United States Boys' Clothes: The 1950s


Figure 1.--Boys once wore short pants all year round. By the 1950s it was becoming increasingly less common for boys to wear shorts during the colder winter months.

Fashion trends in the 1950s were primarily a continuation of the trends initiated in the 1940s. 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. Few radical new styles were introduced in the 1950s. Continuing the trend set in the 1940s, fewer older boys now wore short pants suits, it had become a style for younger boys. Jeans had become a virtual uniform for the American boy. Interesingly, they were never worn as jean short pants--always longs. They had not yet gained, respectability, however, as were no worn--except by young boys to school or social events. "T"-shirts with bold horizontal stripes were the most common summer garment with jeans. Boys wear their hair short, crew cuts were popular. Elvis' side burns were the first step in introducing longer hair. The 1950s had shaggy beatnicks, but they had nothing like the influence of the hippies in the 1960s. The 1950s for most Americans were a peaceful interlude of certainties before the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement and War in Vietnam. Thus there were no bold new fashion iniatives as is often the case in settled times.

Conventions

Boys in the 1950s wore suits and jackets much less than in the past. Jacket lapels were broad as in the 1940s, but had narrowed by the end of the decade. A popular jacket style in the late 1940s-early/mid1950s was a two color jacket. Almost always boys in that style would be in longs. Short pants suits generally were a more conservative blue or black.

Garments

We have begun to collect information on garments and styles worn by American boys in the 1950s. 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. 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.

Caps

Boys in the 1950s wore caps much less commonly than in the 1940s. Most caps in the 1950s were worn during the winter and might have ear flaps.


Figure 2.--American boys in the 1950s still dressed in ties and jackets for parties and dances. This of course is American Band Stand.

Suits

The 1950s in addition to the introduction of man-made fibers 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. This "slick" look made little inroad on those who were staunch adherents of the more conservative Ivy League look, but it was a significant phenomenon nonetheless, as it moved Americans further away from the stylish elegance of the 1930s. Suits continued to be less commonly worn as casual styles became increasingly accepted as the suburbs became increasingly dominate in America. Post-War prosperity meant that the average American could now easily afford a car and the car was your passport to the suburbs. Developers by the end of the decade had ringed American cities with sprawling suburbs. Major stylistic shifts ocurred during the decade. Suits and sports jackets were worn with large collars, but more normal sized were standard by the end of the decade. Sport jackets with different colored matrial for the jacket and sleves were popular at the beginning of the decade, but went out of fashion after the middle of the decade. Norfolk jackets were poular, especially for boys early in the decade, but also passed from the fashion scene. Jackets for older boys and men had very wide lapels, but by the end of the decade had become quite narrow. Some boys still wore short pants suits which were still available in sizes up to about 12 years old. Boys from affluent families were the most likely to wear short pants suits. The Eton suit for little boys which first appeared in the 1920s began to grow in popularity. The Eton jacket worn by American boys was a short, collarless jacket, in various materials. It was usually grey or navy blue and almost always worn with suspender short pants. It was worn by boys from affluent families, but was a much more wide-spread style than in the 1940s. Knickers had disapperared in America during the 1940s. Some younger boys instead now wore short pants suits. A few younger teenagers in well to do families might wear shorts until they were 12 or even 13. Most American boys by the time they were 7 or 8 years old, however, wanted longs and could be quite insistent. For many it was the first time they drew that "line in the sand" with their mothers that is part of growing up. Many mothers, however, thought their sons looked better in shorts, but for all but the strongest willed--it was a losing battle. Many men who grew up in this era can recall long running discussions [sorry this link is temporarily lost] with their mothers on the subject. Most American boys insisted on a long pants suits instead, as soon as they were old enough to prevail. The Eton suit with a small collarless jacket was the rage for smaller boys. Boys wearing Eton suits were almost always outfitted with shorts, although often with ankle rather than knee socks which some boys saw as girlish. At about 7 or 8 boys would be outfitted in a more adult looking jacket. Some would continue wearing shorts, especially boys from affluent until about 11 or 12, but most would wear long pants suits.

Shirts

Shirts were often made of cotton broadcloth. Little boys had a variety of special styles, including shirts with buttons at the waist to button on to short pants. The 1940s stle of wearing a wide open collar folded over jacket lapels was still popular in the early 1950s, but quickly faded as the decade progressed. Older boys liked the "preppy look" with button-down shirts. After World War II (1945) the "T" shirt in bold horizontal stripe appeared. They were mostly short sleeved, but long sleeve styles also were available. By the end of the decade they had become very poular. The Eton collar for little boys had disappered by the mid-50s and Peter Pan collars were adapted for younger boys.

Coats and Jackets

Teenage boys liked the James Dean look and motorcycle gang image which in fashion terms means pegged jeans and leather jackets.


Figure 3.--Boys still wore grey flannel shorts in the early 1950s, but they had become much less popular by the end of the decade.

Pants

Knickers were still worn in the early 1950s, but they were not very common. American boys in the early 1950s still wore shorts, although much younger boys than in Europe. But short ants were rapidly going out of fashion and most boys pestered their parents if not inisted on long pants. Television was a good indicator here. There were early TV shows wear boy actors wore short pants. By the mid-1950s, however, child actors never appeared in short pants for their screen roles. The younger boys wearing shorts continued to wear shorter cut shorts, while knee-length shorts were considered more appropriate for older boys. Shorts were, however, beginning to become regarded as summer wear. Some boys would wear shorts even when it was chilly enough for a sweater. Older boys, however, increasingly wanted long pants, especially during the winter and most parents acquiesed. Many styles of short pants were no longer available in larger sizes. Summer shorts were available in larger sizes up to 12 or 13 years. Around mid-decade in fact, short pants known as Bermudas began to appear on U.S. college campuses in the spring. They were available in chinos, searsucker, Madras and othe fabrics. The popularity of shorts as leisure wear had begun. A new fashion appeared for little boys at mid decade. The shorts worn by younger boys were still often suspender shorts. This was especially true of dress shots, such as the ones worn with Eton suits. GI's returning from the Second World War in the 1940s had, brought back jeans. It was not long before boys were asking form them. At the time they were called dungarees. Boys wanted them to play in. Many boys much preferred them to short pants for play. Jeans were worn during the summer and then for the winter flannel kined jeans were available that showed at the cuff. While many mothers insisted on shorts. Short pants were more common in some areas such as the South and California. Chinos were commonly worn for school. They were called chinos because they were made from a khaki material made in Manchester and exported to China. The whiley Chinese, however, began selling the fabric to Americans stationed in the Philippines during the 1930s. The Americans thus reffered to the material and pants made from it as chinos. These comfortable trousers have become summer classics for boys and young adults. Chinos in the mid-1950s, for some reason, came with a little ornamental belt at the back.

Socks

Boys in the 1930s had commonly worn knee socks with knickers. Short pants were worn with both knee socks and ankle socks. The solid color knee socks were not as popular as in Europe. American boys often wore kneesocks with pattern at the top. When knickers disappeared in the 1940s, most American boys ceased wearing knee socks. The knee socks with the patterened tops disappeared completely. Boys that did wear knee socks wore solid colors. American boys in the 1950s no longer commonly wore knee socks, especially for play or school. Some boys who still wore short pants suits did sometimes wear knee socks, but this became increasingly less common by the 1960s.

Footwear

American boys wore sturdy leather oxfords to school and for dress up occasions. Many boys also wore them for play and casual occassions. They were lace-up shoes. There were ome made for a few years thathad snap closures, but almost all were lace-ups. I recall having trouble learming to tie my laces in First Grade. Girls seem to learn faster. This is why strap shoes were so common in Britain. Girls wore sturdy oxfords as well, altough girls had a choice. There were strap shoes that many girls wore. I recall seeing boys wearing leather oxfords even at summer camp. Very little boys, especially in affluent families, might be dressed in closed-toe red sandals. These were considered girlish shoes and thus were not worn by most boys, even most pre-school boys. School age boys, however, did wear them. The canvas shoes which appeared in the 1920s grew in popularity during the 1940s. We called them tennis shioes. The most popular brand was Keds which I think were only available in black for boys and worn as high-top styles at the beginning of the decade. By the end of the decade white low-cuts were becoming more popular. There weee low cut red or white Keds for school. They were not yet universal. We still commonly see boys wearing leather oxfords. Saddle shoes were popular. Penny loafers and saddle shoes were worn by both girls and boys.

Accessories

Fashion reached all accesories, even the dowdy old raincoat which is no longer what a raincoat used to be. New smart-looking styles appeared. It was more utilitarian than ever, serving as a all-around coat of water-repellent cotton or wool with removable linings that button, snap or zip in or out according to the needs of the weather. Winter coats are lined with thick, fuzzy synthetic pile that feels and looks like fur.

Girls Clothes

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. Teenagers tried to develop their own styles within the limited range of clothing available. There was an urge to show off and experiment. But few designers made clothing for the youth market. As the decade progressed stores in America opened departments that catered to the young. Teens looked for a fashion look that was bright, different, and affordable. Girls fashions included thebBobby soxer look (Peter Pan collared blouse, poodle skirt, scarf-tied ponytail, and saddle shoes). In tailored suits it is the Chanel model for girls and the rough tweed for boys.

Men's Fashions

Men fashions during the 1950s are best remembered for the gray flannel suits worn by the conservative businessman. There was even a movie made with this title, "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit". Clothes for men and boys, who in the past were restricted by convention and designers to rather drab styles, began to show some variety during the 1950s, a variety that would significantly expand in the 1960s and 70s. Gray flannel suits, blue pinstripes and tweeds were still the choice of many of the conservative types, but more and more men were wearing bolder clothing to work. They could choose from among colorful (even checkered) sports jackets, white and colored dress shirts, dress shirts with button-down collars or large French cuffs. Casual dress included polo shirts with a crocodile insignia stitched on the breast, oversize madras plaid sport shirts, gaudy Hawaiian sports shirts, baggy pegged pants, Bermuda shorts of all colors, Bass Weejun penny loafers, sneakers (canvas shoes), blue jeans, and leather jackets. For both sexes, the trend was toward the casual, convenient and colorful. There were clothes for every occasion, whether at the office, in the classroom, or on a motorcycle. America was becoming more relaxed, and it showed. Now men were back to the natural-shoulder silhouette. As reported in Apparel Art ‘75 Years of Fashion, No style was ever so firmly resisted, so acrimoniously debated - or more enthusiastically received in various segments of the industry. Natural shoulder styling eventually became the major style influence. Brooks Bros., once a ‘citadel of conservatism,’ became a font of fashion as the new ‘Ivy Cult’ sought style direction. Charcoal and olive were the colors.

Synthetic Fibers

As the decade progressed, more and more of the clothing was made from the increasing number of synthetic fibers bearing labels promising "drip dry" ease and requiring "little or no ironing."

Preppy Styles

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. The fashion outcome was the Preppy style which still influences classic styles today.

Activities

We note a variety of clothing associated with different activities. It was still common in the 1950s for children to dress-up for special occasions. Casual attire was growing in popularity, but we still see childre dressing up. This was especuially true for girls, but boys still vcinnionkly wiore suits abnd ties for church and special occasions. There were still dress-up clothes in the youthful wardrobe. Lots more exciting, however, were the school and sports outfits. Young people now lived in an age calling for simple, casual tailored garments, smart-looking yet thoroughly comfortable and really fun-clothes. Such dress has settled into a pattern. For both sexes there were principally sweaters, pullons, all kinds of knockabout jackets, shorts, slacks and for girls, the attractive dirndl skirts, and all kinds of outer coats of varied length practical for sports and school wear. The average American boy during the 1950s would play in a "t" shirt, often with broad colored horizontal stripes, blue jeans, and Keds. Most boys saw shorts as little boys and girls clothes. Interestingly some boys would play in jeans, but have to dress up in a short pants suit. The opposite of the modern boy who more commonly wears play shorts , but has a long pants suit for dress. Some boys did play in shorts, mostly boys up to 10 or 11. Play shorts were most common in the south and California. The style were boxers with elasticized waists, the length was much shorter than common during the 1940s. Shorts were commonly worn at summer camps. The big hit in the 1950s were blue jeans or levis for roughing it. They were still not thought of as fasinable. Accessories too numerous to itemize appeared. All American boys and many girls wanted to wear them. They were still not considered to be stylish, but they were what boys wanted to wear when they could get away with it. Some came with flannel linings and were often worn by elementary school children. They were banned at most secondary schools. A few American private schools required boys to attend in jackets and shorts, but this involved a relatively small number of boys, primarily as prestigious northeastern schools. American public sch ools had no uniform requirement. High schools did have dress codes, many of which prohibited jeans and shorts. Elementary schools were more flexible, but few boys wore shorts to school, especially after the first or second grade, although this varied somewhat by region.

Hair Styles

Hair-cuts were short, often military-style "crew-cuts."

Economy

The 1950s were a time of affluence in contrast to the preceeding two decades. The 1930s had been a disater for many Americans as a result of the Depression. Unemployment rose and jobs were very hard to find. Than their was the trevails of World War II. After the War, the United States was one of the few combatant countries that emerged undamaged and stronger than before the War. Americans after World War II, especially working-class Americans thanks to the GI Bill, for the first time had generally open access to university studies and professionsal careers. The moddle-class broadened considerably. And even high-school graduates could earn good libvings in factories. Their children thus grew up in middle-clas affluence, knowing nothing of what their parents went through. Most American teens in the 50s had not only the basic neccesities, but unrivaled material wealth. They had nice wardrobes, recird plsyers, radios, and lived in comfortable homes. Many had cars. There were cultural consequences. Thus there was unprecedented feedom. Even younger teens no longer had to listen to the music mom and dad picked out on the family radio as was the case in the 1920s-40s. They had their own phonographs and radios. And older teens had cars which gave them physical indeprndence. Few had the concerns about the future that their parents had. Getting a job after school was not the concern it was for their parents. American was booming. Cars had tail fins, An expression of both needless opulence and optimism about the new jet-age. This all occurred in a world that at the beginning of the decade was still recovering from the War. Many pursued their economic dreams. There was an exodus from the inner cities into the expanding new suburbs. Others dropped up and launched the Hippy Movement of the 1960s.

Demographic Trends

Demographic trends had a powerful impact on fashion. As postwar families moved to the suburbs in increasing numbers, they adopted a more open lifestyle with fewer formal conventions about dress. More mothers sought jobs outside the home. Those that did stay home no longer wore dowdy housedresses, but found the casual pants and tops they were used to wearing for sports to be comfortable and convenient not only for working in the home, but also for transporting the children of the baby boom or for picking up commuting husbands. In the summers, they and their husbands wore knee-length Bermuda shorts to society parties and a few bold men even wore Bermuda shorts business suits or tuxedos with knee socks--a style that did not endure. Boys were more conservative, strenuosly resisting short pants for dress wear.

Pop Culture

A good resource for HBC readers is William Graebner's Coming of Age in Buffalo, published about 1990. Graebner is a professor of history/popular culture at State University of New York (SUNY-Fredonia). His fascinating book is a collection of photos and reminiscences about mostly teen culture in Buffalo, NY, from about 1945-55. He provides an excellent descriptions of fads and pop culture. TV reflected changes in clothing tastes. Some of the shows appaering in the 1950s that relected this trend were: Lassie (1954-71), Leave It to Beaver (1957-63), Spin and Marty, Dennis the Menace (1959-63), and many more. included A HBC reader believes that some time after World War II, clothing styles increasingly reflected the relentless homogenization of American culture, itself a product of the war. He writes, "I think we lost something in the way of both variety and, gradually, elegance, too. Both were victims of mass merchandising and advertising, and the increasing suburbanization of America. Include, also, more leisure time, as an agent for change in tastes. Gadgetry and appliances, byproducts of wartime research and development, were available and affordable, thanks to postwar prosperity. With more leisure time Americans wanted, well, to dress the part. As time went on, only the real traditionalists (and maybe the wealthy ones, at that) selected the old "proper" styles for their young."

Mass Media

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. There was still little fashion advertising, TV was busy selling cigarettes, cars, and soap powder. Still children saw the fashions worn on the shows and wanted them rather than the "nice" clothes in which mom might want to dress them. TV did, however, help to bring color to mens' and boys' dress shirts since blue shirts on TV announcers looked "whiter" than white shirts on black-and-white TV. Soon shirt manufacturers began producing colored dress shirts. Pink was often combined with popular gray flannel suits. These suits had become so closely associated with the stereotype of the high-powered business executive that a 1950s novel about a successful corporate executive was titled The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Navy blue or black were the conservative standards for boys' suits, although some flashier patterns were available for jackets some of which were made of two different contrasting patterns. Some employers objected to the informality of colored shirts and banned them from their offices. The popular "t" shirt introduced by GIs in the 1940s gained fashionability when Marlon Brando wore them in the 1951 film Streetcar Named Desire. "T" shirts moved rapidly from underwear to sportswear. Of course jeans and "T" shirts were just part of the new developing youth culture. The average American teenager in the 1950s warned an average of about $12 a week. This was more than an average family in the 1930s. That buying power bought tremendous attention from mass marketers and growing independence. Parents in the 1940s controlled the victrola and radio which set in the living room. In the 1950s teens with their new found wealth could buy the new inexpensive radios and portable record players and retreat to their rooms to play their music. America has never been the same. Little did Europe and the rest of the world know it, but like Jeans, America was about to export its new youth culture. Boys' clothing conventions were closely mirrored on the TV. A few shows in the late 1940s and early 1950s had boys in shorts. But by 1953-54 it was very rare to see a boy of any age in dressy shorts and knee socks or even play shorts. American boys that did wear shorts were often depicted as spoiled rich kids. All the major family sitcoms with kids (Father Knows Best, Life with Riley, Lassie, Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, ect,) had their boys of all ages in longs, even for play. One show which many boys in America followed, secretely wishing they had moms and dads like Beave and Wally, was Leave it to Beaver. In fact one of the real crises of Beaver's life was when Aunt Martha arrived and soon outfitted him in a short pants suit and knee socks. She soon sent him off to Sunday school dressed in his new suit. The results were disatrous. The other children, they were only second graders, teased him about his bare knees and for wearing "girls' socks". The impact on the boys watching these shows mut have affected how boys thought of short pants. Some American readers recall see these shows as kids and have commented.

Individual Schools

We still some younger boys wearing short pants to school in the early 50s. And in the south and rural areas areas a few children came to school barefoot. Neither were, however, very common. We mostly see boys in elementary (primary) schools wearing casual shirts. Striped "T"-shirts were very popular and jeans. During the winter, jeans wre availavle with flannel linings. Leatger shoes were mostly worn, but we see some sneakers. Black high-tops with white soles were the most common, but sneakers were not yey stylish. Almost all girl wore dresses or skirts. Saddle shoes sere worn bu boys and girls. Boys wore casual shirts to school, although some boys buttoned them. Jeans were not worn extensively worn in high schools. Many actually prohibited them. All high school boys wore long trousers. Ties and suits were not worn. The principal exception here was parochial schools. Some began requiring basic unifoirms which often inckuded white shirts and ties. A few private schools required suits and ties with a British look.

American Catalogs

Mail order catalogs and perodical publication ads provide a great deal of useful information on period clothing. A few boys still wore knicker suits in the early 1950s, but they disappeared from clothing catalogs. Boys were wearing mostly slacks and jeans. Some boys wore short pants, but it was increasingly less commonn, except for younger boys. This varied somewhat regionally and by social class. Jeans came long so the cuffs could be turned up. In the middle of the decade coon skin caps appeared thanks to Walt Disney and Davy Crocket.

Personal Experiences

A variety of personal accounts are available and articles are available on this period.
The 1940s: Short snipits
The 1940s: Knickers and shorts
The 1940s: My Brother and I
The 1940s: A sailor suit
The 1940s-50s: Sneakers and jeans
The 1950s: Beaver Goes Shopping
The 1950s: Jeans, Jeans, Jeans
The 1960s: Traveling in Europe
The 1960s: Shorts, jeans, and France
The 1960s: The Beautiful People
The 1960s: Mothers Buy Clothes

Sources

William Graebner, Coming of Age in Buffalo (about 1990).







HBC





Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing U.S. pages
[Return to the mainUnited States page]
[Return to the U.S. post-war years]
[Return to the mainMain 1950s chronology page]
[the 1900s] [the 1910s] [the 1920s] [the 1930s] [the 1940s] [the 1950s] [the 1960s] [the 1970s] [the 1980s] [the 1990s]



Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]




Created: November 22, 1998
Last updated: 5:29 PM 5/23/2018