The fifties was a fascinating decade, right? We were so dumb back then, just as we’re so dumb now. We did such stupid things. For example, why did women wear those torturous Merry Widows? Remember them? Madonna calls them “bustiers” but we called them Merry Widows, although I can’t think why. Believe me, there wasn’t anything merry about them and maybe widows wore them. I can’t be sure. We’d wear them under certain dresses and within a short time, we were in terrible pain, but remove them? Never! Show the pain? Never! After all, our grandmothers taught us that “it takes pains to have beauty.” They should know. Don’t forget our grandmothers wore excruciating whalebone corsets that completely rearranged their natural born innards, and the whales didn’t much care for them either.
And speaking of pain, how about those strapless scratchy tulle gowns from the 50s? We’d struggle into them, and noticed immediately that when we turned to the left, our gowns turned to the right. Oh how they hurt. And those high heeled satin shoes we got dyed to match? Hurt? You bet, and constantly fretting about getting them dirty or scraped ruined prom night for a lot of young ladies. They could not be redyed.
And while we’re on the subject of sartorial pain, females in the fifties wore girdles. Yes we did. Nasty rubber things with four long ugly garters hanging down, and lest your mind is taking you to places where women wear things like that for reasons other than to have her skirts fit smoothly and her stockings to not fall down, then shame on you. Girdles were murderous, turning every woman’s body, if she wasn’t skeletal and yes, even skeletal women wore girdles back then because their mothers made them, into a muffin with legs. You know, narrower on the bottom, belly fat squeezing out of the girdle’s top. Awful. And those flesh colored (Caucasian of course—apparently African American women didn’t have to wear girdles) Playtex rubber girdles, punched through with air holes where one’s skin puffed out like dozens of flesh peas. Trying to pull them up on a hot humid day was, let us say a challenge quite often resulting in tears, screams and scissors.
And cinching up stockings to those garters—oh my, constantly worrying about those crazy seams that had to be razor straight or women risked a lifetime of shame. I will never forget seeing those poor Godly women leaning over the altar rail taking communion on Sunday mornings, flashing those garters, thigh backs and stocking tops while an embarrassed congregation turned politely away. At least the polite ones did. This awkward discombobulation vanished when women were finally permitted to wear pants in public, and oh phew, in church too.
Bras? Engineered so that a woman’s mammaries were apple hard, sharply pointed and reset to suspend directly off the collarbones. Why did we allow it? I know! Because that’s how movie stars looked. Janet Leigh could quickly punch her way through a thick plywood door without ever touching the doorknob.
We must have been seriously into points in the 50s, because women wore shoes so highly heeled and sharply pointed they could kill a wild pig with one smart kick to the jugular, if they ever found themselves in a place where enraged wild pigs roamed about.
Girls wore their cardigans backward, their jeans rolled up (but only for athletics of course) Peter Pan collars, gold circle pins on those collars, occasionally changed over to button-down collars, plaid skirts, penny loafers, saddle shoes, or tight skirts and black flats, and hair? Bobby pins clamped down onto viciously tight pincurls every single night; it was like sleeping on a pillowcase stuffed with nails, but oh, yes, we thought hard about how it takes pains to have beauty and if our being beautiful meant the occasional loss of blood, well, that’s the way it was. Bermuda shorts with knee socks, plaid belts, stupid bathing caps designed to keep one’s hair dry while swimming. Why? I never got that. Oh I guess it was hoped that all that blood and pain endured by sleeping with a head stabbed full of Bobby pins would somehow be saved by a brutally tight bathing cap, strapped under the chin. All they did was let a bunch of water into one’s ears and hold it there, temporarily deafening the wearer and giving ear doctors a good living. And oh yes, wearing gold and silver at the same time anywhere on the body was a social faux pas and was simply not done and never to be forgiven.
Sex? Everyone feigned big shock about anyone indulging pre marriage, and perhaps a few post. But it was big phony feign which covered big genuine curiosity. Movies, magazines, newspapers, everything talked and wrote about the sin and shame of anyone getting caught in flagrante delicto and while Big Red A’s were no longer compulsory, everyone mentally put them on women who did the deed without a marriage license, or with one but not with her husband’s name on it. Men, even in the fifties, got off scott free. Who’s that lucky dude named Scott anyway? He’s always gets to be free. Abstinence was preached even back then. Didn’t work then, won’t work now, and never will. Purchasing condoms in the 50s was a deeply humiliating experience for a young guy. Sex in the 50s, and as it always has been and always shall be, just would not go away.
Music? Rock and Roll swept across the land, and listening to it was another sin to pile on the growing pile of other sins. Listening to it, gyrating to it, was a ticket straight to hell. Parents and clergy fought the good fight but lost, and life for kids in the fifties joyfully became Grease.
Sundays were church days. Dressing up. No one went to the movies or to town or to anywhere, especially church, unless one was dressed up. Mothers put a huge roast into the oven on her way to church services, so she could come home and spend the Day of Rest cooking, scrubbing pans and pots and washing dishes, but oh the house smelled great when everyone tumbled back into the home after church. Occasionally a house or two would burn to the ground while the family prayed together and their ovens malfunctioned, but not too often.
I’m barely scratching the surface here. Anyone of my vintage could add pages and pages to this column about the mores and habits and styles of that strange decade where things were so rigid, so fake, so break-through, daring and fun. Were things better back then? Nah. Are they better now? Sure, in countless ways. It was the best of times and the worst of times. When isn’t it?
Click on LC Van Savage for author's byline for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online.