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Australian Culture and Fashion in the 1950s

August 8, 2011

Settlers from Britain first began to arrive in Australia a in 1788. British influence therefore weighed strongly on Australian culture immediately thereafter. Besides cultural influences, the British model is also the basis of Australia’s legal and political systems.

Up until World War II, Britain remained the dominating cultural influence in Australia. Britons also dominated the make-up of Australian society – most of Australia’s citizens were either born in Britain, or had British descendants. In the years following the war, British subjects were encouraged to migrate to Australia under an ‘assisted package’ scheme, which helped with the cost of migrating to Australia and provided housing and employment options upon arrival. Between 1945 and 1972, over one million British migrants settled in Australia.

Before 1945, many people, including Australians themselves, considered Australia to be nothing more than a British colony; a nation whose national identity was relatively indistinct from the British. During this period of Australia’s history, our modes of entertainment, food, fashion, sporting culture and our social values and attitudes were largely dictated by British culture.

1950s woman decked in hat and gloves

One of the most significant changes to have taken place in Australian society since the end of WWII, however, was the cultural shift from British influences to American. As the American way of life was projected further into Australia via popular culture, it would rapidly alter the ways we spent our money, entertained ourselves, dressed and socialized. Eventually, many of our British cultural legacies would give way to new American ideals. American films, music and fashion became wildly popular.

The 1950s were prosperous, vibrant years for Australians. These years marked a transition from the conservatism, restraint and formality of the 1940s, to a freer, looser, more informal style. Throughout the decade it became much more acceptable for males to dress ‘for show’ and both sexes became much more fashion conscious.

Hats for women in the 1950’s were a major fashion accessory, the pillbox hat and hats with floral patterns were particularly popular. Hats added the final touch of 1950s glamour to a woman or girl’s outfit, particularly in the early fifties. Last year’s dress or suit could be updated easily with a new hat or a fresh ornament such as flowers, an autumnal bunch of acorns and leaves, or a bunch of cherries.


Balenciaga was the designer that first showed and popularised the pillbox hat; it became ‘the hat’ of the fifties and later the hat of the sixties when it was greatly favoured by Jackie Kennedy.  The pillbox often had veiling attached to the front. Other simple hats included neat beret varieties and also knitted beret hats with tassels or pom-pom.

Gloves were an essential part of a woman’s outfit and were worn everywhere, with every outfit in the 1950s and completed a woman’s appearance.  Without gloves she was not properly accessorized.  Clean gloves were the hallmark of a lady and white or cream were the most favoured colours for gloves. They were  worn in a variety of colours were primarily made of cotton as this was more affordable than leather or the newer nylon gloves. Even so many women owned a special pair of leather gloves. Dents and Pittards were popular glove brands, but women could also make their own gloves using a  pattern.

The formality of wearing gloves even continued into the sixties with interesting cut out peephole variations in the popular stretch nylon and designed almost like a golfing glove.  By the 1970s gloves were more used functionally for keeping the hands warm than for any other reason.

Fur was added to every collar and cuff in the fifties, and sometimes even to brooches. It added a touch of class to any outfit.

Women’s shoes morphed into more fashionable styles in the 50s. The stiletto heel made its first appearance in the 1950’s. By the mid 1950s pointed toe shoes called Winkle pickers with stiletto heels up to 5 inches were a common sight.

There is no doubt that the trademark of the fifties was the stiletto heeled shoe, first seen in 1952 at a Dior fashion show. Complete with pointed toe and metal tipped heel, it was sometimes banned from certain places because of the damage it did to the floors. To deal with this many women carried around a pair of flat heels in their handbags just in case.

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