“What clothes did they wear in 1959?
The year 1959 was one in which women’s fashions reflected both the highly experimental and the soberly practical points of view. The loose chemise and sack outlines evolved into a still soft but more becoming and figure-defining silhouette, with the waistline area its focal point. At the same time, the impact made by abstract and expressionist art and the weird new forms of moon rockets and space-suits had their inevitable effect on the shape of clothes. Sleeves and shoulders assumed smooth, bulbous, roundness; hats rose like aerated helmets; and skirts became sculptured balloon-like ovals. Another influence on fashion was the TV revival of popular films of the 1930’s. The slim, clinging, bias-cut clothes worn by glamorous stars of that era, such as Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo, inspired American designers and paved the way for a demand by American women for white trench coats, slinky evening gowns, cowl-draped necklines, big fox-fur collars, and deep-crowned swagger hats pulled over long, pageboy coiffures.
Daytime and Evening Suits. The suit silhouette made fashion news for the first time in several years. Jackets lengthened and man-tailored details took the place of the dressmaker look. Gabrielle Chanel, prominent French couturiere of the 1920’s, with her seemingly eternal influence on suit fashions, continued to be the prime suit dictator of 1959. Her open box jacket, usually piped in a contrasting color, was imitated or copied by both European and American designers. The Chanel-type dinner suit in sporting casual lines, executed in sumptuous materials such as silk damask and gold brocade, became the international evening “uniform” of chic women throughout the world.
New Silhouettes. Yves St. Laurent, the young designer who succeeded the late Christian Dior as the head of the House of Dior in Paris, electrified the fashion press and gained international attention with his 1959 version of the hobble skirt, pear-shaped and set on a narrow hem band just at the kneeline. However, this style did not find wide acceptance with the American public. The French firm of Nina Ricci, with designer Robert Crahay at the helm, focused attention on a silhouette which dramatized waist-deep armholes and wide sleeves above a very tight corselet belt. The success of this silhouette, however, was the logical evolution of its earlier introduction by American designers Norman Norell and James Galanos and by Balenciaga and Givenchy of Paris, the most daring innovators in the fashion industry.
Conversely, American fashion ideas and the “American look” continued to affect fashion design in Europe. The shirtwaist dress, the polo coat, the movie-star allure of the 1930’s as epitomized by the clothes of the late Gilbert Adrian and others —as well as the glorification of fresh youth over jaded sophistication—made American fashion reporters feel as if they were back home while viewing the high-fashion collections of Paris, Rome, Florence, and London. Such world figures as Queen Elizabeth II and Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower, consistently pictured wearing the easy, eminently becoming type of dress with a neatly molded bodice and full skirt, helped to maintain America’s position in fashion; the 1959 version of the bodice had a deeper armhole and fuller sleeve and was apt to be elongated to the hipbone instead of stopping at the waistline. Full as well as slim skirts had a tendency to curve in slightly at the hem, forming the oval outline pervading all of fashion.
Enormous collars (or no collar at all) and wide sashes or wide belts were significant fashion points on every type of garment from suits and coats to evening clothes. The cape-collared evening dress often had the surprise note of a devastatingly low-slashed neckline.
Fabrics and Colors. The dominance of interesting fabrics as a source of inspiration to the designer and as a lure to the consumer was more apparent than ever in 1959 fashions. Opulence and elegance were synonymous; silks were so rich and impressive in “body” and design that they recalled the Edwardian and Victorian eras. Tweeds were more fine and often mixed with silk. Cottons were superfine and ultra-feminine, with batiste and cotton chiffon prominently reintroduced. clothes in wool invariably stressed light weight and suppleness, and many were as porous as knits.
Colors remained varied and brilliant, but underwent a pronounced change in tonality, moving from the pure paint-box palette to a misty, muted range. Green, for many years considered a hard color to wear, suddenly emerged as popular not only with designers but with the general public. Emerald green became popular as a basic color in coats, suits, and evening dresses, and bright red and olive green were declared the college-girls’ favorite. White was accepted as the high-fashion color for evening, and white tweeds, woolens, and silk crepes were shown for wear in northern cities under fur coats as well as against the more familiar background of resort landscapes.”
Compiled from period encyclopedias, yearbooks and catalogs subject to fair use or public domain. My own edited versions of public domain material including edited images are protected by copyright.