The 1950s was a decade of conservative clothing for both men and women. Women generally wore knee-length dresses with wide shoulders, cinched waists and full skirts. The styles adopted by fashion icons such as Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn are still copied by designers today, and admired for their clean, classic lines. Designers used a wide variety of natural and synthetic fabrics to create those distinctive looks.

Day Wear

Daytime clothing was made from natural fabrics such as linen, cotton, wool and silk. Designers also used many synthetic fabrics such rayon, a fabric made from cellulose fibers; nylon, a naturally strong, elastic and smooth fabric; acetate, also made from cellulose but crisp and lustrous; and acrylic, which can be woven to feel similar to wool. Sweaters — so popular in that decade — were generally made of wool. Cashmere wool was soft and light, and denoted the wealth of the wearer.

Evening Wear

The evening dresses of the time often featured full skirts, fitted bodices and layers of sheer fabrics such as tulle, chiffon and nylon net. Some heavy fabrics were used, such as brocades, satin and velveteen. Taffeta was a favorite, thanks to its smooth stiffness and pleasing rustle. It was common for a sheer over-bodice made of silk or nylon to be worn over a strapless under-bodice. Ruffles and velvet bows adorned full skirts, while women who wished to be really daring would wear a layer of chiffon over a fitted under-dress made from flesh-colored fabric.

Prints and Colors

Floral prints and neutrals appeared prominently in day wear. Western motifs were also popular, often in hand-painted designs on skirts and scarves. Once the atomic era began, abstract designs came into fashion, conveying a futuristic feel. In the winter brown, gray and navy abounded. Evening wear, which once tended toward pastel shades, now consisted primarily of floral brocades and bright solids. Some women opted for brilliant shades such as peacock blue and hot pink.

New Fabrics

Three new synthetic fabrics were created during the 1950s, influencing future fashion trends. Acrylic, invented in 1950, had the advantage of being machine washable and resistant to shrinkage. Polyester came along in 1953, offering a fabric that would not wrinkle and kept its shape. In 1959, Spandex appeared. Its unprecedented elasticity allows it to stretch to five times its length without harm. Blended with natural fibers, it is used to create a variety of lightweight, flexible fabrics.