of a collector’s item to own. But ladies carried these mini ashtray compacts so that they could neatly smoke wherever they went!
Thanks for reading, and in future editions of Fifties Fashion Fix, I will go into more depth about different accessories.
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