1950S in Popular Culture: Beatniks, Elvis and Polka Dot Skirts

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The 1950s was an interesting decade, jammed between another World War and a new, threatening age of nuclear power and atomic energy. This period saw the roots sewn for the carefree generation of the 60s, as the ‘Beat generation’ saw no hope and thus began to rebel against social conventions.

The classic musical Grease sums up many of the stereotypical fashions, lifestyles and attitudes of the 50s. Young men dressed in leather jackets, slicked back their hair with a comb they kept in their top pocket, and called girls “dolls” and “baby”. Rock ‘n’ roll was born, with Elvis Presley one of the main protagonists. His characteristic dancing is still parodied to this day.

Other big names on the rock ‘n’ roll music scene include Buddy Holly, famous for his thick-rimmed ‘nerd glasses’, Chuck Berry, and Johnny Cash.

In film, European cinema enjoyed a renaissance as resources were again available. Because of television’s threat, producers sought new and innovative ways of driving audiences back into cinemas. Big production and spectacle films gained popularity, with titles like ‘The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men’, ‘The Ten Commandments’ and ‘The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad’. The 50s were labelled a golden era for 3D cinema – will today’s latest reincarnation of this technology live up to this?

Japanese cinema also reached its zenith during this period, with notable directors including Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi.

Beatniks & polka dot skirts

The fifties also saw the ‘return of fashion’, following the lifting of the austere measures enforced during World War II. Many Paris fashion houses re-opened and there was a flood of synthetic fabrics and easy-care processes; drip-dry nylon, orlon and dacron became immensely popular, while acrylic, polyester and spandex were also all introduced in the 50s.

‘Teddy Boys’ wore an exaggerated version of Edwardian fashion, sporting skinny ties and narrow trousers revealing garish socks. In the States the ‘Greasers’ were the nearest equivalent, rebelling in a similar way against the styles of their parents.

In fact, as usual the USA was highly influential in popular culture, with the idea of the ‘Beat Generation’ introduced by author Jack Kerouac. The ‘beatniks’ were an underground, non-conformist youth gathering that sprung up in New York. A typical look included a beret, pair of sunglasses and black turtleneck sweater. Jeans and leather jackets were also popular.

For women specifically, hair was often worn short and curled in a ‘New York look’. Hats were essential for all but the most casual occasions. Later in the decade the curly ‘poodle cut’, the ‘bouffant’ and the ‘beehive’ came into fashion, made famous today by Marge Simpson and Amy Winehouse. Beat girls obviously wore their hair long and straight; the direct opposite of these styles.

Ever increasing factory production made the 50s an era of mass-produced clothing and standardised sizes. The ‘ready to wear’ industry was born. Ladies wore very feminine styles, with bows, flounces and frills. Halterneck and strapless dresses were a big trend, and skirts were very full, often accompanied by petticoats to give extra body.

Still, nothing says 1950s more than a circle skirt. These were worn by the younger generation (as ‘teenagers’ were now established as a sort of mainstream subculture), always on top of petticoat underskirts. They were often homemade, and while they featured a range of designs, poodle skirts and polka dot skirts are the most iconic.

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