Recently Netflix invested in a show that is set in New York City in 1956. The show, called The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is hilarious and features a smart-mouthed young Jewish woman in New York City. But even cooler than the actress and the decent script are the myriad wonderful details that make the show feel like New York in the 1950s.
Movie and theatre people often come to the library to research projects like this. And faculty sometimes give assignments about researching a past decade. We have lots of resources to help with that kind of project, and the images are gorgeous. Here are some of the books and magazines we recommend for researching the 1950s.
This is the 1950s volume in a series that takes a close look at American life by decade. The series begins with a volume on the 1880s-90s and ends with the 1980s. We have this issue in hardback, but the entire series is also available online as ebooks. You can get to them through our Gale Virtual Reference database, accessed here:
These books are super cool because they include information about what kinds of jobs people had, what items cost, what kinds of houses people might have had and what they spent on food. It includes advertising to give an idea of what people worried about and what kinds of products they needed to eat or take care of themselves.
I also recommend taking a look at Fortune magazine for great images and articles about business from this time period. It was illustrated by the most avant garde artists of its day, and the imagery is beautiful. Plus it illustrates American Positivism well. Positivism is the early-mid-20th century excitement about how technology was going to make human beings better and the world a more efficient and rich place. This was the MoW not long ago, so you can read more about it there.
It’s also interesting to contrast the advertising campaigns in Fortune (directed at business men) to the ones in Harper’s Bazaar, which were directed at middle and upper class women. I’ll show some of those below.
Here is a 1956 car ad from Fortune magazine:
And here’s one from Harper’s Bazaar, same year, marketed to women:
I’m sure you won’t be surprised to find out that we have a lot of information on the history of fashion in the 1950s. That’s a super big part of the visual picture presented by The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. We’ve got a lot of sources to research this subject too.
Fashion in the 1950s looks at the decade and tries to give the reader a sense for what everyone dressed like. It includes men and women and teenagers (a new category in the 1950s). It talks about underlayers and sleepwear and leisure clothing as well, such as sleepwear.
These kinds of books (and we have them for every decade of the 20th century) are good places to start for getting the feel of an era.
These books often give information on segments of the fashion market that aren’t discussed much, like this page on mail order fashion.
However, the thing I don’t like about them is that, because of the cost of reproducing original images, like from Vogue magazine, for example, they are usually present current redrawings of the historic fashion under discussion. I think these are often misleading and awkward looking. Especially when there are plenty of contemporary images around to work from. The library has lots of sources with great fashion photography from the 1950s.
Christian Dior is usually credited with bringing on the fitted waist and full skirts associated with women’s fashion of the 1950s. While he wasn’t the only designer doing this, he certainly was the most well known and followed. The fashion advertisements, both fashion editorial and in his advertising, remain some of the most well known and (my opinion here) the most beautiful ever taken. Here are some images from the book Dior by Avedon, noted fashion photographer.
But first, some sketches by Dior, for reference to the fashionable silhouettes.
Here is a gorgeous photo of a gorgeously tailored suit, one of Dior’s specialties:
Another designer, American this time, who worked a lot in the 1950s, was Charles James. The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art did a retrospective of his work. The images from the catalog are gorgeous, and show a lot of detail about James’ design skill.
The book is called Charles James: Beyond Fashion.
The cover of this book is another famous fashion photograph, this one by Cecil Beaton. here’s a detail of it:
But we know that not everyone wore evening gowns, even some of the time. And this is where the fashion magazines in the PERS department come in handy. Not only do they include fashion editorial, but they also include trends that tell more about day to day life.
I took a bunch of pictures from Harper’s Bazaar, fall of 1956. Here are some interesting ones about the clothes women wore:
It’s worth noting that the advertisement is probably more indicative of women’s actual clothing than the French couture in a lot of the fashion editorial pages.
None of those tiny little waists would have been possible without a whole new kind of support undergarment. New synthetic elastics and nylons made these girdles and corselettes possible.
And the industries that advertised in Fortune also advertised their end products in Harper’s Bazaar. Compare the excitement about these new materials (synthetics were the hot new developments of the day, and designers were eager to incorporate them, even couturiers) with our current concerns about the huge footprint that nylon and polyester produce ecologically.
Then as now, however, Harper’s included fashion and accessories advice. Tomato red and cobalt blue were big in the fall of 1956, seen here in accessories and outerwear.
If the clothes interest you enough that you want to make your own versions, we can help you with that, too. Vintage fashion has been a hot topic among sewers for years. We have a great sewing manual by a favorite author of mine, Gertie Hirsch. She includes lots of helpful tips as well as patterns adapted from vintage patterns, but sized up for 21st century sized women. Minus the girdles!
Have a great spring break, everyone!