Style and shape
This green dress to the left reflects the typical shape of an early to mid 1950s day dress. The tea dresses from the 1940s were still common in ladies' wardrobes and so the trend continued for some years especially since Christian Dior released his "New Look" design in 1947, a rebellion against the masculinity of the war years. Waists were nipped in to achieve an exaggerated hourglass silhouette and petticoats were worn underneath full skirts. The dress on the right hand side is also 1950s but in a "wiggle dress" style. Slim pencil skirts were popular as they, too, exaggerated the curves of a womans' body, however this style was more prominent later into the decade.
Though not necessarily common in a wiggle dress style, I thought this dress was particularly a) beautiful and b) interestingly made. I could tell that the fabric was very heavy and stiff, but especially so around the hips with the double darts. As you can see, the curvy shape of the dress holds itself even when on a hanger and that's due to the very thick padding/shaping fabric sewn into the hips, seen below. This dress is very small, a modern size 6 approximately so the lady who wore it will have achieved that desired hourglass shape from padding! Incredible. Each dress is unique!
One of the first things I look for is the fastening. If the dress has a metal zipper then this is a sign the dress is pre 1963 as plastic zippers only became common in the mid to late 60s. Another clue is the positioning of the zip fastening, if it is in the side of the dress at the waist or with accompanying snap placket then the dress is likely to be from the early 1950s. Zips in the back of the dress indicate a later date. Using the dresses from earlier we can see that the early 50s green dress has a snap placket and a side metal zip (facing the wrong way!- a hand made dress error perhaps?). The centre dress has a full length metal side zipper and the latter wiggle dress has it's metal zipper in the centre of the back.
None of these tips are hard and fast rules, they are just general recurring features. You must also factor in that dresses may have modern replacement zips. The dresses were made so small that women sometimes struggle to get these dresses on over their shoulders as we have changed shape over the past 60 years. Therefore, vintage sellers may move the original side zip to the back of the dress to increase it's wearability in the modern wardrobe.
Patterns and Fabrics
If you're umm-ing and ahh-ing over the date of that polyester dress then I can safely say it's 70s onwards. And yes, polyester was in use before the 70s but under trade names such as Dacron, if the label says polyester, then you've narrowed it down a lot. Common fabrics to look out for are cotton and cotton-like fabrics such as Nylon which handled the shape of the big full skirt better than cotton itself.
The use of patterns and colours in the 50s is a huge topic that I can't expand on too much this minute. However, clothes were still fairly muted in colour and patterns certainly weren't too "shouty". These four prints from Little Old Me's stall are fairly typical of 50s day dresses.
Full of clues! Labels in 50s were often woven with lovely script fonts and only became printed silk labels in the mid 60s. The ultimate resource in dating vintage garments from labels has to be The Vintage Fashion Guild which has an extensive collection of vintage labels.
If there is a size on the label, again this is a clue as sizing comes up much bigger these days. So if it's labelled a size 16, but it quite obviously isn't, the chances are it's a fairly old dress. Garment care labels were not introduced until as late as 1971 so if labels are void of care symbols, chances are it is at least 1960s.
Don't forget that many women made their own dresses in the 1950s. They were still recovering from WWII and it was cheaper to hand make their clothes than buy them, so often, dresses won't have labels at all.
So there you have it, a very rough guide to dating your 1950s dresses. If you want to find out more about dating vintage from other eras do keep your eyes peeled on our blog, but if you just can't wait then head to these very useful articles and blog posts.
Tuppance Ha'penny: Dating Vintage Guide
Sammy Davis: How to Date Vintage Clothes
Vintage Fashion Guild: Tips and Tricks for Dating Vintage
Retro Fashion History
Mocha and peach cocktail dress from Love Miss Daisy
Floral and nude dress from Mill Street Vintage
Pink, white and brown floral day dress from Rokit