The designs that made up the 1950s dress patterns were by no means an accident. Post war print designs reflected the economy, rationing was still in place, and life was one of hardship, there was certainty no place for the lavish, sentimental or stately. However, the dreary years of the Second World War gave way to a new, contemporary approach to design which symbolized the optimism for a new world. Gone were the restrictions on colour, and print designers relished the opportunity to break the mould of the past.
The New Look
The “New Look” 1050’s dress was a Dior creation that took Britain by storm in February 1947. It was a design that contained dress patterns with narrow shoulders, small waist, padded hips and a skirt that ended well below the knee Hemlines had become shorter during the war and the New Look was actually a return to a more demure look, but it was different from what had gone immediately before and it was French — that was its main attraction. But by some people the new dress patterns was reviled for wasting too much material (the longer skirt) during a period when clothing material was in extremely short supply.
For all but a privileged few, money was tight in the 1940s and 1950s, and as a result far more women made their own dress patterns and skirts, for themselves and for friends and family. The really enterprising even made shirts and occasionally trousers for their husbands and their children.
Lisa Edwards, who was interviewed for, recalls the frenzy of activity among the dressmakers at home.
“My mother and my aunts all made their own clothes — and each other’s! The point was that something expensive like shot silk could just about be afforded if you bought a bit of it but didn’t have to pay to have it made up. And people back then really minded if someone else had the same dress on, so they’d buy a pattern from one of the famous pattern makers of the day — Vogue, Butterick or Simplicity — and then add something unique, such as a fake flower or a few fake cherries. The patterns poured out, I seem to remember, because the pattern makers knew that after the war there was a real clamour for new fashions and new bright materials.
There were professional dressmakers all over the country before the war — in little shops but more often at home — but they had all but vanished by the mid 1960s. The sense that everyone had to pull together in difficult times reduced the amount of snobbery about clothes — well-off middle-class women no longer thought that doing a bit of sewing was beneath them, so working-class women and the well-off were buying the same new patterns and creating a huge new market and a new look that spread quickly everywhere. Popular 1950s dress patterns were fabrics consisting of stripes and spots and checks, and there was something called the Cotton Board that tried to promote cotton, which was not so popular back then. People preferred the new exciting fabrics like nylon and Crimplene, and anything in nylon was seen as the best. Cotton was for poor people, which is a complete contrast with more recent years where everyone wants cotton and other natural fibres and everyone hates man-made stuff. It’s funny because looking back, a lot of the fashions made women look bottom-heavy because so many wide flaring skirts were worn with hoops — we were like those Victorians with their bustles!”
Dressmaking as a pastime also increased because in the 1950s dress patterns took more account of amateurs, not professional dressmakers, and the boom in pattern sales coincided with a whole range of new sewing machines that could do so much more than the old prewar models, as Lisa Edwards (also interviewed for) remembers.
“They could do zigzag stitch for buttonholes, for example — and sewing got so popular that you could take your half-made garment to a Singer sewing-machine shop and they’d do the buttonholes for you! A lot of women had their old treadle sewing machines converted to run on electricity too.”
But at the top end of the market clothes were still largely handmade, the casual look simply didn’t fit the desire to look glamorous; the groomed look for the mature woman was everything, with carefully tailored detailing — flap pockets and three-quarter sleeves were among the most popular details — and a universal yearning for style.
Free 1950s dress patterns created for the V&A
Why not create your own couture inspired dress with 1950s dress patterns. The V&A website has a set of patterns that you can download for free. The free dressmaking patterns have been specially created for the Golden Age of Couture website. It is based on 1950s dress patterns ready to wear dress from the V&A.