Having been born in 1949, I remember the fifties fondly. In fact, I became smitten for the first time in 1956 watching the Ed Sullivan show. So excited I was, that I ran into my mother’s bathroom (who was dressing to go out to dinner with my dad) and grabbed her by the hand to show her a loose-hipped, gel-haired swooner named Elvis and declared “That’s the man I’m going to marry.”
Elvis was not only a singer. He was a bona-fied sex symbol that blended black American singing and dress style and mannerisms with his own. He was so influential that young men began to wear their hair like him and began dressing like him. And who could blame them. Elvis drove girls into a wild frenzy. He made them faint. I was only 9 and I could feel it. I mean, I wanted to marry him after I took a look at those loose hips and sultry eyes. Yes, things were different back then. Mores were stricter. Families were closer. Religion was more important. You took responsibility for things you did.
Kids came home to mothers instead of sitters or an empty house. We rode bikes everywhere without fear of being abducted by strangers (not that it never happened), were polite to adults, went to church on Sunday with our families, respected the flag and loved our country. We ate home-made meals of pot roast, meat loaf, spaghetti and casseroles seated around the table together. And unlike my father’s generation where children were seen and not heard, we talked and played cards or checkers with our grandparents when we visited them, went to the movies with church groups, and if you had a mind to, even discussed current events, the latest movies and what you were doing in school at the dinner table.
My mother, along with all the other mothers, wore a dress when she went to the store…or anywhere, even at home until the late 50’s. You didn’t go out without your hair being combed, or in pajamas. Your bra straps never showed unless you were a certain kind of woman…or trailer trash.
My dad went to work in a suit along with every other man in the neighborhood, and showed us how to put in a good day’s work on Saturday as my brother and I pulled weeds and trimmed the hedges along side him. My mother taught me how to vacuum, set a table, do the dishes (it wasn’t clean if I didn’t sweep and mop the floor), iron, clean a bathroom, the door jams and windows. When I remember the 50’s, I think of how girls took “home economics” so they could learn to cook and sew. The boys took shop…auto and wood.
Children dressed in nice slacks and dresses for school, even into junior and high school until the late 50’s early sixties. If you dressed inappropriately, your parents were summoned and you had to go home and change. It was meant to be and was… humiliating. Dress code and dress standards were common. They took a lunch box to school, and when they got to Junior High they could order food in the snack bar or cafeteria. The freedom to order what you wanted from the menu felt like one step closer to independence.
Even kids in my upper-middle class neighborhood…not the slums, got jobs in the summer picking fruit or working wherever they could find summer employment put gas in a car they borrowed from mom and dad. The younger boys cut grass! Nowadays, working is beneath most teens because they don’t have to. Their parents just give them everything.
Our heroes were usually our parents, not movie stars or rock stars. And we got our self esteem from a job well done, excelling in a sport, a job, a new skill learned or school. But some time in the fifties, things began to change. Our clothing and hair styles changed along with our heroes. Angry, edgy actors like Marlon Brando, and others with identity and sexual orientation issues like bad boy James Dean took the place of our parents as heroes. Marylin Monroe with her full breasts and pouty lips drove men mad and women to the doctor for the latest sheep urine injections.
I remember the 50’s film actresses and print and cat-walk models were not at all like the hollow-eyed, gaunt women we see today with their boyish figures. Instead, they were slender but curvaceous and their clothes were designed to accentuate those attributes. Grab an old copy of a magazine and see for yourself. And the sexy sirens all had natural busts with small waists. The Rosiland Russell, Marilyn Monroe shape was definitely IT. Today, they would be considered zaftig. Women…especially stars, looked like they were supposed to…curvy…voluptuous. Hey Hollywood, haven’t you watched the Discovery Channel lately? They say science has proven that men…who like women, are attracted to curves for a reason!
Remember American Bandstand?…With Dick Clark and your favorite couples?
Poodle Skirts? The poodle emblem was the “iconic” dog added to the tightly cinched, full skirt that made it the “poodle skirt”. Moms today still dress their little girls in Poodle skirts for Halloween and little girls still love them. But, you can’t talk about that decade without remembering that fashion statement that was worn with saddle shoes a scarf sometimes worn around the neck.
Why were poodle skirts so popular back then? For one, they flew and swirled, showing petticoats and lots of leg as she spinned. It also, sometimes unknowingly and sometimes knowingly, made a statement not unlike statements young men and women make today with their attire, body piercings and tattoos. The message they were and are putting out there to the world is this…I’m free to express myself, free to explore and experience the world. And as most parents feared, that kind of freedom meant then as it still does, sexual freedom. But back then, most girls didn’t have sex in high school. At least no one I knew. And if they did, they soon got a “reputation” for being easy. Unlike to day where in some circles sexual promiscuity and even pregnancy is considered normal and in some cases a bagde…in the 50’s if they got pregnant, they’d go and live with an aunt in some other state where no one could see them and disgrace the family.
Three Date Rule – A 1950’s Teen was taught to act properly on a date. I remember my parents sending me to a trio of classes on how to sit, stand, use eating utensils properly, say good night properly at the end of a date, how to get in and out of a car etc. Noting I hadn’t learned at home….And there as an unwritten “rule” proper girls and boys followed that was called the “three date rule” which meant that you didn’t kiss until then. Before that, you would thank your date for the nice evening and give a short hug or handshake…nothing more. We also took social dancing with the boys and learned that we should always accept an offer to dance to be polite. Today, some “liberated” women don’t even allow a man to open a door for her.
What’s an R rated movie? Movies in the 50’s and 60’s didn’t hit you over the head with overt sexuality. You could bring your pre-teens to the movies and they wouldn’t get the undertones and innuendos left to the adults. A passionate kiss always broke away to something else, but you knew what happened next and you could use your imagination. Sandra Dee and Doris Day movies were very influential growing up in the fifties. “A Summer Place” starring Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue went right over my head when I was 12, but I loved it and watched it again. And when I watched it as an adult boy was I surprised. Unwed mothers, cheating spouses who wanted to drive the importance of being a good girl home to horny teens. “Pillow Talk” starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson and the other films the two actors made together were almost identical to it like “Lover Come Back” are still fun to watch. They dramatized society’s view of the dating roles of guys and girls and brought home the message that the good girl gets her guy in a hilarious hour of jibs and jabs and sexual tension when I remember the 50’s movies.