Boys' Clothes Styles during the 1950s

American boys experienced another key turning point in their clothing during the 1950s. Boys clothing styles, especially in the first half of the decade, varied greatly between America and Europe. The 1950s was in fact the last decade before the the mass media succeded in developing a trans-Atlantic children's style. Boys clothes were much more varied in the 1950s as the world emerged from the economic hard times of the Depression and Wrld War II rationing of the early 1940s. Incomes were rising. Most American families in the postwar era could afford much higher expenditures for clothes. Boys instead of having a Sunday suit and a few changes of clothes now acquired several different outfits. (Of course he was still far out classed in the clothes department by his sister.) Families in Britain and some European countries, however, did not all share America's prosperity.

New Fabrics

The economy of the post-War years seized upon the new synthetic fibers. These fibers appeared in clothes for both children and adults. The first years of the decade (1950 to 1953) were busy years for manufactured fiber companies. Acrylics were introduced in 1950. Olefin and modacrylic were introduced in 1949 and polyester in 1953. The first version of the Flammable Fabrics Act banned highly flammable fabrics in 1953, partly as a response to the tragedy of "torch sweaters," brushed rayon sweaters that ignited instantaneously. Textile public relations experts during the 1950s wrote of "miracle fibers" and consumers eagerly bought apparel and household textiles made from nylon, polyester, and acrylic fabrics or their blends with natural fibers. Fully automatic washers and dryers made caring for apparel and household textiles easier than ever. Families without washers and dryers could patronize the local launderette. Fabrics made from synthetic fibers gained widespread acceptance and women soon learned to avoid setting high temperature when ironing the new fabrics. "Drip dry" nylon and polyester apparel were promoted heavily for travel, though some consumers found 100 percent synthetics unacceptable because of low absorbency, static electricity buildup, and a feeling entirely different from the familiar natural fibers and rayon. The industry responded with blends and fiber modifications.

Fashion Trends

One of the major fashion trends in the 1950s was the increasing popularity of jeans. James Dean appeared wearing jeans in the 1955 movie "Rebel Without a Cause" and American teenagers joined in the rush to rebellion.

Garments


Countries


America

Children in the 1950's dressed differently from the way they do today. Jeans were just becoming popular in Urban America. Elementary boys began wearing them to school, but they weren't allowed in high schools. Hair-cuts were short, often military-style "crew-cuts." Boys in some wore short pants, at least until they were 11 or so, but most American boys except when they were very small wore long pants. Some boys wore long pants for school and play, but had a short pants suit for church. For most boys long pants were a symbol of manhood and they wanted them as soon as possible. Young girls seldom wore slacks to school. Their mothers dressed them in cotton dresses, or skirts, blouses, and cardigan sweaters. Bobby socks, saddle shoes, penny loafers, and full "poodle" skirts were standard items. The clean-cut college look of the 1950s--for young men, short hair, shiny shoes, patterned ties, and sweaters; for young women, short wavy hair, bright shiny lips, tight waists, and accentuated bustline. In addition to the introduction of man-made fibers, this period also saw the arrival of the Continental Look from France and Italy, featuring short jackets and broad shoulders, a shaped waistline, slanting besom pockets, sleeve cuffs, short side vents, and tapered, cuffless trousers. The mass media was to have a powerful impact on fashion. TV began to leave its imprint on America in the early 1950s. Five million Americans had a TV set by 1950. TV of the 1950s was more a medium for letting people see what was being worn than for promoting new styles. Boys and girls both wanted to wear the fashions they saw on TV.

Europe

Dress styles were decidedly more formal and conservative in every large city in Europe, than in our casual and easygoing United States. Girls are dressed to look like girls and boys to look like boys. Children stay children in Europe until they are well along in their teens. Boys dressed up in short pants suits and knee socks until they are at least 13 or 14, some even longer. Short pants suits were worn even in the Winter. On the Continent at the beginning of the decade quite old boys still wore short pants suit, but by the later part of the decade it became rarer to see boys over 13 so dressed. On the Continent many boys wore smocks to school (especially Italy) until about 13. French and Italian elementary boys still wore smocks to school, usually over short pants. Many fashion writers seem to think this a sensible and attractive mode of dress. Long-trousered suits on boys 12 and under had a singularly unfortunate way of making them look like dwarfs or midgets. I'm not talking about blue jeans or long corduroys, which are fine for country wear at home, but which certainly had no place along the stately boulevards of any European city. Play clothes were also more than formal. Shirts and knee socks perdominated. The hallmark of clothes worn by well brought up European children and young people is restraint and the same classic, conservative look as their parents. Fantasy and eccentricity had no more place in children's wardrobes than they do in their parents'. Clothes that make 6-year-old boys look like "Little Men," two-piece bathing suits for girls under 14, anything frou-frou or faddy may be harmlessly ridiculous in Anerica, but abroad might appear downright appalling. Continental styles were much shorter. At the beginning of the decade it was still not unusual to see fairly old boys still in shorts.


Figure 2.--British choir boys in the 1950s mostly wore the standard school boy uniform when not performing.

England

The situation in England was quite different. Uniforms were required at most schools. Most elementary school boys wore grey shorts and knee socks to school. Some boys might even wear shorts for the first few years of their secondary school. Some schools even required it along with a blazer and tie. School caps were also still common, but by the end of the decade had began to decline. British boys were less likely to have play shorts. They might wear an old pair of grey school shorts. Some wore cord shorts. The length was still fairly long, just above knee level. Mothers still resisted buying jeans. The shoe situation in Britain was much different than in America. British schoolboys were less likely to wear sneakers and instead wore closed toe sandals with a "t" strap to school and for play after school.

Television and Movies

Television and movies set in contemprary times often provide accurate costuming showing clothing styles.

Happy Road (U.S., 1957)

This Ameican film was made in France. The American boy appears in a jacket and jeans, identical to the clothes Beaver usually wore. He exchanges clothes with a French, who wears short pants and a beret. Almost all of te French boys in the film wear short pants.

Leave It To Beaver (U.S., 1950s)

Few shows so explified the ideal middle class American boyhood experience as Leave It To Beaver. Many Americans will remember this classic television episode of Leave It to Beaver. Most Americans will be familiar with this series. It was a ground breaker in American television in thatbit was the first "sitcom" set around two unknown kids rather than one made for a an adult star well known to the public. It dealt with the ordinary travails of growing up in America during the 1950s. Ajericans who watched the show as children will remember it as the standard to whch we measured our families. The clothes worn by Beaver and Wally are a good reflection of American boys clothes. Wally never wore short pants--except for Scout camp. Beaver never wore shorts either--except in one episode when Aunt Martha came to take care of the boys.

Spin and Marty (U.S., 195?)

Walt Disney's emensely popular Mickey Mouse Club ran a serial at about the same time as Leave It To Beaver--Spin and Marty in which a boy showed up at summer camp in a limousine and short pants suit. He wore a black short pants suit and knee socks. He even had a butler! The other boys at the camp were agast. But they were realtively gentle with him and he was soon wearing jeans as well.

Toy Tiger (U.S., 1956)

The school uniform at an American private school about the same same time is depicted in Toy Tiger. The boys all wore black short pants suits and kneesocks. Tim Hovey plays a boy at the school who gets himself in trouble with the other boys for braging about a dad he dosn't have.

Social Change

The more we examine the changes taking place roughly from the end of World WarII until the mid-1960's we find that several lessons stand out. I think the foundations for our contemporary culture and lifestyles were unfolding. One change is especially important. While rumblings of a youth culture had been heard since at least the 1920s, at mid-century this trend was becoming a popular and commercial phenomenon. It brought with it of course both exciting and troublesome prospects. In terms of fashion as with other aspects of popular culture we can find both consistent trends and interesting contradictions. How boys, their parents, and the media accepted or rejected short pants during this time is a good example of America's cultural flux. There were of course many other fashion developments, but to many boys this was the most important.

Clothing Catalogs

HBC is archiving information from old clothing catalogs, sewing magazines, newspaper and magazine advertisments and other dated commercial information. While we are only beginning this effort, some usefil information is available from America, England, France, and the Netherlands.







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Created: December 20, 1998
Last updated: December 12, 2003