Does the current embrace of 1950s-influenced fashion reflect broader cultural trends?

Karen Videtic, chair of the Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising at VCU, is an experienced fashion forecaster who prognosticates where fashion trends are heading.

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The current embrace of 1950s-influenced fashion reflects other broader cultural trends in the United States, according to Karen Videtic, chair of the Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising at VCU.

Videtic is an experienced fashion forecaster who prognosticates where fashion trends are heading. In order to make those predictions, she takes a wide view of culture and society, noting how societal developments seem to be impacting fashion.

Videtic said that “fashion mirrors the times. Whatever is going on in society, fashion tends to represent that.”

“Fashion doesn’t lead,” Videtic said. “Fashion follows the direction that people want it to go.”

In the U.S., fashion has taken on a decidedly 50s flavor of late, partly through the inspiration of the television show “Mad Men,” which showcases a late 1950s-early 1960s fashion aesthetic. For women, that means the promotion of a feminine, curvy silhouette; fuller, longer skirts; and an increased emphasis on intimate apparel and corseting. Videtic has been researching parallels that could explain what about the culture of the 1950s appeals to Americans of today.

She has found an existing undercurrent of retro longing for the simplicity that the 1950s evokes, particularly regarding the roles of men and women. The clothing of the 1950s grew out of the return home of American men after World War II. Women had taken on a greater role while the men were away, but they returned to more narrow roles after the war and their clothes likewise grew definitively feminine.

This contrasts with current trends, which indicate that women are taking on increasingly influential roles in American society while men have been hit especially hard by the recent economic recession and continuing low employment. Videtic noted a much-cited article that appeared this summer in The Atlantic titled “The End of Men,” which highlighted the discrepancies in job losses suffered by men versus women in recent years and women’s substantial gains in education levels.

“I can’t help but look at this and say ‘is this something that’s making men and women uncomfortable?’” Videtic said. “Is there a parallel to loving the ‘Mad Men’ and the way they dress and the shifting roles of men and women. Is there a part of society that wants us to go back to the way it was – as in after the war in the 1950s – for women to return and no longer work and give up their jobs for men?”

Videtic said marketers have clearly picked up on this line of thinking among consumers. For instance, a ‘Mad Men’ costume director was hired to promote an undergarment line and the intimate apparel industry has been doing very well – always a signal in an emphasis on a female silhouette in fashion, she said.

This focus on a feminine shape differs from fashion styles that tend to predominate when women are pushing for equality and greater roles. In the 1920s, the era of the flappers and women’s newly gained right to vote, and the late 1960s, an era of social upheaval and the push for improved women’s rights, women favored a straight silhouette – a more masculine shape – and shorter skirts.

For men, the interest in 1950s fashion has led to the rise of the “Clark Kent look,” including a revival of wearing hats with suits. It has also inspired a new term – “retrosexual.”

Videtic said it is important to understand that fashion today is a diverse place and that the 1950s influence might be widespread but it is not universal. Similarly, that influence does not mean that those practicing the look are parroting it. Often, they are taking bits and pieces from the era and modernizing it or applying their own personal style to it.

Videtic said it will be interesting to see where fashion heads next. A pushback from women unhappy with this retro desire for a time when “men were men and women were women” will not necessarily result in a revival of the clothing styles of the 1960s, she said. In fact, she said, it could take a different form that reflects the gains in influence that women have made.

“They might just take that men’s suit and put it on themselves,” Videtic said.