References for the 1950s were gathered under the following headings:
- People and costume
- Architecture and interiors
- Art – painting, drawing, sculpture
- Graphic Design – posters, books, typography
- Film and TV
- Surface pattern and decoration
All references were then put onto a single board which can be viewed on pinterest – 1950s America
During the 1950s, life in Britain and around the world was recovering from WWII. The post war period saw massive economic growth in America while Britain found itself slowly recovering from the cost of war.
For the purpose of this exercise, I’m going to focus on the 1950s in America, to demonstrate the type of reference palette that is widely used as a way to indicate the styles and fashions for this period. In the references gathered on pinterest, there are a number of cities included for variety and contrast, but for the purpose of this exercise it will just be America during the 1950s mentioned in this post.
From a visual perspective the 1950s was a decade of advancement in technology and a celebration of peace and prosperity. The threat to safety and security during World War II meant that people now wanted to focus on home and nesting. During this time people wanted to start a family and look to the future.
The main characteristics that typify this decade include baby boomers, rock and roll, consumerism, advancements in technology, new discoveries and a new suburban lifestyle.
The type of trends that were prevalent at this time were tied in strongly with the home. The design of the home had changed considerably over the past number of years, and a new type of kitchen was beginning to form as a result of advancements in technology designed to help with the preparation of foods. The intention was to move towards more convenience led meals driven by the emergence of new gadgets for that purpose. New products meant new sales and consumerism was directly linked with having it all and living the American Dream.
There was a structured and well designed form emerging in the home with consideration having been given to how the kitchen was used and how food was prepared. Home Economics was a subject that considered the arts and crafts and applied scientific knowledge required for the home. The role of women within the home was taken very seriously and with the new technological advances they were expected to be able to use new gadgets and run their household effectively.
Interior design became a very popular focus for women, and magazines demonstrating the latest trends assisted with the consumerist attitude at the time. Strong patterns and colours were to be found around the home and the plan had moved from being clearly defined spaces divided by walls to the open plan format we are so familiar with today. Designs in furniture were typically sleek with wood veneer finishes as mass produced items were made cheaper by their construction being made of more readily available materials such as cheaper wood or plastic.
Electricity in the home meant that the central focus didn’t have to be the fireplace anymore. An electric heater could take care of that. Light fittings become a powerful statement and with the introduction of the T.V. as a form of entertainment, the seating arrangements shifted to place focus on the latest technology in the room. Other trends and ideals during this American decade are reflected in the art and illustrations as the power of advertising was strongly felt through television and billboards.
Colour T.V. was a luxury item and not many owned this or even a B&W television. It was common to find people gathering together to watch an event being aired, such as the Queens’ Coronation which was aired live in 1953 in Britain. During this time the power of television was such that anything was believed as true when advertised regardless of whether studies were conducted or not. This is reflected in the ‘benefits’ outlined in the tobacco industry commercials at the time. The consumption of goods was also often associated with being successful as demonstrated in these advertisements.
Advancements in paint to create the first synthetic acrylic paint meant that the act of changing your interior wasn’t a chore in the same way it had been in the decades before. Colours had been limited prior to the 1950s and the paint wasn’t easy to work with. The pale colours we associate with this decade first emerged in the automobile industry as pale a yellow, red and violet with emerging advancements in how paint was made. Cars became more elaborate in design and the cost of owning one was a mark of prestige and comfort. This trend in colours then made its way into the home.
As mentioned, the paint industry had made advancements in the components used in acrylic paints. This filtered down to the materials used by artists. Andy Warhol was one of the first artists to use the new paints and his work was very much a reflection on the consumerist nature of this American period, but it was Richard Hamilton that was at the forefront of the Pop Art movement in Britain in the early 1950s.
The photocopier was also developed during this decade and so the idea of copying and adjusting art began to be expressed and experimented with. Abstract impressionism was also extremely popular during the late 1950s and combined with Pop Art it expressed a growing discomfort and restlessness in the people.
Fashion was very much focused on specific costumes for specific functions and occasions. Women wore dresses with the focus on fit and flare. Hats and gloves were common accessories and there were forms of etiquette for both. There were no restrictions or rations on materials so full skirts and suits were back. By contrast a more relaxed ‘sack’ dress was also on trend during this period and fur trimmings were particularly popular. There was an Asian influence in colours and design for the mid 1950s.
The discovery of DNA in 1953 had an influence on design within patterns and styles. The Festival of Britain in 1951 also showcased a wide range of products from the future, so this then filtered down into the space age influences in the patterns, shapes and designs in everything. Diners were a significantly influenced by the motor industry with the mix of pastel leather booths and chrome finishes. The first testing of the hydrogen bomb had a significant effect on imaginations too, as did the race to space between America and The Soviet Union.
The emerging rock and roll sounds gave birth to the American Teenager who pushed away all the conformities and norms associated with a typical suburban family life. The ideals of The American Dream were not being echoed in the youth and change was imminent.
Overall there are many styles and images that are firmly stuck in our mind and imagination that directly link us to this particular decade. The references collected are a small insight into this vast period of change and imply that this was a wonderful period of optimism, new discoveries and visions of the future but with an imminent change that would shape the world we live in today.