Women’s Role in the 1950’s – How They Dressed and How They Were Expected to Act

During wartime, women had to fill the jobs of the men who were off to war. These jobs were important to the country and women were valued for their contribution. After the war, men had come home; the jobs that women had been holding during wartime were either given back to the men returning or were no longer required. America returned back to a man’s world. Husbands went out in the world to work. The husband was the breadwinner and the head of the family. The woman was a housewife – with basically all the responsibilities inside the home, including those of raising children. No longer did she have her own money to spend – she depended upon the husband and his salary.

Society’s message in the Fifties was that there was no greater calling for a woman other than to be a wife and mother; it was required in order to gain respect socially. A girl was termed old maid if not married by age 25, and, if not married by then there was considered something wrong with her. Around home the husband relaxed and recovered from work, although he was responsible for chores outside the house such as mowing the lawn and small repairs. The chores of the woman were to take care of her children and husband and all that it required for their physical and emotional well-being. This required shopping for food and necessities, cooking, cleaning, and ironing the clothing of husband and children.

The woman’s job of the 1950s was to strive to be and look like the perfect housewife. Women were judged not only on how well her home looked, but also on how well she looked. In advertisements, TV shows and movies, the house wife is pictured perfectly well-groomed as she is vacuuming, dusting and cooking. She is in a frilly dress, heels and apron – her nails, makeup and hair perfect. Her topic of conversation should be cute, and topics were about home, family, hobbies. Showing too much of one’s intellectual smarts was not always an attractive quality. However, if her tone was cute enough she could acceptingly say almost anything.

The Fifties woman was the important center of family life. She was counted on by the family and society. She provided emotional support, organized social occasions and church attendance, taught domestic skills to her daughter, taught proper etiquettes, cleanliness, and morals to the children. She accompanied her husband and children to their events. She joined social committees and clubs – the PTA, Welcome Wagon., etc… There were lots of women’s auxiliary clubs. These organizations provided such things as money raising activities and service. Some auxiliaries were associated with men’s clubs, for instance if there was a men’s racing pigeon club, then the wives of the members might form their own social club. The Church organization would be such as choir, Altar Society, or a group that would meet to serve and raise money for charities. The big school related organization for ladies was the Mother’s Club. Some of the Mother’s Club duties could be such things as planning school picnics, outings and the school carnival. Other women’s clubs were Soroptomist and Garden Club.

Since women of the Fifties were mostly home (not in the work force) and there were other women home in the neighborhood, one of the most common ways for women to socialize was to drop in for a cup of coffee, coffee and piece of home baked pie, or be invited to lunch. Paint their nails together, roll or fix hair, listen to music on the radio or records, dance, read articles from magazines and discuss. Card clubs were very popular…such as pinochle groups or bridge. Outings with other women could be out to lunch together at a drive in or counter; to an afternoon movie. One could eat or join in the activity at the bowling alley or roller skating rink. Also sunbathing at the local community pool or canal was very popular activity. The late evening popular activity was the drive in movie double feature. Some of the above socializing activities were with their children.

Women were put on a pedestal, expected to be good. They were respected and protected by society and laws. All in all, it was a simple lifestyle. The husband provided the financial support. The wife was free to devote time to herself and family, perhaps at a relaxing and enjoyable pace. Typical, or most respected, professions for women were teacher, secretary and nurse. But still, it was expected for the woman to put family first. Often women would have to quit her job in time of family callings or pregnancy.

Females of the 1950s were pursued by the males. She’s the prize to be sought after. The girl waited for the boy to make the first move. However, she was allowed to smile in a shy manner at a boy, or have a friend hint to him, in order to encourage him to make that first move. The girl then waited for the boy to call or talk to her. It was most proper for the boy to call the girl even after dating a while. The 1950’s girl is cherished by the boy – he is enthused to accompany her, funds the date, opens doors for her, picks her up at her door, and meets with her parents. If a girl had a bad reputation, it could be tragic. It was difficult to overcome such a rumor, and often she was ostracized. Some of the behaviors that could lead to this image were obvious flirting, smoking a cigarette, wearing black eyeliner, associating with the wrong crowd, dress or neckline too revealing, dress too colorful. Also if she was seen necking with a boy, the ultimate was rumors of being in a family way. If a girl was in this way she was shipped out of town to a relative or special home. The societal pressure was so strong that some resorted to illegal abortion.

Once World War II and rationing ended, a new availability of different types of fabrics and larger quantities of these fabrics allowed a new type of fashion to bloom during the Fifties. “Style Clothing” became an important part of culture in the 1950s, with the country going through many societal and cultural changes. It would showcase one’s place in society more so than ever before and became a way to express conformity and individual identity.

Fashion started to emphasize conformity in the way people should look. Women were sold on a certain body shape that would best fit the latest fashions and that shape was a thin waist with defined hips and a larger but very defined and shapely bust. Compared to today’s standards that feature extremely thin and very tall models, that image might seem more attainable and more natural for most women, but it still placed a lot of pressure on women and girls during the decade to conform to an idealized beauty standard. Corsets, controllers and bustiere tops were standard beauty fare and latex and nylon slimmers were heavily marketed towards women. Bras and bust paddings that helped achieve that defined and almost cone-like shape for busts were also in abundance. The choice and variety of clothing made in “stout” sizes and for older women also started to fade into the background.

During the 1950’s, style was used to set a common standard of look. This meant that not many choices of dramatically different styles were available throughout the decade. A lot of clothing was similar in shape and silhouette but varied in color, pattern or type of fabric. Women’s dresses in particular exploded with excess fabric, showing off intricate gatherings, a multitude of pleats, poofy petticoats, and fabulous collars, all made of the best taffeta, nylon, rayon, wool and leather in the brightest and boldest patterns and colors. There was a prevalent expectation to match and keep up with neighbors and friends and to impress others with matching outfits for whole families were popular, especially during the holidays or during vacations. Matching dresses for mothers and daughters as well as matching sister dresses were also some of the most remembered fashions of the decade.

Here is a list of 1950’s clothing styles for females: poodle skirt: girls wore full skirts with motifs on them (ex. poodle with a leash) and tight fitting blouses tucked into the waist of capri/pirate pants, pedal pushers, jeans/dungarees, petticoats, “can-can” petticoats, Peter Pan collared blouse, twin sweater set, cinched belt, pleated skirts, gingham dress, bathing suits: strapless, or haltered one-piece suits, motor scooter slacks, stirrup pants, motor scooter pants, shoes: penny loafers, white buckskin lace up shoes, saddle shoes, pumps, stiletto heel, plastic pop beads, sloppy joe sweater and leotard, Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirt, bobby sox, ankle sox, jeans, t-shirt, leather jacket or denim jacket, glasses: black horned rim, neckerchief, cardigan, turtleneck (black).

By mid-decade, the “sexual revolution” had already begun thanks to Margaret Sanger, Alfred Kinsey, and Hugh Hefner. Sanger and Kinsey were academic researchers, who studied sexual behavior in their society. Kinsey published several books on the topic in the late Forties and the Fifties, including Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948, and a similar volume on female sexuality in 1953. Sanger, who was one of the founders of Planned Parenthood, was interested in promoting birth control (at the time, thirty states had laws, called “Comstock Laws,” prohibiting the use of birth control) and sexual education based on a reevaluation of sexuality squarely at odds with many traditional values and legal codes. Hefner published the first issue of Playboy in December 1953. He boldly attacked the breadwinner role of the husband and father. He lifted pornography out of the back alley, printed it on slick paper, and moved the result onto the magazine racks of drugstores and supermarket chains. His “Playboy Philosophy” celebrated sexual hedonism as the highest human aspiration. “Anything is permissible between consenting adults,” he preached, and that became the key text in the gospel of the sexual revolution.