The 1950s coincide with the beginning of the golden age. An increase in national wealth, personal wealth, the advent of the welfare state, urbanization, the standardization of production, and the power of the American model, were all factors that contributed to the dawn of the golden age, which hinged on the rules and foundations of industrial capitalism.
In fact, at the end of the Second World War, the economies of industrialized countries entered an unprecedented historical period of development. Widespread economic well-being was the impetus for worldwide reconstruction after the horrors of the war.
Various sectors of the economy and society benefited from it. In fact here we’ll see just how 1950s fashion, entertainment, music, and fun, dragged America and Europe out of one of the darkest and most nefarious moments in history.
It was the start of a lifestyle that millions of people around the world still admire and aspire to; fun-filled good times, music, positivity, and sunny smiles; the 1950s American dream.
From a historical point of view, the 1950s had its fair share of dark times: there was the Korean War, the Red Scare (hysteria and paranoia about the perceived dangers of communism), and the restless instability of the Cold War. However, all of this did nothing to stop the advent of a period of intense social and economic well-being, strong demographic growth and urbanization, the Baby Boom, and the birth of consumer society.
For America, the 1950s represented a period of great economic revival and splendor, and social well-being. They were years of consumerism and luxury, and general improvements in the standard of living were to reach the entire society.
Unlike his predecessor Roosevelt, President Truman lobbied anti-Soviet policy to the point of triggering the spread of anti-communism. Hysteria and fear, condoned by the American government, led to the passing of the law of Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy: from 1950 to 1954 it was a crime to be a communist.
The Korean War broke out in 1950 and continued for three years: After Japan surrendered in the Second World War in 1945, the allied leaders proposed and agreed to divide the Korean peninsula in two at the 38th parallel.
Soviet troops occupied North Korea, and US troops occupied the South, and when the Soviets attempted to break their confinement and expand into capitalist South Korea, the United States responded to the invasion with military force.
A very public and very heated rivalry existed between the United States and the Soviet Union and without actually officially declaring war with one another, the Cold War commenced, as did a long period of tension between Western democracies and Communist countries.
Work, commitment, courage, and determination were all essential elements in obtaining a better standard of living and economic prosperity: this was the American Dream, the American dream that came true thanks to the ideals of the first European settlers that were passed down to subsequent generations.
In the 1950s, the American Dream adapted to a new consumer society that homogenized national customs and spread the process of standardization. Thanks to a significant demographic growth (the 1950s Baby Boom) and an increase in welfare, an idyllic image of the ‘perfect’ American family also began to materialize.
Standardized communities eagerly conformed to the conservative politics of the government, and the materialistic aspirations of the new ‘consumer society’. A great number of American families benefited from improved economic stability and car ownership was on the up; those who could, left the city for a better life in mass produced affordable housing on the outskirts of town, causing the ‘suburbs’ to expand by 47% in the 1950s.
1950s fashion was characterized by two polar styles, both of which were a far cry from the austere climate of the Second World War. However both the ‘New Look’ and the ‘Pin-up’ portrayed images of femininity, elegance, class, and sensuality. Hairstyles were immaculate, makeup was heavy but neat.
Figure hugging dresses with wiggle (pencil) skirts, or wide flared skirts (and quite probably the help of a girdle) served to enhance the effect of a small waist and produce an hourglass silhouette that was regarded as feminine and elegant. The legendary 1950s full skirt (also known as the circle skirt or swing skirt) came to below the knee, had a high and tapered waist, and plenty of volume thanks to petticoats worn underneath in crinoline, cotton, tulle, or taffeta. Evening dresses were sumptuous, and the cocktail dress came into being, combining the length of day dresses with the more flashy fabrics of evening attire.
One-piece swimsuits were still in the majority, however the relatively new bikini had slowly begun to grow in popularity. In the 1950s the two-piece swimsuit wasn’t particularly risque and featured (very) high waisted briefs that concealed the naval. Both one-piece and two-piece costumes favoured bold colours, prints, and patterns including stripes, polka dots, pockets, buttons, and ruffles. Detailing could even be found on the plimsolls and ballet flats that were so popular at that time, not to mention the small leather handbags that began to assume all manner of geometric shapes, and could be carried by hand or over the arm.
The 1950s pin-up look (evolving from the pin-up art of the late 1800s and early 1900s) was characterized by tight and (sometimes) low-cut dresses that created hourglass silhouettes and promoted the sensuality of the female form. Animal prints (that were in vogue thanks to Christian Dior) added even more spunk to an already bold and brazen look.
The 1950s also brought a touch of class and elegance to men’s clothing. More attention was given to the cut and the fabrics of men’s suits: jackets had wide collars, shoulders were wide, trousers (pants) tended to be narrower. The most common men’s suits of the period were single-breasted and double-breasted blazers, morning suits, and tuxedos with shawl collars for informal yet elegant occasions, and tailcoats for official occasions.
Whether hair was short, medium, or long, curls and waves were in, and so was the colour blonde. Grace Kelly made the banana chignon an iconic look of the decade, and headscarves added a touch of class to any look.
1950s makeup became heavier and more noticeable than the makeup of the 1940s, but it was very neat. Perfect complexions were enhanced with blusher on the cheekbones. Eyebrows were well defined. Mascara was used in abundance, and sometimes even false eyelashes. Smokey eyes were created with black eye-liner and pastel or white eyeshadow. Lips were colored fiery red and often nails were painted the same colour to match.
The democratization of luxury and the need for new goods, requires the diffusion in all homes of television, a technological innovation that has revolutionized the way of understanding a new use of free time, but without forgetting the drive in cinemas and the revolution of music and of the myth of Elvis Presley.
A blend of Blues and Country, and also Jazz, Gospel, and Rhythm’n’Blues: Rock’n’Roll came into being in the 1950s. It wasn’t just a musical genre, it had a profound influence on lifestyle, fashion, social attitudes, and even language. It also gave way to many other subsequent musical subgenres. Music in the 1950s included many different styles in addition to Rock’n’Roll, including R&B, Pop, Country, Blues, and Jazz.
The 1950s wasn’t all Elvis Presley; Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis (amongst others) were all forerunners of Rock’n’Roll with R&B influences.
Elvis Presley was heralded the king of Rock’n’Roll, absolute legend of the 1950s: after the release of his first recordings, the public soon started to appreciate the revolutionary style of the singer who mimicked provocative movements whilst performing on stage, quickly earning himself the nickname Elvis The Pelvis.
He caused hysteria everywhere he went, driving fans wild and cementing his ‘legend’ status. He was groundbreaking as much for the reactions he provoked as for his music, which divided audiences far and wide. Nevertheless his records leapt to the top of the charts and the singer also had a film career alongside his music.
After a chance encounter with Blues legend Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry got his big break and went on to become one of the pioneers of Rock’n’Roll. He was an iconic figure who transformed R’n’B and Blues sounds into pure Rock’n’Roll.
Pianist and singer Fats Domino was one of the founding fathers of Rock’n’Roll. Known as ‘the voice of New Orleans’, he composed a number of hits including Blueberry Hill and Ain’t that a shame, and also appeared in several films.
After their song Rock Around the Clock featured in the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle, Bill Haley and His Comets put Rock’n’Roll on the map. Rock Around the Clock became one of the most famous Rock’n’Roll songs in history, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. The band boasted an endless series of successful hits in the 1950s including Rock The Joint (1952), Crazy Man Crazy (1953), Dim Dim The Lights (1954), Shake Rattle And Roll (1954)… Bill Haley was fondly known as the “first king of Rock and Roll” and the “father of Rock and Roll”.
Popular husband and wife musical duo, Les Paul and Mary Ford sang and played guitar: they released over 28 hits during the 1950s, and hosted a radio show that eventually was also aired on television, The Les Paul & Mary Ford Show.
American pianist, songwriter and actor, Little Richard, also known as the ‘Architect of Rock and Roll’. He blended Rhythm’n’Blues and Boogie Woogie to redefine the new Rock’n’Roll. His hits including Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, Lucille, Good Golly, Miss Molly influenced artists such as Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, and James Brown, and musical genres ranging from Rock to Rap.
Known for her impressive vocal range, Etta James was a celebrated American Jazz and Gospel singer who recorded numerous Blues and Rhythm and Blues hits. It was her romantic soul ballad At last, that brought her international success and lasting fame.
Miles Davis was a famous Jazz trumpeter and composer, and considered a musical genius of the twentieth century. He was a Jazz icon that profoundly influenced the evolution of Bebop, and developed different Jazz styles, from Cool Jazz to Jazz Rock.
Despite losing his sight at a very young age, Ray Charles went on to become a legendary performer. He is considered one of the greatest African-American musicians of all time. Influenced by great artists such as Nat King Cole and Charles Brown, he had the ability to add an unforgettable touch to his music. He artfully mixed Rhythm’n’Blues sounds with Country music, Vocal Jazz, Blues Piano, and Soul Blues.
Perry Como was a great American singer and actor, famous the world over. He started out in the 1930s, his voice blended well with early jazz orchestras without string sections, but with bass, drums and piano that enhanced the words of the songs. He was one of a long line of ‘crooners’, singers with a warm tone who mostly sang slow sentimental songs.
Another great crooner of the time was Dean Martin. Alternating an acting and singing career, Dean presented the image of a man with a warm heart and a ready joke. His warm and intense voice was, and still is, unmistakable in iconic hits like That’s amore, in which he clearly played on his Italian roots. He is also famous for his association with comedian friend Jerry Lewis, with whom he made over 15 films in the 1950s.
Sam Cooke was renowned for his Gospel and R’n’B music, and unanimously referred to as the greatest Soul music artist. It was his soulful voice that brought him chart success in the 1950s. He was also one of the first black artists to go into business and music production.
Country music icon Hank Williams was one of the greatest honky tonk artists, and is actually regarded as the father of modern music. His voice and charisma made him famous in the 1950s. The combination of classic Country sounds and his original and alluring style placed him at the top of his game and the top of the charts.
Buddy Holly represented early perceptions of Rock’n’Roll; a good boy in a suit and tie, completely contrasting with the rebellious music he sang. He was met with immediate success amongst the young and the very young. His career was brief however: at the age of 22 he died in a tragic plane crash alongside other great musicians including Ritchie Valens (singer of another famous 1950s track La Bamba) and the Big Bopper.
Jerry Lee Lewis is one of the original fathers of Rock’n’Roll. He is famous for his wild piano playing and his unconventional and rebellious antics whilst performing live, earning him the nickname The Killer.
In 1989 the story of his life was told on screen in the biopic bearing the title of one of his most famous pieces “Great Balls of Fire”. He is an undisputed icon of Rock and Roll alongside Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard.
The most popular 1950s dances were innovative and fun, reflecting the zeitgeist and evolution of the times.
As Rock’n’Roll was the most popular musical style, it follows that dancing adapted to the new rhythms of the 1950s.
Geography was important; styles, steps, and even the names of the dances changed according to the area of the United States in which they were danced.
In this era, as rhythms got increasingly faster, dance moves simplified and steps were reduced. Lindy Hop, the ‘grandaddy’ of swing, paved the way for the Jitterbug and Jive (already popular in the 1940s) and other simplified style variations including East Coast Swing.
Dance styles and variations were innumerable, in the same way that diverse musical styles were developing in diverging territories of the USA, from Country Hillbilly to Rock’n’Roll orchestras.
Dances of Cuban origin such as the Mambo and Cha Cha were also very much in vogue in the dance halls of the time. And towards the end of the 1950s there was a huge line-dancing craze; popular line-dances included the Stroll and Madison.
The democratization of luxury made television more affordable and accessible. By the end of the 1950s nearly all American homes had a television. It was a technological innovation that radically changed the use of free time: families gathered around the TV to watch their favorite programmes like the Lucille Ball Show, or Gunsmoke.
Television acted as a mirror to its nation of viewers, giving a glimpse of the new mass pop culture. The cinema was very popular, and drive-ins and open-air cinemas were hugely popular and spread rapidly throughout the country. From 1947 to 1951 over 4 thousand drive-in cinemas opened in the States. It was more affordable than the regular cinema; 25 cents for the projection and another 25 cents for the car.
In 1948, brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald opened their first restaurant in the working-class city of San Bernardino, California. It featured low prices and a limited menu for orders that could be served from behind a counter. Real success came when the McDonald brothers met blender supplier Ray Kroc in 1955.
Entrepreneur Kroc was struck by the innovative formula of the service. It was his idea to open the first McDonald’s franchise in history in 1955. It was an immediate and groundbreaking success; it affected tastes in food, it shortened the time sat at the table and speeded up the eating of meals, it was the start of a new culinary era: fast food.
The 1950s experienced an automobile boom when the economy of American manufacturing rapidly moved from the production of war-related items to secondary consumer goods at the end of World War II.
By the late 1950s, one in six American workers were employed either directly or indirectly in the automobile industry. Following Henry Ford’s lead, the United States quickly became the world’s first major automobile manufacturer.
It was Ford’s belief that anyone with a good job should have been able to afford a car. The decade began with 25 million cars registered on the road, by 1958 that number had doubled.
The Chevrolet Corvette was one of the numerous iconic cars of the 1950s. Launched in 1953, it became the sports car par excellence in the United States; light, small, and reasonably economical. In the same year Ford designed the Ford Thunderbird (T-Bird) to compete with the Chevrolet Corvette. It was released in 1954 and was every American’s dream.
The Cadillac Eldorado was also iconic: produced from 1953 in sedan, coupé and convertible versions, it was characterized by its length and rear fins. It was a symbol of American luxury. Another car representative of American well-being in the 1950s was the Chevrolet Bel Air, produced from 1950 in many different versions with a shape that recalled the stylized silhouette of an airplane. Then there was Mercury, a brand of the Ford group that produced the Eight model to great success amongst the middle classes. It was one of the first of the brand’s long line of intermediate model cars that lay somewhere between a basic Ford and the most sought after and luxurious of the Detroit brand.
The Hot Rod was added to the various hobbies and interests of young men in the 1950s. Hot Rods are completely reworked and transformed cars, usually old ones, even Ford Model T old. Lower-middle class youths were particularly hit by the craze, who with little or no money could get hold of old cars, paint over the bodywork, and replace the engines with V8s. Old disused airports became sites for races and competitions and the phenomenon grew ever more popular. Magazines were written on the subject and the trend was well documented in films of the time.
Removed or lowered roofs, removed fenders, open hoods, painted flames, and souped-up engines are just some of the features that could be found in a hot rod of the time.
As for motorcycles, after the bankruptcy of the Indian Motorcycle Company in 1953, the oldest motorcycle manufacturer in America and at one time the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, Harley-Davidson remained the only American brand in the sector. They received competition from other brands though, in particular Triumph, whose originally English production moved to the States after the war and infiltrated the US market.
The 1950s proved glorious years for other historic British brands too such as BSA, Norton, Royal Enfield, and Matchless. Various Italian brands such as Moto Guzzi and Gilera were also going from strength to strength on the world market.
Patented by Piaggio in 1946, the Vespa grew in popularity towards the end of the 1940s and by the 1950s had become a fully fledged phenomenon. Iconic for its style as well as its industrial design, the model was even exhibited in modern art museums. The Vespa enhanced Italian design and engineering and became an immediate and timeless classic.
A fascination with motorcycles and customising motorcycles spread in the early 1950s, and so the Custom Motorcycle became a-la-mode. Just like the Hot Rod, every single component of the bike, the mechanical parts, the seat, the handlebar, the saddle… was modified with the aim of making a new unique model.
The production of secondary consumer goods that fueled the standardization of production, also saw numerous inventions launched in the 1950s that were quickly integrated into everyday life.
The credit card, used for payments without the need of physical money, was invented in 1950 by Frank McNamara, owner of the Diners Club (and after whom the card was named).
Superglue was invented over 50 years ago by Harry Coover who, based on the evolution of the cyanoacrylate formula, developed his first formula before the Second World War. Super Attak was commercialised in 1958.
What began with Charles Ginsburg evolving high frequency recordings made during the Second World War, resulted in the invention of the video recorder and the remote control to record television signals on tape.
The Flight Memory Unit, also known as the black box, was the revolutionary invention of David Warren. It was a device capable of recording about four hours of spoken word with limited parameters onto a steel plate on board an airplane. Recordings of the pilot’s voice and readings of the flight instruments would help detect the cause of accidents and prevent subsequent similar occurrences.
The revolutionary birth control pill was invented in 1954 by endocrinologist Gregory Pincus who developed the insightful studies of Margaret Sanger, women’s rights and birth control advocate.
This revolutionary kitchen utensil was patented in 1954 when French Engineer Marc Grégoire applied Teflon to the base of a frying pan. Teflon is a heat, bacteria, and corrosion resistant plastic that was famously invented by accident in 1938 by Roy J Plunkett.
In 1956 Christopher Cockerell invented an air-cushioned vehicle that could navigate the water with great speed: the hovercraft. Earlier in his career Cockerell also contributed to the development of radar.
In 1959 Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce revolutionised technology by inventing the microchip; a small device that contained an integrated circuit built into a microprocessor.
Wilson Greatbatch was credited with inventing the first implantable pacemaker in 1956, a small and compact medical instrument implanted in the body to stimulate the heart.
In 1954 Gerald Pearson and his colleagues converted sunlight into electricity with silicon strips through a photovoltaic process resulting in the invention of the first effective solar panels.
Driven by a desire to expand the range of toys available to young girls, and inspired by German doll ‘Bild Lilli’, Ruth Handler invented the world famous Barbie doll in 1959. Barbie was the first American doll to have a mature female body, and she was named after Ruth Handler’s daughter.
An evolution of the bamboo hoops popular in Australia for physical exercise, American entrepreneurs Richard Knerr and Arthur Melin invented the legendary plastic Hula Hoop in 1957.
In 1955 Jonas Salk developed the first approved polio vaccine that helped reduce the number of cases. The vaccine was then further developed by Albert Sabin who created a polio vaccine that could be administered orally.
In 1954 Nobel prize winner Giulio Natta invented polypropylene, one of the most used plastics in the world. Commercial production commenced in Europe in 1957.
The hard drive, the largest and most important data storage device in a computer, was invented in 1956 by Reynolds Johnson, who worked for IBM at the time.
Automatic sliding doors were invented by Dee Horton and Lew Hewitt in 1954. It was a revolution for people who had difficulty in opening traditional push and pull doors. It was a step into the future.
1950s furniture was fun and colorful, combining functionality with style and design, and modernity with comfort: lines were soft and rounded, armchairs were inviting, backrests were high. 1950s Decor and furniture were influenced by a very specific historical and socio-cultural moment that was reflected in the climate of hope and optimism within consumer society. Appliances of all kinds were produced on a large scale and made their way into every American middle class home.
1950s furniture was colourful, bright and eccentric. Formica came into vogue as a material for tables and chairs, usually finished with rounded corners and tapered metal legs. Tables and chairs were also manufactured in wood and plastic, in fact plastic triumphed as a material for furniture for the first time in the 1950s.
Mirrors were a distinguishing element of 1950s decor: they were large, often oval or elongated in shape, with brass or wooden frames, and usually hung in entrance halls, or placed as part of a triple mirror above the wooden cabinets that dominated the sitting room.
1950s armchairs were generally quite rounded; lines were sinuous, volume accentuated, backrests were high to ensure comfort. 1950s upholstery had a soft pastel palette that ranged from apple green, to blue, to creamy yellow. Floral fabrics were also common.
Spanning roughly from 1940 to the early 1960s, the development of nuclear science and advances in space exploration were seen to have major influences on interior design, this period is commonly known as the Atomic Age, and is particularly synonymous with the 1950s.
Abstract organic forms, stars, galaxies, and atomic particles can be found in motifs used in textiles, dinnerware, wallpaper and many other domestic objects. Lighting was also affected; new materials were utilised to create lampshades in the form of UFOs, ‘bubble’ or pendant lamps that had ‘space-age’ shapes, and the iconic ‘astral’ chandelier that featured numerous protruding arms, each ending in a glowing orb light.
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