The fifties fashion magazines made shopping for a special occasion outfit seem glamorous and exciting. Every page was brimming with glossy black and white photographs of lace laden cotillion dresses, bridal wedding gowns, and red carpet fashions. I even dreamed of owning the same Easter dresses Betsy McCall wore.
Although television and magazines made it appear everyone was wearing couture fashions and shopping in fine department stores, that was not the case in our small community. Our fine department stores were located in the state capitol one hundred miles away.
Mama and Grandma usually made our dresses, ordered them from catalogs, or bought them from the little dress shops in our town. I do not remember my Mama ever wearing an elegant evening gown or even a simple cocktail dress.
- Easter Sunday church services were mid fifties special events that required a fancy dress. One of my earliest memories is Mama promising she would let me wear her mustard seed pendant if I would not cry while she combed out my hair. I did not cry but I remember really wanting to as she unwrapped those rags from my now tightly curled hair.
- A baptismal or christening gown is usually our first need for a special occasion outfit. I don’t have a photograph of me in one but they are usually a long, white linen or soft cotton garment that is sometimes handed down from generation to generation. It may have elaborate embroidery or lace trimming and often comes with a hand crocheted blanket. I made my daughter’s dedication gown out of scraps left over from my own vintage wedding dress.
- Another cause for a fancy dress is the Roman Catholic tradition and family celebration of First Communion. The girl’s 1st communion dress is usually a white frilly affair that has been passed down from a sister or maybe even her mother and worn with a veil or a flowered hair wreath.
- Except for the occasional holiday party dresses or perhaps a summer garden party frock, the next reason for dressing up is the high school prom. Most of the photos of fifties proms show very elaborate, fluffy, frilly, hoop skirt with crinoline creations. Debutante balls and proms were very popular during the fifties with the upper class ladies introduction to society necessitating the selection of the perfect cotillion dress for the occasion.
- The fifties were all about entertaining and the little black cocktail dress was de rigueur. The post war drinking culture lent itself to the Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly cocktail party rationale. Parties became a social obligation and further reason to show off that special occasion outfit.
- But what does all of our special occasion outfit dreams culminate in? While it may be true that we imagine ourselves in a Dior New Look design or even a Grace Kelly like Oscar gown, our more attainable dream is our wedding dress. The 1950s wedding dresses portrayed in the movies marked the beginning of more elaborate ceremonies as brides to be tried to emulate Elizabeth Taylor’s character in “Father of the Bride” and America’s own fairy tale wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier.
Except for the aforementioned Easter dresses and my prom dresses, I may not have had many reasons to wear a special dress but I sure did love to look at the glamorous gowns. I still love those magazine stories and photos from the fifties.