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How to Imitate 1950s Fashion Using Only Modern Clothing

Lusting after 1950s fashion but strapped for cash? Not a problem! Here’s a short guide for creating three 50s-inspired looks using modern clothing. Examples of pieces have been linked throughout for illustration, but challenge yourself to use what’s already in your closet or thrift for additional items.

First Thing’s First: Undergarments!

You’ve just woken up from a restful night of sleep and you’re ready to start the day. 

Before you even think about putting together your 1950s-style outfits, you’re going to need to find the proper undergarments. A vintage-inspired ensemble won’t look so vintage at all if you’re not wearing the proper under-things to help create the silhouette of the period. 

For a 50s silhouette, you’ll need a bra with cups on the more conical side. That doesn’t mean you need to go all out and take the term bullet bra too seriously, as these dames did, but a slightly pointed bra shape will go a long way in making your outfit look more era-appropriate. I would recommend the Wonderbra in style 7422. This underwire bra has the perfect, slightly pointed cup shape needed to achieve a 50s figure, and luckily it has no padding, which is a personal pet peeve of mine in bras. 

For underwear, high-waisted is the way to go. Since virtually all bottoms in the 1950s were high-waisted, all underwear had to match to prevent visible underwear lines.

 Finally, you’ll also need some hosiery. Pantyhose technically wasn’t invented until 1959, so if you really wanted to be period-accurate, you could invest in some stockings and a garter belt. Honestly though, you could wear pantyhose and no one would be the wiser, so your choice of hosiery is entirely up to you.

Onto the clothing!

Day LOOK: The College-Goer

School calls, and it’s time to answer. You scour your wardrobe for some 50s-appropriate pieces, but you’re not sure where to start. I have nothing to wear, you think to yourself, just as every girl before you has thought, and every girl after you will think. Some things don’t change. 

To create a midcentury college girl look, you’ll need to start off with a simple white button-up top with a collar. Button-ups are pretty standard fare in all decades of the 20th and 21st centuries, so it should not be too difficult to get your hands on just the right one. A light puff in the sleeves would be ideal but is by no means necessary. Cotton or linen would also be preferable to a synthetic fabric for a more period-appropriate look. If you want to be a little extra, you can embroider your initials in a cursive script in the top-right corner of the blouse, which was a relatively common practice back in the 50s.

Next, you’ll need a full midi skirt. Again, a pretty ubiquitous piece of clothing throughout recent ages. A circle skirt would be ideal, but any full skirt will do. What you’re really looking for is a skirt that is fitted at the waist but that flares out everywhere else. You’ll want to imitate the New Look, the luxurious, hourglass shape introduced in the 1950s by Christian Dior. An accordion skirt could work here. A kilt-style skirt could also work as long as it reaches the knee or below and has the right flare-out shape. Personally, I am partial to a white button-up and plaid circle skirt combo. Something about it is so chic, classic, iconic. Make sure you tuck the blouse into the skirt, and cinch in your waist with a simple leather belt if you really want to exaggerate the hourglass shape. 

On top of the blouse and skirt, you’ll need a cropped cardigan; extra points if you have one with three-quarter length sleeves. Cropped cardigans seem to have been pretty popular in the early 2000s as well, so you could probably find one in the depths of your mom’s closet. Button the cardigan all the way up with the collar of your blouse peeking through, or keep it open–it’s totally up to you. To accessorize, you can also tie a lil’ scarf around your neck. Take inspiration from Audrey Hepburn’s classic look in Roman Holiday (1953).

For shoes, you could go any number of ways. Saddle shoes were common back in the day, but most of us don’t own a pair anymore, so you can substitute them with any brogue or oxford-style shoes. Any solid-colored, low-heeled leather shoe could probably also work. Alternatively, you could try a simple pair of leather boots with a slight heel. To be extra cutesy, add a white pair of socks with ruffles at the hem. 

For outerwear, any varsity jacket stolen from your sweetheart would work wonders. A cropped zip-up cotton jacket could also do. I couldn’t find a modern equivalent online, but aim for something that looks like this or this. As with your blouse, you can embroider your initials or your first and last name on the front or back of the zip-up jacket for some extra 50s flair. 

Your daytime outfit is now complete, and you are ready to conquer academia in style. You are sure to turn heads and raise some eyebrows with your old-timey style, but as they say, any publicity is good publicity.

Afternoon LOOK: SCHOOL’S OUT

School’s out and you can now head home to relax—not without a quick trip to the corner store, of course. If you don’t get your daily dose of Tootsie Rolls and Pez Candy, you might just become a tad hysterical!

Once home, you can tear off your formalwear and opt for something a bit more comfortable. Let’s start off with some high-waisted denim capris. Hey, don’t shudder like that! Capris are certainly no longer in fashion for young ladies of today, but back in the 50s, they were all the rage, as you can see in this fun spread of a clothing catalogue from 1953. Pants were just starting to become widely acceptable for women in the mid-20th century, so if you wore capris you could have counted yourself as a veritable maverick.  Now follow in the footsteps of your foremothers and find yourself some dark wash jean capris. Make sure they’re tapered at the hem to achieve that classic 1950s peg leg look. Get the look straight from Marilyn Monroe. As always, natural fibers like cotton and linen are best. Add the simple leather belt you used in your daytime outfit to help complete the ensemble.

Now onto the top! How about a cropped plaid button-up? Shimmy into your checkered blouse and make sure to tie it at the waist to emphasize your curves. Not feeling fancy enough for a button-up? Not a problem! A form-fitting striped tee will do just the trick—you still gotta tuck it into your bottoms, though, and try to avoid any logos or graphic art in your t-shirt. 

The shoes will be easy. Keep your ruffly white socks from your daytime outfit, and throw on a pair of black Converse sneakers on top. Believe it or not, Converse have been around since 1908, with the classic black and white high-tops having been introduced in 1949. I think it’s pretty safe to say that most people own a pair of black Converse sneakers, so this part of the outfit should be a breeze. 

To emphasize the vintage vibe of the outfit, curl your hair and wear a red bandana as a headband. You can tie your hair into a ponytail—high or low—and leave your bangs or a few tendrils of hair sticking out from your bandana. 

Ah, it’s finally time to kick back and relax. Call a girlfriend or two to chit-chat about the latest gossip in town, or perhaps go out for some good ol’ shakes. 

evening look: the belle of the ball

Cripes! You almost forgot about your college formal later today. You’ll need to put something together quick, as there isn’t much time. 

Grab any fit-and-flare gown in your closet. Remember that New Look we talked about? That’s going to come back into play here. So, make sure your dress cinches at the waist and flares at the skirt. Take this and this for inspiration. Satin and silk are ideal fabrics, but a high-quality polyester with enough shine may also work. Lace, chiffon, or velvet would be equally fitting. You can go the short-sleeve route or sleeveless. You’ll also want to exaggerate the flare of the dress, so add one or two extra skirts underneath. If you just so happen to have inherited a petticoat from your mom or grandma, use that instead. 

Finally, grab a sparkly little clutch to store your doo-dads, and throw on a pair of chunky heels, preferably close-toed. 

Now, go dance the night away, darling!

Rebecca Haddad

UWindsor '22

Rebecca is pursuing a double-major in French Studies and Political Science as well as a minor in English Language and Literature at UWindsor. She likes to read, make art, and scope out vintage treasures in her down time. She isn't quite sure what her life purpose is yet, but hopefully it can help make the world a slightly better place.
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