The 1950s saw a boom in economic prosperity and business. America had proven to be a major world power in the past 50 years, and times were good (well, if you were a middle class or wealthy white male, anyway.) In terms of beauty and fashion, the 1940s, especially during the war, were very understated and no-nonsense for the average woman. In the 1950s, a huge increase in marriage and birth rates turned the American woman’s focus back to being a wife and mother. Not just a wife and mother, but a model wife and mother.
The 1950s, more than any past decade, were about being the perfect housewife. There was an strong focus on femininity. Influenced by the pin up girl look, clothing was about creating the illusion of a narrow waist and a high, rounded bust. Corset-like undergarments became popular again. Women wore heels, not flats, even around the house (at least while their husbands or guests were there). Those stilettos meant there was a lot of baby-step walking going on. Dainty and ladylike was the ideal.
Makeup, seen as visual indicator of femininity, was not used sparingly. Most women used cream, liquid or pancake foundation, flesh toned setting powder, blush (then called rouge), eyeshadow, eyeliner, eyebrow pencil, mascara, lipliner and lipstick. If primers and setting sprays had been around in the 1950s, you can bet those women would have included those in their daily regimens.
A pale complexion was en vogue, and the idea was to create and mask-like base. Rouge–usually soft peach or pink–was used sparingly. Lipstick was often a bold or bright color. Pink reds, true reds and corals were the most popular. The average woman used lipliner to follow their natural lipline but some actresses slightly overdrew their top lip. Women often matched their nail polish to their lipstick. The most common nail shape was oval, and long–but not too long–fingernails were considered classy and ladylike.
Eyeshadow was applied just to the lids, with contouring mainly used on actresses. Pastel shadows, particularly blues and greens, were popular. Frosted shadows entered the market in the late 50s. Eyeliner was normally black or brown and applied in a winged out line at the top lashline. The thickness of eyeliner lines varied, with the more natural look women tending towards thin lines and a smaller flick. Lower lashline eyeliner was not popular. Tube mascara was invented, although some women still chose to use cake or block mascara, which was applied with a small brush. Mascara was applied to top lashes, but not usually to the bottom lashes.
Eyebrows were thick to medium thick. They were groomed and generally highly arched, tapering at the ends. The inner corners were sometimes rounded, sometimes squared off. Some women preferred the thick, straight across brow a la Audrey Hepburn. No matter which brow shape they chose, brow pencil was often used to darken or thicken.
Revlon, Max Factor and Pond were the leaders in the beauty industry (in what we would today call the drugstore sector). Estee Lauder, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein were the big luxury product lines.
1950s hair was typically very “done”–the opposite of today’s desired beachy waves and bedhead looks. There were several popular looks. Shorter hair (chin length or above) was most common. The Italian Cut, inspired by Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida, was a short, structured cut with soft curls. High ponytails, with the ends often flipped out, were all the rage with teens. Pageboy or brushed under bobs were considered classy, while the gamine or pixie cut was more edgy. The bouffant became popular in the mid 50s, but didn’t reach the height of its popularity–pun intended–until the early 60s. Chemical relaxers became more readily available in the 1950s, which popularized straight hair for African American women. The 50s had one interesting hair fad that I was unaware of–temporary gold and silver streaks. Metallic powders or spray were used to create these. Fake hair pieces for chignons and other styles also had a spike in popularity.
Hollywood actresses continued to have a major influence on hair and makeup looks. There was a divide between the looks of the decade–I call it The Good Girl vs The Bad Girl. On the Good Girl side of the spectrum, you had the more natural, girl-next-door actresses like Debbie Reynolds and Doris Day. Blonde Good Girl, Grace Kelly, was the ultimate in understated but elegant glamour. Audrey Hepburn was the brunette Good Girl, girl-like but womanly at the same time. Elizabeth Taylor was more of the glamorous Good Girl. On the Bad Girl side of the spectrum, you had the gorgeous Ava Gardner (she’s kind of my favorite), drinking, swearing and having a scandalous affair with and then marriage to Frank Sinatra. Italian star Gina Lollabrigida had that temptress thing going for her, and Jayne Mansfield did the blonde, sex kitten version of it. While the Good Girls wore pretty dresses that nipped in at the waist and flared at the hips, the Bad Girls favored styles that hugged the body. Marilyn Monroe had a look all her own. She was more done up than a Good Girl, but not as overtly sexy as a Bad Girl.
If I had to chose a word to sum up the look of the 1950s, it would be feminine. Whether a look was done in a cute, girl-next-door way, an elegant understated way, or a sultry, glamorous way, it was womanly and polished. At least one of these looks will speak to you, so why not give it a try?
Have a beautiful day 🙂