Marilyn M and Mary Q: Defining the ’50s & ’60s

No two decades have had more of a lasting impact on current fashion trends than the 1950s and 1960s. And that’s not just our humble opinion, fashion historians often agree as well.

In this article, we’ll summarize the fashion characteristics prevalent to each decade. And the two women who embodied the style of each: Marilyn Monroe and Dame Mary Quant.

For background and context, fashion in the ’50s was influenced by the post-WWII era of the late 1940s and heavily featured new materials like nylon, acrylic, polyester, and spandex. The end of the war also welcomed the return of couture fashion.

It’s hard to deny that Christian Dior (and his seminal “New Look” collection), Cristóbal Balenciaga, Coco Chanel, and Hubert de Givenchy (with Audrey Hepburn as his elegant muse all had a major impact in the style of the decade. It was undeniably glamorous, well-groomed, and put-together, even for more casual stay-at-home looks. And it was emulated by women everywhere.

By the mid-1960s, fashion began to take cues from Swinging London and Carnaby Street style. This vibrant, iconic style was heavily influenced by the Space Race of the Cold War, in addition to popular films and television series such as Star Trek, Dan Dare and Lost In Space. And interestingly enough, by the proliferation of color tv.

First, Marilyn: The Queen of the Evening Dress

Born (June 1,1926) and raised in Los Angeles, the girl born Norma Jeane Mortenson was baptized Norma Jeane Baker. In high school, she dropped the “E” from the end of her middle name and then lost her last name (Mortenson) altogether. But it wasn’t until her acting career began that she became known as Marilyn Monroe.

Monroe spent most of her childhood in foster homes and an orphanage. But from these humble beginnings, she rose to fame as an icon of femininity and sexuality. And as a fashion visionary who propelled virtually unknown designers to fame.

She wore Ferragamo pumps, her favorite shoe. She carried Louis Vuitton bags, and donned the creations of Lanvin, Dior and Emilio Pucci. In fact, it was a green Pucci dress that her housekeeper chose for Marilyn to be buried in, as it was her favorite.

In the eyes of her adoring public, Marilyn was the epitome of glamour and the queen of evening dresses. Always daring with her dress up game – her languid attitude echoed with the prettiness of silk and satin, asymmetrical dresses – and as witnessed at President John F. Kennedy’s birthday celebration in 1962, some pretty devastating outfits as well.

Case in point, one of Monroe’s most celebrated fashion moments features Marilyn standing over a subway grate in a pleated “sunburst”, deep decolleté gold lamé dress designed by William Travilla for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was barely seen at all in the film. Yet it remains an iconic and truly memorable image of the star.

But it was also in quiet simplicity that Marilyn Monroe revealed her true self. In her personal life, she favored more sober ensembles: shirts and capri pants, black beatnik sweaters and simple dresses, enveloping beige and cream fur coats.

The fashion industry, and more importantly, women worldwide, took note. Her iconic style could be found in practically every woman’s closet and endures to this day.

  • Monroe popularized a uniquely American style with high waisted blue jeans paired with a white button-down shirt and a jean jacket
  • Simple black cigarette capri pants with a black-and-white striped turtleneck or a thick, woven oversized sweater
  • Nipped-at-the-waist halter dresses
  • Pencil skirts with shrunken sweaters

Yet, almost 60 years on from her passing, Monroe’s name remains synonymous with classic Hollywood glamour. Her bouncy blonde curls, a splash of lipstick and glitzy gowns feature prominently across the reams of merchandise which are – to this day – lucratively licensed in her name.

At some point in the mid-’50s, she signed a nude calendar for costume designer Travilla, with the words, “Billy, dear, please dress me forever. I love you, Marilyn.” And, in some ways, given the indelible images of Monroe in his creations, he really did.

The Swinging Style of Dame Mary Quant

As Ernestine Carter (American-born British museum curator and fashion journalist)  wrote: “It is given to a fortunate few to be born at the right time, in the right place, with the right talents. In recent fashion there are three: Chanel, Dior, and Mary Quant.”

Mary Quant was born February 11,1930 in London, the daughter of Welsh school teachers. For college, her desire had been to study fashion; however, her parents, thinking it was no way to earn a living, dissuaded Mary from that course of study. So, to appease her parents, she instead studied illustration and art education.

But Mary’s love of fashion was not to be deterred or denied. After finishing her degree, she landed an apprenticeship with Erik, a high-end Mayfair, London milliner. At the age of 21, after the apprenticeship ended, Mary branched out to open her own shop called “Bazaar”, with her husband Alexander Plunket-Green and their best friend Archie McNair.

Initially, she stocked her boutique with garments she wanted to wear herself, but were in fact created and manufactured by other designers she admired. As time went on, Mary’s personal style, her Chelsea shop, and her love of bold, youthful fashion, garnered the attention of not only the women of London, but the fashion press as well. Bolstered by the positive attention and her inherent love of fashion, she decided to take designing into her own hands.

Mary’s creativity was strongly influenced by what she saw around her; the energy, youthfulness and freedom of ‘60s Swinging London and Carnaby Street style.

Pre-Quant, young women dressed like their mothers in long, loose-fitted, petticoat-layered curtain prints. Post-Quant, they donned knee-high lace-up boots, bold plastic raincoats and fitted striped sweaters with Peter Pan collars and proudly skipped up and down the Kings Road.

The miniskirt, described as one of the defining fashions of the 1960s, is one of the garments most widely associated with Quant. While she is often cited as the inventor of the style, this claim has been challenged by others.

Quant later said: “It was the girls on the King’s Road who invented the miniskirt. I was making easy, youthful, simple clothes, in which you could move, in which you could run and jump and we would make them the length the customer wanted. I wore them very short and the customers would say, ‘Shorter, shorter.’”

She did give the miniskirt its name, after her favorite make of car, the Mini,and said of its wearers: “they are curiously feminine, but their femininity lies in their attitude rather than in their appearance … She enjoys being noticed, but wittily. She is lively, positive, opinionated.”

You don’t need to look far at all to find the Quant influence on today’s fashion:

  • The Mini Skirt. Need we say more?
  • Hipster pants
  • Simple, a-line tunic dresses in bold prints
  • Peter Pan collars and pinafore dresses
  • Skinny-rib sweaters with hot pants
  • Wet-look PVC
  • Colorful and patterned tights (A marvel, when you consider only a few years previously women were coloring their legs with gravy to make it look as though they were encased in nylon. Eeew.)
  • Interestingly, she initiated a hand-to-mouth production cycle (what might be known as the precursor to today’s “fast fashion”): the day’s sales at Bazaar paid for the cloth that was then made up overnight into new stock for the following day. Thereby ensuring her customers were treated to “fresh” fashion daily.

Mary Quant, the creator of the swinging ‘60s London style, was rightfully recognized in 1963, winning the Sunday Times International Fashion Award while also being chosen as Woman of the Year. Not bad for a 33-year-old!

From Marilyn’s devastating dresses to Mary’s mini, we think you’ll agree that fashion changed forever thanks to these two extraordinary women. Here at Teg, we’ve made a study of fashion and have deep admiration for anyone who has the determination to enter the fray. If that’s you, we want to hear all about it. Feel free to give us a call at 800-916-0910 or reach out to us on the web at https://tegintl.com/get-in-touch/.

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