Big Pockets, Big Hips, Tiny Waists in the 1950s

A comment from Fabricated about the peculiar pockets of 1917 reminded me that big pockets, which visually widened the hips, were in style again in the late forties and through the nineteen fifties. But in the fifties, they emphasized a tiny waist.

Butterick 5529 uses big, decorated pockets to make the waist look smaller by contrast. Butterick Fashion News, January 1951.

Butterick 5529 uses big, decorated “stand” pockets to make the waist look smaller by contrast. Butterick Fashion News, January 1951. The bodice darts at front and back are visible in the small illustrations.

This is the influence of Dior’s 1947 collection, when he cinched in his models’ waists and padded their hips to achieve an exaggeratedly feminine shape. For several years, couturiers and even some ready-to-wear manufacturers built foundation garments into suits and dresses.

A Dior dress and Dior Suit, 1947. The jacket has padded hhips accented with large pockets. Sketches from the Bergdorf Goodman Sketch Collection at the Metropolitan Museum.

A Dior dress and Dior Suit, 1947. The jacket has padded hips accented with large pockets. Sketches from the Bergdorf Goodman Sketch Collection at the Metropolitan Museum.

Couture tip: When a bodice or jacket fits this tightly, an interior waistband of grosgrain ribbon is used. It fits very tightly around the waist, and closes with hooks and eyes or bars. You fasten the interior waistband, and then zip or button the garment. Since the ribbon waistband is attached to the seam allowances of the garment, often at the side and back seams, it takes the strain of the tight waist, so there is never any visible pulling at the buttonholes.

You can see one end of such a band inside this Dior dress dated 1955 on the label.

Interior waistband of grosgrain ribbon; you hook it before fastening the dress with the zipper. Christian Dior, 1955.

Interior waistband of grosgrain ribbon; you hook it before fastening the dress with the zipper. Christian Dior, 1955.

The bare topped, pleated dress had inch-wide straps, and could be worn with or without this cropped jacket.

Short jacket and pleated dress, Dior, Autumn-Winter 1955.

Short jacket and pleated dress, Dior, Autumn-Winter 1955.

A 1949 Dior dress with pockets reminiscent of 1917, and a Dior Suit, not dated, but from the period 1947 to 1949. Bergdorf Goodman Sketch Collection at the Metropolitan Museum.

A 1949 Dior dress with pockets reminiscent of 1917, and a Dior Suit, not dated, but from the period 1947 to 1949. Bergdorf Goodman Sketch Collection at the Metropolitan Museum.

I have added a link to the large collection of couture sketched for the Bergdorf Goodman store between 1930 and 1950 to my “Sites with Great Information” Sidebar.

I don’t have a a good collection of 1950’s illustrations, but here are a few images I’ve assembled:

A pattern sold through newspapers in 1956: Anne Adams pattern 4803. Big pockets visually widen the hips.

A pattern sold through newspapers in 1956: Anne Adams #4803. Big “stand” away-from-the-body pockets visually widen the hips.

The Anne Adams pattern is similar to Butterick 5718 from 1951. Mail Order patterns were usually conservative, and a little behind the times.

Even the pockets on aprons got bigger: McCall pattern 1532, from a 1950 Needlework catalog.

Even the pockets on aprons got bigger: McCall pattern 1532, from a 1950 Needlework catalog.

McCall 1579 could be worn as a sundress or an apron. Needlework catalog, November 1950.

McCall 1579 could be worn as a sundress or an apron. Needlework catalog, November 1950. There is a “fitted bodice option;” when a full skirt is used to make the waist look smaller, only a very slender figure can get away with a loosely gathered bodice. The figure in blue is not realistic. In fact, both illustrations show impossible waist size.

McCall's 1451 has cap sleeve to balance the pocket size, and to create an hourglass figure. 1950.

McCall 1451 has cap sleeves to balance the pocket size, and to create an hourglass figure. 1950. Notice the bodice darts. The slightly shorter version (A) was recommended as a coverall apron, and the longer one as a sundress.

Butterick skirt 4460 from March 1948; Butterick Jumper 505o from November 1949. Butterick Fashion News flyers.

Big pockets on Butterick skirt 4460 from March 1948, and Butterick jumper 505o from November 1949. Butterick Fashion News flyers.

Below: The curves and decorated pockets of this 1948 suit lead your eye from hip to waist. A similar style,  Vogue pattern 1096, by Molyneux, was issued in 1950. It has hip pads and double curved pockets, one on top of another.

Butterick jacket 4616 combines with skirt 4600 to make a suit. August 1948.

“Long lissome” Butterick jacket 4600 combines with skirt 4604 to make a suit. BFN, August 1948.

Another hip-widening style was the peplum, which flared out from the waist of a jacket or blouse. The patch-pocketed jacket below was illustrated repeatedly in 1948; the back of this jacket gives a “peplum effect.”

Butterick 4571, a jacket with fitted front and full back, appeared in Butterick Fashion News July and August 1948.

Butterick 4571, a two-piece dress with fitted front and full flared back on the jacket, appeared in Butterick Fashion News in July and August, 1948. Although the back is loose, the front is tightly fitted. A couture version might have had a fitted back bodice inside the loose one.  On the striped versions, the pocket stripes run horizontally, increasing the impression of width.

Below: The three tops on the left have hip-widening peplums;  not a pocket but “drapery tied in the back gives hipline emphasis to the blouse top” of the two-piece dress on the right.

Three two piece dresses with prplum tops, and one with draped hipline emphasis. Butterick patterns from summer 1948.

Three two-piece dresses with peplum tops, and one with draped hipline emphasis. Butterick patterns from summer 1948.

Peplums give the impression of a wider hip and tiny waist on these Simplicity patterns for April, 1948.

Peplums give the impression of a wider hip and tiny waist on these Simplicity patterns for April, 1948. (An impression furthered by the illustrator’s artistic license….) Simplicity patterns 2413, 2414, and 2393.

The fashion for exaggerated hips and tiny waists continued  through the 1950’s. This coat-dress from 1956 has a very full skirt accented by large pockets:

Coat-dress from Butterick pattern 7814, from Butterick Fashion News, October 1956.

Coat-dress from Butterick pattern 7814, from Butterick Fashion News, October 1956. Tiny waist, full skirt and big pockets.

This 1956 suit has a shorter jacket than the peplum fashions of 1948, but it still creates a strong horizontal line at the hip, accented with horizontal, decorative pocket flaps.

Butterick suit 7928 has one jacket and two skirt options, narrow or full. BFN, October 1956.

Butterick suit 7928 has one jacket with two skirt options, narrow or full. BFN, October 1956.

In 1959 and 1960, big pockets and small waists were still appearing on patterns:

Butterik skirt pattern 9082, from 1959. The big pockets were optional.

Butterick skirt pattern 9082, from 1959. The big pockets were optional.

If you’re considering the “wider hips will make my waist look smaller” concept, there are a few caveats.

One:  A normal human being does not look like these fashion illustrations. These fashions are flattering if you have a normally proportioned figure, or are slender. A full skirt will also conceal disproportionate hips. But, if you carry your extra pounds around your midriff, the illusion may not work, unless…. (See “Two.”)

Two:  The dressy fashions were designed to be worn over a foundation, a “merry widow” corset, or a waist cinch, all of which reshape the natural figure. Tight bodices which didn’t have built-in corsetry looked better when worn over elastic and boning that created a figure more like the ideal.

We called this kind of starpless corset a "Merry Widow." If you want to wear vintage fashions from the late forties or fifties, they were designed to be worn over one of these.

When I was in high school, we called this kind of zip-closing strapless corset a “Merry Widow.” Sears catalog, Spring 1954. If you want to wear tightly fitted vintage fashions from the late forties or fifties, remember that they will fit better over a lightly boned foundation like these.

The Sears catalog calls the garment on the left a "waist whittler." We called it a "waist cinch" in the fifties.

The Sears catalog calls the garment on the left a “waist whittler.” We called it a “waist cinch” in the fifties. Some well-made garments had a boned waist cinch, without the garters, built into the dress.

Of course, I didn’t wear such foundation garments under my shirtwaist school dresses.  I didn’t want a tight fit or a tiny waist, anyway.

I don’t think ordinary women expected to look like couture models or the women in movies.  But the dress forms used for clothing design were not the same as a natural, uncorseted body. Bodices were made to be very tight over a firm, fat-free ribcage, and shaped with many darts. (And dress mannequins’ posteriors were pushed down and flattened like the backside of a woman wearing a girdle.)

Notice how many darts were needed to shape the bodice to the ideal fifties figure.

Notice how many darts were needed to shape the bodice to the ideal fifties figure.

Four darts in front and and four in back were usually the minimum on a simple dress, like the cap-sleeved white and blue one. Six darts in front (like the three jackets top and right) were not unusual.  The plaid dress at top left also has two darts each side of the center seam (and probably, hidden by the shawl, a dart pointing from each side seam to the bust points.) The darkest blue suit is shaped by princess seams, but still has three additional waist darts on each side!

All those darts were necessary to transition from the bust (say, 34 inches around) to the waist (say, 26″ or less) without any unflattering looseness or gathers (or bulges showing.) This dress from 1960 has big hip pockets and a tight waist, but all three dresses have just one bust dart at each side to control that bodice fullness:

Left, Butterick 9357 from BFN, May 1960.

Left, Butterick 9357 from BFN, May 1960. Eliminating the waist-to-bust darts made a dress cheaper to manufacture, but this style was not flattering except to slim figures. (The greater the difference between bust and waist, the more fabric puffed out above the belt, for a “sack tied in the middle” look.)

If you have a yen to see more big pockets and fifties fashions, I recommend Wade Laboissonierre’s full color, generously illustrated book, Blueprints of Fashion: Home Sewing Patterns of the 1950s.

 

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4 Comments

Filed under 1940s-1950s, 1950s-1960s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Corsets, Corsets, Foundation Garments, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Vintage patterns

4 responses to “Big Pockets, Big Hips, Tiny Waists in the 1950s

  1. Trish

    Ouch, just looking at those narrow waists made me breathe in! I suppose the illustrations are the basis for the original Barbie figure? Having read your earlier post, I noticed just such pockets in a film called 3 Cases of Murder made in the 1950s by London Films. In the last of the trilogy, the wife of the Cabinet Minister is wearing a Dior type dress, with exaggeratedly small waist, straight skirt and enormous pockets. They were evidently a design feature and not for use; they looked like saddle bags. However in a film of similar vintage, the man’s overcoat was an exaggerated inverted triangle with huge shoulders totally dwarfing the tall actor (Tom Conway) wearing it. Being born in the 50s, I don’t remember quite such exaggerated styles in real life.

  2. Great post, as usual! It’s so true that the darts make all the difference. That hip-emphasizing New Look silhouette is just dynamite IF you’re willing to wear the undergarments they require (I’m fairly slim, but still need to shift things around — not necessarily comfortably — to get a proper and flattering fit).

    Nowadays, our clothes conform to us. They’re cut full, are chock full of Lycra and made from knitted/jersey fabrics, or both, and are frequently manufactured in only a few wide-ranging sizes (i.e. XS, S, M, L, XL) that will accommodate nearly all shapes.

    Back then, clothes were made to fit closely and far more exactly. Depending on current fashion, looking good often meant shifting, squeezing, or otherwise manipulating one’s body. You changed to fit the clothes, they didn’t change to fit you.

    Sure, I love curling up on the sofa in a pair of loose sweatpants. But I also love that “slight discomfort” (some may balk at the “slight”) of being properly and truly dressed, from the foundation outward.

    I’ve found that only a few odd birds feel the same. So often I hear, “I wish I could wear that.” I think what they’re really admitting is, “I wish I were willing to do what it takes to wear that, but truth is, I’m not.” To each, her own.

    Not everyone in the 1950s was a bean pole. People were slighter and slimmer on average, yes, but there was still range. And no one walked around naked. Everyone, even my annoyingly slim runway model mom, wore foundation garments to create the illusion of perfection.

    • When it comes to shoes, you summed it up: “I wish I were willing to do what it takes to wear that, but truth is, I’m not.” I once realized that, shockingly, I have measured literally hundreds of women, but since the 1980s, I’ve rarely seen a 24 or 26 inch waist. In the fifties and sixties, they were — or seemed — standard among young women. Do you think it was because the clothes, underclothes, and belts we wore shaped our bodies?

      • Mid-century underclothes didn’t permanently change the figure. You’d have to have been tightly corseted from childhood for that to happen. We’re just plain fatter now. We eat too much. Not only the wrong things, but too much of everything. And we’ve swung so far in the direction of “body positivity” that we’re collectively (and dangerously) deluding ourselves.

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