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.
Hello mes amies, I’m Retro Dee and once again, Welcome to Fifties Fashion Fix! In this section, we take a look at the charming fashion styles of The Best Era Ever. We look at both vintage pieces and reproductions and where you can find them in today’s market.
In this edition of Fifties Fashion Fix, we will be taking a look at one of the most iconic 1950’s fashion staples: The sweater!
Ladies’ sweaters have always had two purposes: One is to help keep you warm when it gets chilly. Tossing a cardigan on is my favorite way to warm up over a blouse or dress, and it’s easy to remove if you find yourself getting too warm. The second purpose is fashion! In the 1950’s, sweaters took center-stage in ladies’ fashion. Although sweaters in that era were worn in a most modest manner, they were also worn on the tighter side (but not skin-tight), which helped emphasize a lady’s figure. Paired with a fuller skirt, this gave ladies the “fit n flare”, hourglass look that was synonymous with women’s fashion in the 50’s.
The Classic 50’s Cardigan
The image of ladies’ cardigans in the 1950’s were seen mainly on young gals who would pair them over their button-up blouses. The most iconic look is the buttoned-up cardigan with a full-circle skirt that could be worn to sock hops or the malt shop on date night! But adult women wore them too, on a daily basis with either a pleated or a (not too tight) pencil skirt. Despite today’s retro-reproductions being covered in cute graphics such as kittens and cherries and crap, the authentic cardigans were more on the plain, practical side. However, many were embellished with beads or yarn embroidery. The colors were usually soft and subtle, such as ivory, pale coral and baby pinks and blues. Cardigans in the 50’s had a modest crew or high neckline and were either worn buttoned up or draped over the shoulders closed with a single button or fastened with a sweater clip. 1950s cardigans, were sweet, soft and simple- like the era itself!
Some cardigans came in a set with a short sleeved sweater to wear underneath: the classic sweater set. These sets were popular and practical throughout the 50’s and beyond, but in the 50’s they were essential closet staples of women young and old.
A famous featured fashion accessory of the Nifty Fifties was the sweater clip! This was marketed to keep a young lady’s cardigan securely over her shoulders so it wouldn’t slip off. They could also do this by fastening the top button, but the sweater clip (or “grip”) was all the rage. They were mostly gold-toned with rhinestones or cheap faux pearl embellishments. These spanned into the early 60’s until the cardigan-wearing trend began to get phased out.
Pull-On Sweaters from the 1950’s
These were cute little sweaters that you pull on over your head were usually slightly cropped with 3/4 sleeves, a modest neck-line and most importantly, the fitted band at the waist. Most had a crew neck (and were often worn with a scarf), but many also had collars or even a shawl-neck. But the one thing that they all featured, was the basic silhouette as seen in the photo below: a crew (or high) neck, slightly dolman sleeves, nip and tuck waist band and enough room for the fabric to “drape” over the bra underneath Contrary to popular belief, sweaters in the 50’s were not skin-tight!
For a sexier, Hollywood-inspired look, sweaters were worn tight, but not skin-tight (as I just said above, with enough room for the fabric drape over the bra) They were always worn with the trendy bullet bra underneath. This was the classic look of the movie stars in the 50’s during Hollywood’s “Golden Age”. These iconic Hollywood women are known as “Sweater Girls”. There were less regular, everyday women parading around with this look due to the modesty of the era. But when it came to sex symbols and the Silver Screen, Big Bullet Bra Boobs were the only way to go!
Materials and Textiles
True Vintage sweaters were made from better quality materials than those of today. They were made of high quality textiles such as wool (with angora), orlon, nylon and, on the higher end, cashmere. Cheap cotton blends came later, when practically all clothing was imported. In the 50’s the majority of all clothing in the U.S.A. was actually made in the U.S.A. by fine quality companies who took pride in the clothing they produced. Of course, there were the famous sweaters from Ireland and Scotland (which were very desirable imports) and many of the sweaters that were embellished with beads were imported from Hong Kong.
Many sweaters in the 50’s had sweet, dainty embellishments on them made from beads, tiny pearls and/or threads. The added details were usually subtle and were simple depictions of flowers or designs such as swirls and squiggles. Many of the beaded sweaters were made in Hong Kong and some even had linings, much like that of a jacket. The most expensive and highest quality embellishments used milk beads for their designs.
And of course, there also were the monogramed sweaters, like the famous “L” on Laverne’s sweater on the television series “Laverne & Shirley”. Other monograms would show all 3 initials of the wearer’s name on the left hand side. The sweater below was offered by innergoddessdesigns, one of my favorite sellers on eBay and was, sadly for me, sold by the time I found it!
Knits and Knitting
Just like any era, sweaters in the 50’s came in different knits, depending on the style. Cardigans were always a fine, soft knit, while other popular knits were the classic cable knit, popcorn knit and so on. Some women would make their own clothes, including sweaters by knitting them at home, using inexpensive store-bought patterns and their choice of yarn. Knitting is still done today by hobbyists, but back in the 50’s, it was far more common.
Sweaters for the Mature Woman
While the classic, young ladies’ cardigan in the 50’s hit just at the hip, sweaters for mature women were longer. Now take note. When I say “mature women” in regards to the 1950’s, I do not mean old ladies. I am talking about women in their mid 20’s who were married and considered “mature” in those days. Their dancing and dating days were over, and they were now bringing up their family. The sweaters they wore were longer and a heavier knit, meant to wear all day, rather than to toss over a dress.But by the end of the 50’s decade, sweaters for all ages were becoming longer. The classic shorter look was slowly going out of style, and that was true for both young ladies and older women.
Where to Find 50’s Styled Sweaters in the 21st Century
Two ways, as always, dames. You can buy either True Vintage or Reproduction Vintage. You can read more about these two methods in Shopping For True Vintage 50’s Clothes Pt. 3: Where To Find Vintage Clothing.
True Vintage Sweaters
True vintage sweaters, like all true vintage clothing can be very pricey. And, like all vintage clothing from 60+ years ago, it’s hard to find one in good shape. Even if a sweater has not been worn much and was neatly packed away, there are still instances of moth holes, discoloration, mold, mildew and must. Always make sure a seller discloses ANY holes to you, no matter how small, before you make a purchase. With sweaters you’ll also have the problem of the infamous “sweater fuzz” that worn knits always end up with. If this is only a minor problem for the sweater in question, you might consider purchasing it. However, if the fuzz issue is extreme, you should probably pass.
When you find a sweater you’re interested in, before you purchase it, it’s wise to check the labels to verify if the garment in question is actually from the 1950’s era. Many sweaters came from later decades, and classic looks are often replicated, so without a clear label it’s hard to tell. You can read more about tags and labels in Shopping For True Vintage 50’s Clothes Pt. 1: Identifying Vintage By Labels.
Reproductions of Classic 50’s Sweaters
Many sweaters you find while shopping today are made to look vintage.They don’t even need to come from companies that specialize in making retro reproductions. Most mainstream companies offer sweaters with subtle details that harken back to better days. The right embellishments can really make or break your vintage look. They key is to go for something subtle and classy, with decent quality. Small, yet noticeable beads, tiny pearls, thread embroideries and even rhinestones can give an ordinary cardi a Fabulous Fifties retro look!
But caveat emptor! Many companies today that offer “retro vintage style clothing” have taken on a modern twist to market their products. Some of the “retro” sweaters they offer are not exactly authentic in style. They have bright, appliqués of things such as cherries, cats, sputniks and even skulls (which would never be seen on sweaters in the 50’s!) Then there are the style changes. For example, the cardigans on today’s retro market have wider, round necks, rather than the modest crew necks that the real 1950’s cardigans had. Since you can’t button a lower cut neckline all the way up, you won’t get the exact look of “back in the day”. So why don’t companies just make the cardigans with crew necks? Basically, it’s because now-a-days young people are so used to showing a lot of skin and scoff at being “all buttoned up” as they were back in more modest times. As a result, the so-called “retro” clothing on today’s market recalls many 50’s garments as they never were: cut too low and cropped too short.
Although finding the right cardigan can be tricky, I find the pull-over sweater style the hardest style to come by when I’m shopping for my retro wardrobe. For some reason, an authentic reproduction of the 1950’s pull-over silhouette is impossible to come by! You can find plenty of sweaters with 3/4 sleeves, but God forbid they make them dolman! And I definitely can’t seem to find ANY reproduction retro sweaters with the nipped, banded waist. For some reason, retro clothing companies such as Hell Bunny, Banned, Collectif and all those people won’t make them. They’ll produce sweaters with 3/4 slevees, but they make them skin tight and call it a day. They just won’t make sweaters that are exact style replicas of the 1950’s. I don’t know why! Maybe they think they’re not sexy enough, or maybe they’re too complicated and expensive to design and produce. But if they did make them, I’d definitely buy one. (Or two or three!)
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