Fashion in the United States in 1950
Fashion in the United States in 1950
In response to The economic downturn of The 1970 s to the economic downturn of the 1970 s, the nation elected Ronald Reagan president in 1980, and, over the next nine years, personal income grew at a rapid rate, increasing approximately 85 percent (Berkin 1995, 964). The last half of the twentieth century closed with the U.S. population almost doubling the 1950 level; more than 281 million people now resided in the United States. The world population also boomed at the close of the century to reach 6 billion. The United States, as part of an overpopulated world, now faced ever-increasing challenges dealing with poverty, crime, immigration, and environmental concerns.
POLITICS IN AMERICA
When John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) was sworn in as the thirty-fifth president of the United States in January 1961, it signaled an awakening in America. In his inaugural speech, JFK stated that ‘‘the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.’’ The assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963, brought a tragic end to an administration that had captured the public’s imagination. His successor, LBJ, capitalized on residual goodwill toward the fallen president to pass many of JFK’s social programs as well as to champion his own.
The economic and world policies established by Reagan were to be continued through the presidency of George Bush. However, two years after Bush’s election in 1988, the United States faced both an economic recession and a war in the Persian Gulf. By 1992, Bush’s approval rating had dropped to 40 percent, paving the way for the election of ill Clinton.
Clinton’s agenda called for a stronger domestic policy, with a focus on education and healthcare. Even after facing several personal scandals and possible impeachment, Clinton remained one of the most popular American presidents, serving two terms. However, the 2000 election night would send Americans to bed without knowing who their next president would be, George W. Bush or Al Gore. Voter irregularities, especially in Florida, meant that Americans had to wait for an entire month for the final results naming George W. Bush the next president.
ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
Music also fueled the 1960s counterculture movement, which promoted experimentation and rejected the traditional approaches of mainstream society. The most notable events of 1960s counterculture were the ‘‘Summer of Love’’ in 1967 and the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in 1969. Both events contained groundbreaking performances, but, more importantly, both were captured in documentary films that chronicled the scene surrounding the events, offering many people in other parts of the country their first glimpse of the counterculture.
By the mid-1970s, the emergence of a gay culture and the rising popularity of multiethnic gay dance clubs resulted in the opening of discotheques (or discos) throughout the country. The music that was played in these clubs reflected the eclectic audience and was engineered to keep people dancing all night. Black funk music was the template, but it was quickly co-opted by ethnically mixed bands, white groups, and female vocalists.
In the 1980s, disco and classic rock no longer dominated the music scene. Several new musical styles, often influenced by ethnic groups, were introduced, including rap, hip-hop, new wave, punk, and grunge. No one form of music dominated the 1980s or 1990s, but music videos soon took dominance over radio. MTV (Music Television) aired for the first time on August 1, 1981, with the appropriately titled Video Killed the Radio Star.
Rap, urban, and hip-hop music became widespread, spawning a new dance style: break dancing, a mixture between dance and acrobatics.
Begun by young African Americans in the inner-city streets of the United States, the dance movements required specialized clothing that provided protection to the knees and elbows, design elements that were quickly adopted into mainstream fashions. Despite the popularity of television, plays, musicals, and movies were still very well received by the general public. However, in the 1950s, with the Cold War brewing, McCarthyism took hold of the entertainment industry. Senator Joseph McCarthy was convinced that communists had infiltrated the government, and he was determined to flush out the traitors. McCarthy made Hollywood a focus of his investigations, and many
Hollywood actors and producers were ‘‘blacklisted’’ as suspected communists and not allowed to work.
The combination of music, psychedelics, and the movie industry helped to produce a film that would usher in a new era in film that reflected what was happening in youth culture. In 1969, the release of Easy Rider created a sensation by telling the story of two bikers who travel across the country, with Steppenwolf and the Byrds providing the soundtrack. In addition to being the first major commercial film targeted to the counterculture, it also hastened the demise of the studio system and the rise of director-driven projects, paving the way during the 1970s for one of the richest periods in American cinema. Freed from the restrictiveness of the studio system, writers and directors, including such future legends as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg, were creating movies with soaring narratives and coaxing indelible performances from their actors.
In the 1980s, Hollywood reached a worldwide market with high-budget productions packed with special effects and famous movie stars. Movies also used the same niche marketing strategy as television programming. Films such as Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink catered to teenage audiences, whereas Working Girl targeted the new female white-collar labor force.
The 1990s saw a proliferation of product placement in Hollywood movies, and blockbuster films became more commercial. The success of the big studio system was challenged with the popularity of independent and foreign films. These movies contributed to increase the exposure of the American public to foreign cultures and alternative subcultures.
THE CHANGING ROLE OF WOMEN
The generation of women in the fifties, whose purpose seemed solely to give birth, created the aptly named ‘‘baby boom’’ when 3,845,000 babies were born in 1951 alone. Women were seen only in terms of their sex, and social barriers to participation in the workplace and government were erected. Women’s magazines did little to promote alternatives; instead, they offered tips such as having another baby or dyeing hair blond to get over the feeling of depression and housewife blues.
The image of the ideal housewife kept many women at home and out of the workforce. Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique articulated the need of women to be defined by something more than being a dutiful wife or mother. Women reading this book realized they were not alone in feeling there had to be more to life than the role to which they had succumbed.
By 1969, women made up 40 percent of the entire workforce (Zinn 1995, 496). LBJ signed an executive order in 1967 banning sexual discrimination in federally connected employment. The entry of this new segment into the workforce resulted in women becoming more economically independent, increasing female attendance at colleges and universities, increasing the number of unmarried women under the age of twenty-four one third by 1970, and increasing the divorce rate by two thirds by 1970 for women under the age of forty-five. On a political level, women participated in government in ever-growing numbers throughout the 1970s. The most vivid demonstration of this trend was the effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which sought a constitutional amendment to guarantee protection against discrimination on the basis of sex. Although the bill stalled three states short of the number
needed to amend the Constitution, it helped draw attention to women’s issues and proved to be a rallying point for people across the nation.
SEXUALITY AND MORALITY
The conservatism of the 1950s meant subscribing to the rules of Dr. Spock, Billy Graham, and Norman Vincent Peale. Sexuality was keptn private, not discussed in public or insinuated through advertising or programming. Married TV couples always had twin beds, and unmarried couples shared no more than an arm around a shoulder. This oppression
gave birth to a small group of free thinkers, who were unwilling to buy into the mainstream corporate world and checked out to form the ‘‘Beat’’ subculture. As the movement grew, it eventually transformed into the free-love culture of the hippie movement in the 1960s.
On February 29, 1960, Hugh Hefner opened the first Playboy Club in Chicago. Hefner had published the first issue of Playboy in 1953, and, by 1960, the circulation was well over 1 million copies. Hugh Hefner became a symbol of a new approach to sexuality, marriage, and social mores. Although few feminists would argue that the publication did much to further the idea that women were more than just sexual objects, its rejection of Puritanism in society hallenged established mores regarding sex outside the marital relationship and roles of men and women in society. The
introduction of the new birth-control pill in the 1960s, along with publications such as the Human Sexual Response in 1966 and The Joy of Sex, pushed the boundaries further by discussing sexual gratification as a natural human impulse and helped to bring about ‘‘the sexual revolution.’’
GROWING UP IN AMERICA
In the 1950s, citizens were proud to be American. Conservatism and anticommunist feelings helped to define the 1950s. The phrase ‘‘under God’’ was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Fathers were the unquestioned authority on everything surrounding the family. Children were to stay out of trouble and do well in school. Middle- and upper-class families supported children in their scholastic efforts and counted on them to go to college. Gender roles were strongly upheld: girls played with Barbie dolls and tea sets, and boys played sheriff and army.
Until 1950, the term ‘‘teenager’’ had never been heard. Teenagers were now defined as a separate generation and were represented by Elvis Presley and James Dean. This new marketing group was influenced by movies, TV, magazines, and rock ’n’ roll. Food service and retail stores soon began to cater to this new source of revenue. This henomenon ushered the beginning of the generation gap between parents and their children.
The 1960s saw the emergence of teenagers as an economic and sociopolitical force. By 1964, 18-year-olds were the largest cohort in U.S. society, and businesses targeted the segment with consumer products. By mid-decade, the youth movement was making itself heard through protests against the Vietnam War, the counterculture (including experimentation with drugs and sex), and a constant challenging of rules and traditions.
Parisian haute couture continued to dictate the fashionable silhouette through the 1950s and 1960s. However, American fashion designers played an ever-increasing role in dictating trends from the 1970s forward.
As society became less formal, there was less demand for formal eveningwear and more demand for casual sportswear. Additionally, the increasing number of women entering the workforce created a new niche market, one for which Paris had never designed.
American designers were better at interpreting the fashion needs of the working woman and individuals with active lifestyles. Furthermore, with ongoing declines in the U.S. economy, there were fewer elite clients who could afford custom couture, and even those who could were no longer interested in spending time flying to Europe for lengthy fittings. As such, American ready-to-wear came to dominate the last half of the twentieth century.
Communication of what is considered ‘‘fashionable’’ permeates every aspect of society. From daytime soap operas to primetime family shows, not only the stars of the programming but all of the commercials exhibit the latest fashion trends that the fashion-conscious consumer should be wearing. Catalogs and Internet websites provide the pportunity to review and order the latest fashions, no matter where one lives. Simplicity, McCall’s, Butterick, and Vogue translate trendy couture into sewing patterns for the frugal-minded consumer.
Fashion magazines continued to increase in number during the last half of the twentieth century because both housewives and working women needed to stay abreast of the latest trends. Whereas some magazines, such as Vogue, Mademoiselle, and Glamour, are exclusively dedicated to communicating fashion information, others, such as People and Life, add newsworthy articles to the brilliant photographs of movie stars and politicians.
One of the most significant innovations in fashion publications of the twentieth century was niche publishing. Teen magazines, such as Seventeen and Tiger Beat, were targeted to young girls aged 12 to 20. These magazines
featured their favorite young movie stars and musicians and gave tips on fashion and makeup. Fashion magazines, such as GQ, also started targeting men. These publications communicate advice on fashion and grooming to men in the same manner that Vogue does for women.
In the 1950s, Hollywood once again portrayed women as they ‘‘should look.’’ The elegant hourglass figure was considered the ‘‘perfect shape.’’ Grace Kelly was the elegant glamour girl of the screen, with sloping shoulder line accenting the curve of the bust, rib cage, hip, and pelvis, high heels accenting the ankle and calf, and an understated hat with partial veil, gloves, and small handbag. Over the next fifty years, how women ‘‘should look’’ would shift several times. The 1960s saw a preference for the pencil-thin waif, whereas the 1970s opted for a more natural, relaxed figure. In the 1980s, bigger was better, and that included broad shoulders, full bust, and full hips for women. By the 1990s, a natural, athletic look was popular and continues.
Every period has its own ideal of beauty, shaped by the political, social, and cultural events of its time. Taken out of context, fashion can often appear ludicrous. Only when examined as an element of an era can fashion be understood. The second half of the twentieth century was as marked by numerous significant political and cultural changes: war, civil unrest, fluctuations in immigrant populations, and changes to family life, all of which manifested themselves in the fashions worn by men, women, and children. Society was transformed, changing the way people viewedthe world around them, and fashion reflected those changes.