By Max Gibson, Fresh Jive
New advances in technology and in financial services, including credit cards, spurred the rise of materialism throughout America. Mass-produced clothing became a popular choice. In many instances, conformity prevailed as conservative attire was embraced by both men and women. However, individuality was adopted by popular artists of the time who developed their own manner of style that deviated from the norms of the day. Icons of popular culture such as Elvis Presley and James Dean emerged as ambassadors of cool, embracing fresh styles that helped redefine fashion.
With the economy on the upswing, corporate America was rejuvenated in the 1950s. Corporate life ushered in new styles of dress and presentation that reflected the country’s conventional nature. In corporate America, clean cut and conservative business suits prevailed with the “gray flannel suit” emerging as a staple for businessmen across the country. As conformity was the order of the day, there was a uniform that went with it: a three-button, single-breasted, charcoal gray flannel suit with narrow shoulders, small notched lapels, flaps on the pockets and pleat less, tapering trousers. Each suit was accessorized by a white or pale blue cotton broadcloth shirt, with a button-down collar and button cuffs. Finally, the suit was complemented by a narrow tie with regimental stripes and small knots, with trim, black leather shoes that rose at the ankle and tapered at the toe. When stepping out on the town, narrow-brimmed hats were the standard, worn either with the brim up or down and sometimes with a pinched crown. The gray flannel suit was so influential that it inspired Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel, Man in a Gray Flannel Suit, a story that captured America’s infatuation with business and materialism at the time.
According to journalist Richard Horn, the popularity of the gray flannel suit grew in correlation to corporate America’s need for anonymity and uniformity in the business place. Horn said: “The ideal gray flannel suiter was tall and trim. Dressed in his uniform, he stood out neither in a crowd nor at work. Nor was he meant to. In the 1950s, big corporations got even bigger employing more and more people and becoming more complex. These vast, impersonal enterprises had no need for individualistic men who would stick out of the crowd, sartorially or otherwise. They needed pawns they could move easily from one part of the country to another without having to think too hard about who that pawn was. The gray flannel suit provided just the right touch of anonymity.”
Style and The Birth of Youth Culture
While conformity dominated much of American life in the 1950’s, an unpredictable yet highly influential form of youth culture also emerged. Those born in the early 1940’s, at the beginning of World War II, were able to maintain their identity as “children” until the age of 18. Once 18, they were considered young adults, and were then expected to adopt the values and morals of society at large. However, for the first time, in the 1950s companies began to market music, movies and clothing to teenagers, acknowledging their identity and buying power as a growing segment of society. While many teenagers of the “Silent Generation” embraced the manufactured looks that mass-consumerism provided, it was a smaller population of teenagers who created a style of their own that mirrored their peers rather than their elders.
With the help of radio and television, the emergence of Rock & Roll culture created its own form of social dissonance. The music, with provocative lyrics and subject matter, galvanized conservatives who often saw the art form as lewd and distasteful. Rock & Roll singers and their music gave rise to a fashion all their own. Influenced by the fashion of black or “race” musicians of the time, the style of Elvis and other popular musicians strayed away from what was then considered appropriate. Slim fit jeans or pegged pants, tight fitting T-shirts and black leather motorcycle jackets typified the rocker look with standard oxfords or white buck shoes completing the outfit.
While singers such as Elvis, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis introduced their own brand of rebellious fashion in the 1950s, it was the Hollywood production machine that would promote the standard attire for the youthful renegade. James Dean’s performance in Rebel Without a Cause catapulted the actor to a status of idolatry and icon hood while creating the archetype figure of the rebellious youth.
Playing the role of Jim Stark in the film, Dean donned slicked back hair, faded jeans and a tight white t-shirt. The look was complimented not by a standard black leather jacket, but a red windbreaker with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, the final accessory to complete his look.
Equally influential was the style of Johnny Strabler played by Marlon Brando in the 1953 film The Wild One. Brando’s biker look offered youth an alternative style that also split from traditional teenage garb.
Although popular clothing styles made the loudest statement during this time, hair styles in the 1950s gave men an alternative way to express their rebelliousness. Presley’s D.A. (duck’s ass) hairstyle became synonymous with the rocker style as well, with the hair combed back around the sides of the head and then parted. Similar in style to a pompadour, it was worn high on the top, and greased on the sides, with pronounced curls, fringes and rolls.
Throughout the 1950s, the image of the youthful rebel in America took on various appearances, although each style was unified by an innate rejection of the ideals of mainstream society. While conformity and consumerism characterized much of American culture in the 1950s, the emerging youth fashion of the era accentuated the countercultural movements of the time, creating new avenues of style and self-expression.
Source: Fresh Jive