Vintage-inspired dressing generates a few questions and assumptions that I hear a lot: “How do you wear vintage styles without looking like you’re wearing a costume?” “Clothes were so much better back then, weren’t they?” “I love the 1930s and 1960s styles, but I can only channel the 1940s and 1950s, because I’m curvy.” “Retro clothes are so feminine and ladylike.” “Those were the good old days. Why can’t we go back to that?” “I just can’t pull off retro.”
My goal this week was to be inspired by a different decade every day, put together a real outfit (not a costume) by figuring out signature elements from each decade. Right up front I’ll admit that I’m not a stickler for complete authenticity. I’m not going to wear gloves. Brooches confuse me (WHERE DO I PIN THIS PIN). I will not be wearing a girdle. I don’t need total authenticity, because I’m not costuming Mad Men. I’m just getting dressed in the year 2017.
The Year 2017. That sounds so futuristic. We’re only three years away from 2020. I hope we have flying cars by then. Actually, I hope we have personal-sized dirigibles to float around in, but I don’t know if anybody besides me is aiming for that goal.
We live in the present. Not the future, not the past. Why do we look back? Why do we reference the past? Is it because the past feels safe? I don’t know the answers to all of those questions, but I do know that clothing comes in cycles. The 1960s referenced the 1920s, the 1970s drew on the 1930s, the 1980s brought back trends from the 1940s… we never break away entirely. Live in the past and plan for the future, but don’t forget the past.
Truth be told, this week came out of my research for a play I’m costuming. I love historical research, but when it’s fashion history, that’s an additional delight. The play is set in 1927, a very interesting time period for clothes. It was social upheaval on display. It’s one of the reasons I chuckle when women say that vintage clothes are so ladylike. The 1920s weren’t ladylike – exposed ankles shocked the world, women went around wearing sacks as dresses (or even worse, trousers). In contrast to the hyper-feminine Edwardian period, the abbreviated 1920s dresses looked like lingerie. These women were running around in their underwear. In public. Black, formerly reserved for mourning, became the color of elegance. The world changed after World War I and clothes changed along with it.
I didn’t go too shocking with my 1920s inspiration, because I still have to work and everything. The elements and details that come to mind are dropped waists, bob haircuts, red lipstick, knee-length skirts, heels, and long strings of beads. The dress is proof that curvy girls CAN wear a dress with a dropped waist – just keep proportions in mind. The waist isn’t too exaggerated, hitting just around mid-hip, and the whole look is pretty and floaty. Loose dresses are really comfortable – I can understand the movement away from corsets. Even without a corset, I get tired of wearing fitted dresses. Have you ever worn a dress that fits really really really well and breathing becomes a much bigger deal than normal? No such problems with this kind of dress. It feels like freedom.
I wore some comfy shoes with low heels, threw my hair into a low bun (because a fashionable 1920s girl either had a bob, or mimicked a bob with a loose low bun), and put on red lipstick. I would have considered a long string of beads, if I owned a long string of beads…have kind of a love-hate relationship with strings of beads. I deeply sympathize with Thoroughly Modern Millie and her bead problems.
Other ways to infuse some Roaring Twenties style into your outfit:
- Layer a top over a skirt that hits around the knee and don’t tuck it in – this will mimic a drop waist.
- Layer on necklaces (the longer the better).
- A pleated skirt paired with a longer cardigan or blazer (add a brooch or a flower pin to the lapel for extra vintage points).
- Ankle-strap pumps automatically add a little retro feel to a simple dress.
- A loose-fitting Little Black Dress that hits around the knee. Beading, fringe, sheer sleeves, or low back details all add to the glamour factor for evening. Matte fabric and severe simplicity for daytime.
I skipped the 1930s, even though it is one of my favorite periods for clothes. It was just a little more elaborate than I wanted to go for this week.
So I skipped to the 1940s. Skirts got longer during the 1930s, then went back to short during World War II, because of material rationing. The clothes were more simple and streamlined and business-like. There was a strength to the clothing that reflected how strong women had to be during that time. Clothing can be an armor and it can help you step up and do your job. Strong lines, strong shoulders, sturdy fabrics, simplicity – these are things I love about clothing in the 1940s. When I think about 1940s references, I think about Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, Katharine Hepburn and Ruth Hussey in The Philadelphia Story, Lauren Bacall in To Have or Have Not.
The day I wore this outfit was blazing hot, so I wanted something cool and simple. The skirt isn’t too full or too fitted – a simple a-line. The neckline is high, the sleeves come to the elbow, the waist fits at the natural waist. The shoes feel vintage to me – thick heel, peep toe, cut-outs on the sides. Curled hair, red lips. The dress is very modern looking, but the overall vibe was retro and it made me feel like I could take on anything the day threw at me.
How to channel the 1940s:
- A tailored blazer. Make sure it fits through the shoulders and buttons all the way. It must FIT.
- A-line dresses that fit at the natural waist, then hit a little below the knee.
- Details like sweetheart necklines, keyhole necklines, gathered shoulders, elbow-length sleeves, peep toe shoes.
- Red lipstick.
1950s style is bright, colorful, exuberant, and feminine. Use all the colors! Use yards of fabric! No more fabric rationing and everything seemed to be looking up. Kids didn’t have to grow up as fast, so a whole teenage culture started up and began a divide between adult fashion and teenage fashion. That hadn’t really happened before.
I love the design of this dress – the placement of the white stripes draws the eye right to the waist. The skirt is full enough to put a petticoat under (which I don’t plan on doing, unless I’m in Guys and Dolls someday), but it’s still plenty full without looking like a costume. I wanted to keep piling on the color, so I added pink heels and pink lipstick. Threw on a striped cardigan, but it was too hot for a cardigan. Sandra Dee inspired curly ponytail. This look was really cute. It felt a little TOO cute to me, but that’s my preference. The whole thing felt 1950s to me, so I was happy with it.
How to add some 1950s style to your life:
- Full skirt plus a tucked-in shirt. Plus a cardigan, if you want to go that far. The general silhouette is full on the bottom, fitted on the top, with focus on the waist.
- Rolling up the sleeves on short sleeve shirts – it improves the fit and adds visual interest.
- Heels. And pearls.
- A cropped jacket or cardigan draws the eye up to the natural waist. (For those days when tucking your shirt in sounds like the worst thing in the world…)
When I think of 1960s, I think about Nancy Drew. There are obviously other (nonfictional) examples of this era’s style, but Miss Drew’s elaborately flipped hair, perfectly matched separates, and penny loafers scream sixties to me.
Less ladylike than the 1950s, but just as elaborate (or more) in styling, the 1960s took hemlines to dizzying new heights. Flats replaced heels as the new norm. If the fifties were all about the waist, the sixties were all about the legs, with skinny cigarette trousers and mini skirts to put them on display.
I wanted to go for separates for this day, since I had done dresses for the other days and because trousers became more commonplace during this time. Going for kind of a Mary Tyler Moore vibe – you know when she dances in a turtleneck, pants, and flats and looks ADORABLE while doing so? It’s iconic. I don’t usually wear turtlenecks, so I wore a light sleeveless sweater with a high cowl neck to mimic the look without being too literal with it. It also has a trapeze shape, which is pretty true to the period.
Skinny jeans that hit right at the ankle, pointy flats, cat eye eyeliner, pale lips. Swingin’ sixties, baby. It looks modern, but that’s because the 1960s informed so much of what we consider modern.
How to do 1960s:
- Trapeze dresses that fit around the neck, then float out from there. Sheath and shift dresses also give that mod shape.
- Crazy prints (especially floral or paisley or plaid)
- Eyeliner, pale lips
- Matchy-matchy (skirt suits, match your earrings to your dress, etc.)
- Pointy-toe flats or loafers or elastic-sided boots
For the 1970s, I got inspired by pictures of my mom’s college days. There was a glam side to seventies style, but I am more familiar with the California natural earthy side. I don’t own REAL flares, the engulf-your-foot elephant flare bell bottoms, so I just went with straight leg jeans with a good faded wash.
Embroidery was a big trend, along with comfy oversized tunics, so I used this opportunity to bring out my embroidered Mexican top. I love it very much. It was super comfy, because I wore my loosest jeans and a loose top. SO comfy.
I really should have had Birkenstocks, because those were my mom’s only shoes in college. I used to have a pair, but they wore out. So I wore brown platform heels, because those are super seventies.
I have a great fondness for the tunic tops, flares, maxi dresses, and crazy color combinations of my mom’s college days. It is the summer Friday of decades.
To get some seventies sunshine in your style:
- Flares are having a fashion moment – pull those wide leg jeans back out. We don’t need to wear tight jeans all the time! Be as comfy as you want this summer.
- Breezy tunics and caftans
- Maxi dresses
- Platform shoes
- Wavy hair – free those curls!
It was a fun week, but it made me start thinking about what I want the future of fashion to be. We shouldn’t just retreat to the past and be reactive. We need to start thinking about the future and be proactive about it. Clothes shape us. We need to start designing, start making, start figuring out what’s really important in clothes. Make conscious decisions about what clothes we wear and what those clothes mean. It’s easy to go back to something familiar – it’s harder to make things. The past is a good reference, but we shouldn’t retreat to the past if we don’t like the present or if we don’t like the way our immediate future looks. The present is where we live and where we can change things, so we need to focus on the present.
- What time is it?
- Where am I going?
- Who do I need to respect?
- What are my responsibilities?
- Interesting structural details
I’ll just deal with color for this post and I’ll get to the other aspects later. These days, color doesn’t have as much to do with the four practical questions. (There are exceptions to this – to respect the bride, don’t wear white to a wedding, etc.) It has much more to do with the last question – the “do I like it” question, but it goes beyond liking. Colors are culturally embedded, emotional, symbolic, and powerful.
Back in the days of black and white, costume designers were routinely asked why they designed costumes in color. Why didn’t they just design in shades of gray? That’s all the audiences could see. The designers replied that actors needed colors to emotionally engage with their characters. When Bette Davis wore a red dress, you knew she was wearing a red dress – even if you saw it as dark gray on the screen. The costume’s color changed her attitude and her performance, and that’s what we pick up.
We know what colors mean, even when we don’t think about it. Red is the most obvious – passion, blood, fire, courage, desire. Yellow – sunshine, cheerfulness, summer, spontaneity. Different greens can give different emotions – some greens evoke life, nature, hope, others (like poison green) signify jealousy, envy, greed. Blues calm – they communicate intelligence, loyalty, stability, tranquility. White stands for purity, cleanliness, even holiness. Black has always signified mourning and death, but shifted into popularity over the 20th century (partially thanks to Henry Ford’s Model T and Coco Chanel’s Little Black Dress).
When colors become popular, we should ask why. Think. Use our brains. They mean something – what do they mean? Because colors change us – they change our moods, they change our behavior. They have power.
If you’re afraid of color and only wear black/gray and maybe jeans (yes, you – you know who you are), try to figure out what it is about color that you’re avoiding. Maybe you’re afraid of attracting attention. Maybe you are afraid of a color looking bad on you. Maybe you don’t want to try new things. I have nothing against black, but it can become camouflage. To give color a try in a low-risk way, find a cardigan in a beautiful color and throw it on over your black t-shirt. Or try a bright skirt. Don’t worry, it will go with all your black clothes. Maybe you’ll get noticed, but that is not a bad thing. Cheerful colors make other people happy. Give it a go and tell me how it goes!
- It was severely simple with minimal detail, so it was immediately copied and mass-produced. It was compared to the Model T Ford – simple, black, and everybody had one. A duchess and a shop worker in 1927 could wear dresses that looked identical, reflecting the changing social dynamic.
- It’s knee-length skirt and loose fit allowed for ease of movement (no more restrictive corsets). It wasn’t decorative, it was functional – designed for women who wanted independence. The 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was ratified in 1920, so that dynamic comes in as well.
- Before Chanel decided that black was elegant, it was the color that servants and mourners wore.
It had many critics, Gabrielle Chanel’s changed fashion for good. So if you own a little black dress, thank Coco.