“Conformity, they name is teenager! The lesson here: bouffant hairdos, bouffant skirts,. Fussy, frilly, and oh-so-feminine,” reports the Dick Clark Company.
The prom dress was the most important dress the 1950’s high-school girl was going to wear. It all came down to the perfect poof- and with popular colors ranging from one shade of pastel to another, it’s not hard to tell that femininity was all the rage. Going to prom was like going to the grand ball, and not just any dress would do…
Much like the popular dress styles of the 1950’s, prom dresses were quite similar in a sense that accentuated waists with skirts the bigger the better were what all women wanted to wear. French designer Christian Dior’s “New Look” molded much of what we know today as 1950’s fashion.
“Breasts were pushed up and spotlighted, waists were pared down to an anatomical minimum and hips were curved,” aka the hourglass figure. The natural female figure was merely a starting block for the structure and design that clothing in the 50’s promoted. The look was innocent, romantic, and glamorous- all which were the typical feminine ideal of the decade.
The thin waist and extra large skirts were not a new invention in fashion history. Dior took inspiration from the early Victorian age when dress skirts, worn over several layers of hoops and petticoats, had a 160 inch (or more) circumference. Skirts this wide required 7-10 years of fabric to make them full enough. Day dresses were cotton while evening gowns were made of silk, lace, tulle/net and decorated with flowers, beads, and embroidery just like 1950s evening gowns. The growth of this fashion look was helped by the 1939 release of “Gone with the Wind.” The 1940s desire for long gown with fuller skirts started the trend while women in the 1950s (who had more money to spend) finish coping the look completely with the addition of hoops skirts and petticoats. See the similarities here between 1860s dresses and 1950s.
The popularity of Prom skyrocketed in the fifties and American high school juniors and seniors were eager to get their fix of dance halls and rock music that the 1950’s youth was sponsoring. Yearly proms were inspired by more formal debutante balls- including their style. Again a tradition started 100 years earlier!
When it came to circumference of 1950s prom dress skirts, the sky is the limit. Traditional cotton and lace petticoats were insufficient as the goal was to get as few slips as possible to stick out as far as possible. Endless layers of crinoline, nylon, lace, or paper net petticoats were added under dresses for support and volume. Petticoats were made sturdier by applying starch, and it was popular to have nylon horsehair braid sewn into the hem of your skirt to help get that perfect full look that young ladies desired. Hoop skirts could also be worn under dresses to ensure the right amount of volume, but there was also much difficulty when it came to walking, dancing, and maneuvering around corners. But hey- we all have to sacrifice sometimes. Read more about the history of 1950s petticoats.
As with the times, prom dresses could be found endowed with intricate beading, sequins, ruffles, glitter, lace, appliqué detailing and really any type of embellishment that would visualize the most grandiose dress that every teenage girl dreamt of. Glamour was first and foremost the priority when it came to prom. Dresses were fitted with yards and yards of tulle in the prettiest shades of pastels, ruffled accents and velvet bows. The mindset must have been that if you thought you were going a bit over the top, there was always someone else going further.
Prom Dress Styles:
Originally, dresses were floor length and very formal in the first half of the 50s. Dresses were very snug and narrow at the waist and added volume around the waist until they hit the floor. During the 40’s, dresses were simple with a narrow skirt and as we transition to the 50s, dresses became much more elaborate with longer hems and skirts with a bigger circumference. Tea-length dresses were even more common and popular. The hem of a tea length dress was somewhere between the knee and the ankle. Whether the dress be princess style with a floor length hem, or tea-length, the shape was still very much the same.
Prom dresses, like most party dresses of the decade, were made of satin, velveteen, taffeta, nylon net, tulle, and or chiffon in both natural and synthetic fabrics. Strapless dresses and off-the shoulder sleeves were very elegant and sophisticated and brought a girl to the level of womanhood that was desired.
With the skirt of the dress being very uniform from girl to girl, they had to get creative when it came to the bodice. To give some variety, a girl’s dress might be tiered with lace, or have rouching in the bodice that brings in the waist. Embroidery and sequins gave an extra bit of dazzle and matching accessories were a must. Modesty was very important in the fifties and regardless of the style of the bodice of the dress, most girls would wear a bolero jacket or some sort of shawl to cover her shoulders.
Along with having the perfect dress, the right shoes were a must when it came to creating the right prom look. Pumps, dyed to match the dress were ideal. Tall thin heels were very feminine. A young girl would wear as tall of a heel as she could mange (and her parents would allow.) Shoes were made of leather, velvet or satin with decorated toes and heels. Some had open peep toes and thin straps around the ankle while the later years preferred pumps and mules (slip ins.) My mom wore clear plastic, peep toe pumps, with a low heel to her prom. They remind me of Cinderella’s glass slippers (photo coming soon.) Shop 1950s style shoes here.
Of course a girls’ handbag had to match her shoes as well as her nail polish and lipstick. Not a hair was out of place, and often times decorated by a jeweled clip, flower or headband. Gloves were also a frequent accessory due to their instant touch of glamour. Gloves could be wrist length with a ruffled lace, beaded or rhinestone cuff or over the elbow opera length mostly worn with floor length ballgowns. A large flower corsage was carried (not worn) by many girls.
Girls frequently wore stud earrings if they wanted something simpler or dangly-drop earrings for more of a statement; choker pearl necklaces were all the rage, small dainty bracelets were always fun and maybe a tiara if she was crowned prom queen. Small accessories here and there gave that little bit of shine. Things like hair clips or broaches were often added as final touches to give that extra bit of sparkle. The idea was to be as sophisticated and glamorous as the movie stars so any bit of jewelry would do that.
Thanks to the end of the war and the restrictions it put on Americans financially, prom became elaborate and expensive as did the styles. It was much more common than in previous years for girls to take shopping trips to find the perfect dress, shoes, and accessories. It was imperative to come to prom with the best-looking date, and being named to prom court guaranteed a high social status.
“What I chiefly remember about my clothes in the fifties is how formal they seemed. I have a picture of me in 1957, taken on my way to some get-together of senior high girls. If you can believe it, I wore white gloves and a string of pearls. Today such an event among my daughters friends would produce an entire roomful of blue jeans.” -Caroline Latham
1950s Prom Dresses Today
If I were going to prom again in the 1950s style I would certainly want to wear vintage. The one time I wore my moms cream color prom dress to a dance, everyone thought I had just gotten married! Never-mind other people, white, ivory, and gold tone prom dresses are so elegant. Pastels colors are also popular (pink anyone?) as well as brighter hues of teal, black, and coral.
Vintage repro or inspired prom dresses are also very trendy right now. They lack the giant poof of vintage dresses but still maintain the vintage look with layers of tulle, pastels colors, and tea length or shorter style. Unique-Vintage specilalizes in 1950s prom dresses. Whirling Turban sells many prom and formal dresses too. For long ballgown try Quinceinera dresses at TJFormal or you local Mexican party dress shop. Here are some of my favorites prom dresses online: (more in the 1950s prom dress shop here)