Dressing 1950s

Shopping For True Vintage 50’s Clothes Pt. 2: Identifying Vintage By Style

Welcome to the second installment of “Shopping for True Vintage”! This section will help you determine True Vintage 1950’s clothing by style.

Many clothes you will find when shopping for true vintage clothing will not have a label. This is either because the label has been removed or torn off over time or because the garment was home-made and never had a label in the first place.

Determining The Correct Era: 80’s vs. 50’s

Without a label, it is harder to identify what era a certain garment is from. You must go by style only to determine when the piece of clothing was made. Let’s say you know that the dress in question is definitely old, but the question is how old? For example, In the 1980’s, there was a resurgence of the 50’s look. In the Fashion World, we call such pieces “80’s Does 50’s”. The fact that the garment in question was made in the 80’s, makes it vintage (since, you know, the 80’s were such a long time ago) So now how are you supposed to tell the difference between “80’s Does 50’s” and a garment that was actually from the 1950’s themselves? Well, if you look closely enough, there are definite differences between a genuine 1950’s dress and an “80’s does 50’s” dress. In the 80’s, The belted “shirt dress” made a big comeback. But the shirtdress of the 80’s was more practical. The skirts had less of a full sweep; they were more of an A-line, kind of like those in the 60’s. Post 50’s, the full-sweep circle skirt was a thing of the past, for the most part, and when you see skirt dresses after that, you will almost always see an A-line instead of a circle skirt. This is also true of the so-called “skater” dresses of the 1990’s. It took me a while to realize, that in fashion, there’s the circle skirt and the A-line, and by God, they’re not the same thing. 1980’s shirt dresses were also a few inches shorter than the tea length dresses of the 50’s.

Then there are the other small details. The 80’s were the era of the Puffy Shoulders. Many 80’s dresses will have puffy sleeves at the shoulders, whereas this was either nonexistent or less exaggerated in the dresses of the 50’s. Another detail are pockets. Many shirt dresses in the 80’s had pockets at the chest. Plus they liked cuffs. They were very big on cuffs. If you’re looking at a dress and you can’t tell if it’s 80’s or 50’s, Ten to One says if there are puffy sleeves, big cuffs or chest pockets, it’s probably from the 1980’s era.

You will also note that in an 80’s garment, the sleeves are wider than those in the 50’s and the cuffs more prominent. The collar is also larger, and stiffer, with an ability to “pop” it which was very trendy in both shirt dresses and button-up shirts of the 80’s. The belts in the 50’s were thinner and matched with the dress. The 80’s belts were wider and more prominent. And probably the biggest difference is the gathered waistline. In the 50’s shirt dress, it is nipped (with or without a belt) In an 80’s shirt dress,  the fabric is more gathered and the belt (there is always a belt) is usually wider, typical of that era.


Left: True Vintage 1950’s shirt dress. Right: 1980’s shirt dress. Note the roominess and the “gathering” at the waist, the cuffs, the wide belt and the slightly less full skirt on the 80’s version.


Home Made 50’s Clothes

Back in the day, making clothes at home was normal. And not only that, most people were really good at it! Many ladies liked to choose their own fabrics and patterns and sew their own dresses. Because of this fact, there are mountains of printed patterns available from the past. From Simplicity and McCalls, to Butterick and Vogue, we have fantastic examples of what the styles in the 1950’s were, thanks to the sketches on the envelopes.

We are left with many home made clothes from the era, sometimes called on today’s market, “Handmade Vintage”.  Some are made quite well, since most women took pride in their seamstress abilities. Others are rougher examples, and usually have a lower asking price. You will be able to tell if they were made well often just by looking at pictures, if you are shopping online.

A circa 1950’s Butterick pattern for casual dresses  (Note the bust measurement and the size.)


Vogue Pattern circa 1950’s featuring formal dresses.


Typical Style Details to Look for in 50’s Clothing

So what are some of the style details to look for? A good rule of thumb is that if you’re in doubt whether or not the dress you have your eye on is true 1950’s or not, remember that 50’s clothing was very conservative. And I’ve said it before and I’ll just keep saying it: The length for a dress (or skirt) from that era should be no shorter than 40” from shoulder to hem, most likely around 42”. This should hit at mid-calf on a woman of average height (about 5’6″), thus making it the classic “Tea Length”. The bust should be large, allowing room for the bullet bras that were in style then. And, of course, the waist should be nipped in. 50’s clothing was made for a curvy, feminine silhouette; the classic “hour glass” shape.

Some examples of necklines in that era consisted of bateau, sweetheart, and collars that button all the way up, practically choking the wearer. Some collars, however, had more of a “v” neck and were slightly open, with flaps, but still modest (this type is also known as “shawl collars”.) Then, there were the innocent-looking “Peter Pan” collars. Some collars also had bows, both thin and thick (what is also called the “pussy bow”) The thinner ones, however, are more indicative of the 1950’s.


Another Vogue pattern featuring blouses with different necklines.


Illustration featuring button-up collars and a bateau neckline.


Toying with Untagged Vintage

As my first leap of Faith, I recently purchased a dress online that is untagged, but has 50’s style elements:

  • A  collar with flaps that has a v-neck but is still conservative
  • Larger in the bust area
  • Detailed pearl and rhinestone embellishments on the buttons
  • A tiny, nipped-in waist
  • A full, pleated skirt
  • Tea length

I am not sure if this dress was ever tagged, or if it is homemade. It is not lined, and it appears to have been shortened. Although I don’t have any real way to determine that this dress is true vintage 1950s, I can still go by the elements in the style and the type of fabric it is to get a feel of when it is from. The fabric is a heavy cotton blend with colored threads throughout the gray base. I think it’s adorable and can be worn for the fall and winter with a slip underneath. Very “1950’s secretary”!

Untagged true vintage dress with 50’s elements



Details: note the pearl and rhinestone embellishments and the threading mixed into the fabric.


So I hope this gives you some more ideas of what to look for when seeking out true vintage without the aid of tags and labels. Please stay tuned for my next entry in this four part series: “Shopping For True Vintage 50’s Clothes Pt. 3: Where To Find Vintage Clothing” which will be published in the next week or so.