Part of what got me interested in the 1950’s era, was watching all those re-runs of the hit ABC TV series “Happy Days”. “Happy Days” originally began in the 1970’s and ran from 1974 to 1984. (Of course when I was watching it, it was way after its original run and in syndicate) As most folks know, “Happy Days” was joyously set in the 1950’s (and early 1960’s) hence the show’s name. The storyline follows the lives of the Cunninghams, a nice, typical middle class family and their friends: Potsie, Ralph and, of course, THE FONZ.
I have fond memories of watching “Happy Days”… I don’t know why I loved it so much, or why I preferred it to whatever shows were on at the time. But from a young age, I just instantly took to it. I adored the characters and I really got into the setting, clothing, Pop Culture and so on of Milwaukee in the 1950’s.
But as they say, you can’t go home again. I recently started to watch “Happy Days” again after several years. I bought two of the DVD sets (distributed by CBS Home Video) of Seasons 4 and 5. As I watch the show this time around, I’m paying specific attention to the clothes and hair styles. To my surprise, it turns out that “Happy Days” was not all that accurate in portraying the styles of the 1950’s after all!
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m enjoying re-watching the show immensely, this time from an adult’s point of view, which in some ways makes it even funnier. The only thing that’s driving me bat-shit (excuse the modern day expression) is the lack of accuracy from a historical fashion standpoint. “Happy Days” has also been criticized for being inaccurate in Politics and Historical Sociology from that era, but I “ain’t” going there!
So let’s focus on the fashions! What worked and what didn’t in portraying the 1950’s?
Happy Days Fashions: What Worked:
- Mrs. C
The best praise I can give the “Happy Days” wardrobe department is in the choosing of the clothes for Marion Cunningham. Marion’s dresses are spot-on as far as the era goes: fit and flare housewife dresses with belts and a full skirt, accurate patterns (neither too bright nor too boring) that included gingham, stripes, small print, solids with contrast piping. From her hat and gloves she wears on outings, to her simple high-heels, Marion’s wardrobe is true to the era. Marion might not always grasp what is going on, but she always has the perfect Nifty Fifties outfit. Way to go, Mrs. C!
- Joanie AKA Shortcake
Joanie is a character whose wardrobe starts off accurately, (but like everyone else’s) begins to drop out of the time period as the series goes on. During Season 4, Joanie is about 14 years old. Her hair is short, above her shoulders, neatly styled and slightly curled under. Her clothes are either fit and flare dresses, with a cute, girly blouse underneath or modest tops with skirts and a belt. For the casual scenes, jeans rolled at the cuffs. All of this is accurate. She also often sports a neck-scarf, one of the most popular accessories for young girls at the time. When going somewhere, she wears gloves, which no girl in the 1950’s would be without.
By Season 6, Joanie’s hair is pulled up into a short ponytail-bun on which she wears the quintessential 50’s scarf. This is iconic 1950’s, and ironically was just starting to go out of style in the early 60’s, which is when most of Season 6 takes place. None-the-less, it still works well for that general time period. Joanie’s clothing changes from good-girl dresses and jumpers to buttoned-up collar shirts and a high school jacket. She’s growing up now, going to sock hops and dressing like teens from around that time. Joanie’s wardrobe really gives us that “Malt Shop Era” feel.
Happy Days Fashions: What Didn’t Work:
- Pinky’s Short Shorts
Ah, good ole Pinky Tuscadero. Leave it to her to break all the rules. But even so, the first thing I noticed when watching the 3-Part episode “Fonzie Loves Pinky” were Pinky’s short shorts. Hot Pants is more like it. They have an inseam of about one inch and are practically all Pinky is ever seen wearing. This wouldn’t be so bad if she were posing for Pin Up photos in every scene. But she wears her trade-mark short shorts RIGHT in the middle of Arnold’s Diner, in front of the general public. No girl would ever, ever even think of wearing super short shorts in the middle of a restaurant in the 1950’s, and even if she were crazy enough to do so, she would probably have been arrested. It’d be unlikely that a girl would wear shorts that scanty that in a public place like a restaurant before the 1990’s… prior to that time, it would have just been considered completely inappropriate.
Even so, fans still love Pinky and I’m no exception. Let’s face it, she was cool!
(We’ll talk about her Charlie’s Angels hair later in this post.)
- The Girls’ Hair
Like I mentioned above, this is what drives me CRAZY! Many of the girls seen on “Happy Days” have long hair. Really, really long hair. In truth, no gal in the 50’s had long hair. The longest you might have seen is just past shoulder length on a teenager that she would pull up into the iconic 50’s ponytail. But on “Happy Days”, girls with long hair are often seen wearing it down, no bangs, and with two little clips on either side– in other words, completely 1970’s! To see that on a show that’s supposed be set in the 50s, just annoys the crap outta me. I mean, why didn’t the producers insist that all the girls, even the most slightly used extras, have their hair done 50’s style? Even the girls with ponytails have hair that’s way too long for the era. It’s like none of the gals in the cast wanted to cut their hair and be out of the then-current (1970’s) style. Well, gee. If you’re on a show that’s set in a certain time period, you should look like you’re from that time period. Just sayin’!
Now, what’s even more frustrating are the girls that do have shorter hair and it’s still not 1950’s. At this point I just squint and pretend. But it doesn’t help much. This look is repeated again and again on the show because it was what was in style when the show was made and nobody bothered to do their hair before the camera started rolling. I mean, really? How hard could it have been for them to style the cast’s hair 1950’s?
This also goes for Pinky and her crew. Pinky wears her flaming red locks in what appears to be right off the set of a “Charlie’s Angel’s” episode. (In fact, Roz Kelly actually guest-starred on “Charlie’s Angels”!) The bushy, feathered hairstyle points only to the 70’s. Pinky’s two cronies have short hair that is also styled in a way that’s indicative to the that era. When I look at Pinky and Pals, I don’t really see 1950’s. All I see is a good example of 1976.
- Jefferson High Cheerleading Uniforms
In Season 4, Joanie becomes a “Pom Pom” girl at Jefferson High. As with Pinky’s too short shorts, Joanie’s Cheerleading uniform could be called a disgrace! (Well, in the 1950’s, that is.) Her skirt hits at about mid-thigh, which is what we would consider “normal” for a cheerleading skirt. But remember, we have been used to Cheerleaders wearing short skirts for decades now (Pro Cheerleaders wear much, much less!) However, back in the 1950’s, Cheerleading outfits were EXTREMELY conservative. To us, they might look ridiculous, but the fact is, Cheerleaders in the 1950’s wore their skirts the same length as all the other skirts ladies wore: tea length (early to mid 50’s) and, at the very shortest, a couple of inches below the knee (late 50’s)! This was due to high moral standards, but one might wonder how they even moved around in skirts that long… The point here is, Joanie’s “Pom Pom” girl uniform is right out of the 70’s– not the 50’s.
So here’s a shot of the too long hair AND the too short Cheerleading skirts, both of which are not accurate in portraying the 1950’s era. Even the girls with ponytails don’t look 50’s; they’re lacking any kind of bangs, which was an essential part of the pin-curled style for young women in the 50’s. (These girls are wearing the same uniform Joanie wore as a Pom Pom girl at Jefferson HS, which I talked about above.)
- Men’s Styles
A few weeks ago, I was innocently enjoying Al Delvecchio sing “I Love A Parade” at the Jefferson Senior Prom, when I noticed something disturbing: one of the band members has 70’s hair! I thought, “Oh come on!”. (Actually, I was more like “WTF?”) As with the women, the men’s hair is a common continuity problem on that show. How could the producers allow so many of their minor characters to just waltz onto the scene in the then current day styles?
As I wondered about this, I’ve deduced a couple of things: One is that the producers just weren’t that cut-throat about every single actor being accurately dressed to portray the 1950’s. And Two is that at the time, nobody thought about how “dated” the current-day styles would look in the future. To them, daily styles were just normal looking, so to slip a few people in who looked normal among the 50’s-looking cast wouldn’t be so bad. But now, looking back at the re-runs 40 years later, all we see is 70’s, 70’s, 70’s!!!
Leather Tuscadero: The Continuity Problem We Gladly Ignore
It pains me to say that the beloved character played by Suzi Quatro was anything but 1950’s. It’s not just the fact that Leather’s look is pretty much the epitome of the late 70’s/early 80’s Rocker look… it’s the fact that she’s female.
There were, quite simply, NO female artists in the Rock n Roll genre in the 1950’s. Pop and Doo-Wop, yes. But not Rock n Roll. And to further this fact, guess what? Suzi Quatro herself was one of the very first female Rock n Roll artists ever! She is sometimes considered the predecessor to Joan Jett, who made her debut in the late 1970’s.
But in this case, none of that matters. Leather Tuscadero is pretty much synonymous with “Happy Days” and a true and tried fan favorite. She rocks! The presence of her character is the one continuity issue that is easy to ignore because we love her. Sure, they could have made her hair and costumes a bit more “Pink Ladies” badass and less 1970’s Groovy, but hey. What we have here is a classic within itself.
All that said…
This post is in no way meant to disparage “Happy Days”. It is a wonderful, classic show set in a wonderful, classic time. It will always be one of my favorites. But from a fashion point of view, “Happy Days” is an iconic example of “70’s does 50’s”.
So if you’re looking for authenticity, take “Happy Days” with a grain of salt. Keep studying vintage magazine clips, clothes patterns, and real photos from the 50’s. Because nothing can better illustrate any era than something that actually came from it. 🙂
AND NOW… What We’ve All Been Waiting For: A Word From THE FONZ!
Because what is a blog post about “Happy Days” without a word from The Fonz? I thought this meme was pretty funny, and some great advice as always, from America’s Coolest Guy:
Well said, Fonz!
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