Mid-Century Mania – Themes

When I talk about mid-century style, I’m generally referring to the years between the early 1950’s and the mid 1960’s.  Yes, there were considerable shifts of fashion and style within that span of time, but when I look back at pictures from that era, certain themes in mainstream fashion are consistently present.  Some of these run distinctly counter to current trends (as evidenced, for example, by contemporary disdain for anything too “matchymatchy“), and some seem to be finding their way back into fashion in modern incarnations (sheath dresses, full skirts, red lipstick, kitten heels).
If you are drawn to these iconic looks and are thinking of adding some elements of classic mid-century style to your mix, here are the buzzwords you’ll want to keep in mind: structured, fitted, coordinated, matching, polished, streamlined, tailored, refined, appropriate to the occasion, smooth (thanks in no small part to often armour-like girdles underneath), feminine, petite (I’m thinking accessories here), demure, contained, colors (black was rarely worn by women during the day), prints.  These are overall themes, not hard-and-fast rules.
Back to drawing from the amazing costuming in Mad Men, Francine, on the right above, is a great illustration of some of these.  The colors in her jacket, top, and pants are coordinated. (I remember that even when my mother and her friends wore more casual separates, they were often purchased as a “set,” which these days would risk looking dowdy.) I have to admit I adore this outfit and would be tempted to wear a version of it today. Look at the dainty wristwatches, and Betty’s understated pearls and charm bracelet.   Some women did wear bigger, bolder costume jewelry, but smaller, more ladylike adornment was the norm at least among my parents’ cohort, and I was often warned off of anything “too gaudy.”  (Moth, meet flame.) 
This was, after all, my mother’s style icon.
Bags and shoes were supposed to match each other, and matching to one’s outfit was even better. Below, note the green dress, bag and shoes.
(Yes, that’s dried blood on Joan’s dress.  If you haven’t seen the show, I’m not going to spoil it but I will say that it’s not hers.) Look at that tiny purse on the seat next to her.  There’s a scene during the first season where one of the other women in the office comments on Joan’s “huge pocketbook”; compared to today’s luggage-sized bags it looks almost miniature.
Many mid-century style themes appear dated to our modern sensibilities, or will at least until the fashion pendulum swings back in that direction.  I don’t think modern women will ever go back to the confining clothes, rigid shapewear, and strict rules about what can be worn with what, and when and where, but I do think some of these elements I listed above will continue to catch on, if only as an antidote to the anything-goes-ism that has seemed to dominate fashion for the last few years.  And even if not, if certain mid-century (or any other era’s) styles really float your boat, my .02 says wear them. Just not all at once, lest you risk looking as though you just stepped out of a time capsule.
Are there some looks you love that feel out of date?  Do you wear them anyway?  If so, do you consciously style them look more modern?
Next up, some specific ideas for incorporating elements of mid-century style into a modern wardrobe.
All original content property of https://unefemme.net

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 United States License.

Affiliate links in posts may generate commissions for unefemme.net. See my complete disclosure policy here.

25 Comments

  1. July 12, 2010 / 1:51 pm

    Pseu, you absolutely nailed in on fashion themes from the mid-century. I confess that I still do often match my bag and shoes. And at times I carry a smaller lady like handbag with a handle.
    Also, I look better in structured clothes so I tend to by tailored pieces that are Mid-Century-esque.
    But I do agree that you have to add Mid-Century style judiciously to your daily wardrobe, lest you look like something out of the wardrobe department at ‘Mad Men”
    Excellent post!

  2. July 12, 2010 / 2:03 pm

    This is a beautiful piece of fashion – art and social – history. I doubt women nowadays would fully embrace postwar restrictions as expressed in dress – surely not the iron undergarments! This was the period when women were to “return to the home” in theory at least after working in war years.

    But there is much beauty in those wardrobes – quality fabrics and workmanship. And for women of our cohort who were little girls then, grownup glamour.

    Overviews must focus on the mainstream, but subcultures have always existed. Beatniks and other bohos didn’t get the exposure hippies would a few years later, but I’ve studied the looks of many artists of the day. They did wear black by day, unusual colours and exotic elements.

    Here in Montréal alone, “Suzanne” wore “rags and feathers, from Salvation Army counters”. I’m sure they were very aesthetic rags – Suzanne Verdal was an art dancer, her husband Armand Vaillancourt a sculptor, Leonard Cohen a budding poet. and “Nancy wore green stockings and she slept with everyone” (…) “in 1961”.

    (Lyrics reference: “Suzanne”, and “Seems so long ago, Nancy” L. Cohen)

    Don’t I see a chic boho look on the middle woman (with the damned coffin nail) in the Mad Men pic at the right? Could be, among admen – not bankers.

  3. July 12, 2010 / 2:25 pm

    great post! I think there is always a way to update classic style to make them more fresh and modern (i.e. red lipstick with ‘undone’ eye/cheek makeup).

  4. July 12, 2010 / 2:36 pm

    I love your series on Mad Men style. A stylist from Guiding Light ( the soap opera) once told me that women our age naturally gravitate to 50’s style because it was designed to enhance a woman’s body. The stiffer structure, well defined waist, and careful coordination of colors created an elegance that looked better on mature women, than it did on twenty somethings. I can still find very affordable 50’s clothing at thrift and vintage shops. I use these pieces one at a time so that I don’t look like an extra from a Joan Crawford movie.

  5. July 12, 2010 / 2:49 pm

    I fear I tend to get “matchy-matchy” more than I should, matching an accessory to a color in a skirt or blouse fabric.

    I like costume jewelry instead of fine jewelry, so I do go kind of retro with my accessories.

    I wish I could wear as structured an outfit as the suit at the start of your post, but alas, my waistline is no longer capable of accommodating that.

  6. July 12, 2010 / 3:07 pm

    Much as I love many, many elements of mid-century style (full skirts, though they’re not great on my frame), there is much than unnerves me about the idea of its return. Entertaining as it is to watch, the show is also often painful to those of us whose memories reach back to that time with its privileging of a limited kind of female beauty, particularly of body shape as well as with destructive restrictions about gender behaviour. For me, the matching, the small purses that I remember my mother and her friends carrying on arms held at an odd angle to their bodies, the “nylons” we held up with uncomfortable garter belts and which “ran” at the slightest provocation — another constriction of what we could do — all make me v. anxious. At least then, the medium WAS the message, so I’ll be judicious as I choose which elements of mid-century style might work for me now. And thinking of my female students, so convinced that feminism is irrelevant now that we’ve achieved equality (ha!!), I hope we don’t romanticize the period and its clothes.

    Yikes! That said, almost-rant over, I’m really enjoying your analysis. I know that you’re aware of many of the elements I’ve mentioned and that you will offer us workable ways to incorporate 50s-60s elements, and I look forward to reading more posts from you on this.
    Also, to Lagatta, the beatnik style was represented on the show in the 1st Season through one of Don Draper’s dalliances — you might be interested in checking out how credibly.

  7. July 12, 2010 / 3:37 pm

    I don’t watch TV as a rule (don’t have a set at home – how boho can one get?) so I only know Mad Men from articles and pictorials. I found a great pictorial on Midge and the other “beatniks” at Vintage Scientist: http://vintagescientist.blogspot.com/2010/03/mad-men-beatnik-style.html

    pseu has already posted Paris photos – fashion shots, and perhaps some streetsyle – from the same period. Interesting to compare with the fictional New Yorkers and NY suburbanites of Mad Men, and pseu’s own family and friends in California.

    Are there any Black people in this series?

  8. July 12, 2010 / 7:44 pm

    Love your post! Mrs Kennedy was also an exemplar of her class, so she emodied the era via her pedigree. Therefore, she wore few prints (at least in public) and less obvious foundation garments (a lot was made then of her ‘natural’ look- which included apparently going braless a bit later in the decade.)

    I read somewhere that Joe Kennedy gave Jack money to buy her fine jewelry as soon as they were married, A women in the public eye in his family needed it.

  9. M
    July 12, 2010 / 2:42 pm

    Interesting post, like you I admire many of the “mid-century” fashions. To me, there’s nothing more comfortable or elegant than a simple sheath dress.

    Lagatta said she doesn’t think most modern women would subject themselves to postwar “iron undergarments” which I agree with. But, isn’t ironic that so many choose to submit themselves to plastic surgery?

    I guess it’s true that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

  10. metscan
    July 12, 2010 / 5:12 pm

    I have not had the chance to see the Mad Men series. I have bought a dvd of one ( don´t recall which one )season, and maybe I´ll watch it. I understand that it is faithful to the era; the mid-century, as you name it But—–Take a look at the last picture in your blog! It is very difficult for me to believe that men and women would sit SO ” relaxed”, especially the woman reveals, that this is a series, where the actors are of a different generation.

  11. July 13, 2010 / 12:19 am

    I think I wear lots of things that look out of date, probably. I just don’t care!

  12. La Belette Rouge
    July 12, 2010 / 5:53 pm

    This is a brilliant post. And I am loving the comments and the resulting conversation too. I am not drawn to wearing retro as much as I LOVE these looks. That green dress on Joan is brilliant( preferably without the blood stain).

  13. La Belette Rouge
    July 12, 2010 / 5:54 pm

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  14. July 13, 2010 / 3:22 am

    Belle – thanks so much! At least with the smaller bag you won’t be wrecking your shoulders and neck…

    lagatta – thank you! Yes, I think what draws me so much to this era are those girlhood associations with elegance and glamour. And I’m also working on a “counterculture” post, though I have to do a bit more research there.

    Black is the New Black – thanks, and yes, it’s about applying the elements judiciously.

    Deborah – thank you, and glad you enjoy. I don’t have as much time as I’d like to comb the vintage stores, but in the past I’d found some great items from the 50’s that I loved (and that loved me).

  15. July 13, 2010 / 3:33 am

    M – I’m on the lookout for a well-made sheath dress, and hoping the fall collections will offer something up. Interesting observation about cosmetic surgery. I have to believe that a far higher percentage of women wore girdles then as opposed to having surgery now, but it’s true that our bodies are now expected to look toned and smooth, a look that women once relied on shapewear to provide. Both are oppessive.

    Aunt Snow – personally, I don’t think that matching has to be a fashion crime. And retro costume jewelry can be fabulous!

    materfamilias – I think a response to your comment deserves its own post, but I actually agree with your sentiments. I’m not nostalgic for those times, or the restrictive gender expectations. What draws me to some of these fashions is my childhood remembrances, and fantasies about being grown up and able to wear such pretty clothes. I’ll take some of the style from this era, and leave the rest.

  16. July 13, 2010 / 3:39 am

    metscan – the scene in that picture occured after a very bizarre and drastic situation had occured, so in that context their pose and what’s being conveyed makes sense. Those two characters are co-workers who *mostly* respect each other.

    LBR – thanks so much! I’m enjoying the comments too.

  17. July 13, 2010 / 3:47 am

    Duchesse – thank you! Yes, and I think her aristocratic background and bearing were a large part of what made her an aspirational figure to women like my mother. I’d also read somewhere that the triple strand of pearls she wore so often were actually faux.

    WendyB – I think your style defies time and trends, and you always look fabulous. You write your own rules!

  18. July 13, 2010 / 12:24 pm

    Pseu; She had many strands of pearls, some real, some costume.

    The Ken Lane triple-strand costume necklace fetched $211,000 when auctioned at Southeby’s.

  19. July 13, 2010 / 12:27 pm

    lagatta: You can get “Mad Men” season DVDs at a video store. I don’t have a TV either and completely enjoyed gorging on a season at a time.

  20. July 13, 2010 / 6:02 pm

    When I enlisted in the US Marine Corps in 1974 girdles were a required part of our women’s uniform – can you believe that? Somewhere in the next year things changed and it became an unofficial “don’t ask don’t tell” policy and we stopped wearing them. I suppose the panty hose held everything “in check” visually. 🙂 Of course, now, the uniforms I wore could sit in a clothing museum.

    Moving from that topic…I think we are lucky today in that we can wear what we want and mix it up. One day we may do “matchy”, the next completely different. For me it is a matter of enjoying what you wear.

  21. Melissa
    July 13, 2010 / 11:17 pm

    I grew up in that era, and Mad Men brings back a pleasant nostalgia for the “grown-up lady” look. Not that I would want to go back to the days of the required undergarments!

    But I do try to incorporate a little bit of that look into my wardrobe: sweater sets worn with pearls; ankle skimming pants worn with flat shoes; top-handle handbag carried on the arm; most of all – scarves! So glad scarves have made a comeback (but for my money, they never went out of date!)

  22. July 14, 2010 / 2:32 am

    JW – *girdles?* Really? I can’t imagine having to march in formation in a girdle! You Marines were made of tough stuff!
    And I agree, it’s all about wearing what we like!

    Melissa – yes, you’ve got it! I like how you think.

    Tiffany – I think it’s hard sometimes when we see looks we like but don’t feel like they belong to us when we try to wear them. If something doesn’t resonate for you when you wear it, I say don’t force it. But I’ll bet you look fabulous in a sheath!

  23. July 14, 2010 / 5:59 am

    Lovely post Deja – such gorgeous photographs and teeny, tiny waists! Although I love the look I think that if I did wear anything like the outfits you show I would feel worried that I’d look like I had, as you said, stepped out of that time capsule. That said I did buy a vintage little lizard handbag recently – just have not used it yet though! x

  24. Tiffany
    July 14, 2010 / 12:59 am

    I’ve got a triple strand necklace (real) just like that … I always feel like I’m ‘pretending’ to be a grown-up when I wear it, bizarrely. And I can’t do the 50s silhouette at all, having no waist to speak of. The sheath/shift dress is more my thing, but because I’m petite I always worry that I look childish/MDAL … Sigh.

  25. RoseAG
    July 17, 2010 / 9:32 pm

    Since I usually commute in athletic shoes, and don’t think a gym bag is what I want to be noted for purse-wise I match my shoes to my belt.

    I’ve been watching old episodes of Perry Mason with my mother.

    She pointed out that if you want to really see 1950s style that’s the thing to watch.

Dites moi vos pensées...