Fifties fashion is all about looking and feeling feminine. That’s why 23-year-old Huddersfield student Ellen Rey de Castro enjoys wearing the styles of more than five decades ago. Her wardrobe is packed with circle skirts, ‘wiggle’ dresses and net petticoats and she’s not afraid to be seen in them. She talked to Hilarie Stelfox about her love of vintage chic
UNUSUALLY for a student, Ellen Rey de Castro never wears jeans. That’s because the 23-year-old costume and textiles undergraduate much prefers the ultra-feminine fashions of the 1950s, so much so that on most days she can be seen out and about in stylish vintage clothes.
Ellen, who is in her second year at the University of Huddersfield, says the fitted and waist-enhancing garments of the Fifties were made for her figure.
“They play to my curves,” she says, “the first time I tried a Fifties dress on it just felt fantastic and did everything that modern clothes don’t do for me.
“I find them very feminine and quite empowering.”
Ellen, whose father is South American, was born in Peru but raised from the age of 11 in Southampton. She fell in love with Fifties styling as a teenager. “I’d always been interested in fashion but people in Peru are quite conservative in how they dress. When I came to England I felt free to experiment and I was a bit of a Goth because it seemed different at the time,” she explained.
“I discovered Fifties clothes when I went into a thrift shop in Southampton and tried on a dress. I had always felt fat and frumpy because of my curves, but the dress just felt girlie and sexy, although not overtly so.”
After leaving school Ellen went to study politics at university but says the course didn’t suit her creative leanings. “I felt like a bit of a weirdo there and didn’t fit in at all so I dropped out after four months and went to work in London in a vintage shop,” she said.
It was there that she learned how to spot an original Fifties garment and how to put the look together. She also discovered that her love of past styles could become her future.
“We had a lot of costume designers come into the shop and I realised that it could be a career rather than just a hobby,” she added. “I chose the course in Huddersfield because of the facilities and because I wanted an all-round education in fashion and textiles.” She hopes to become a costume designer for television and film. “Dr Who would be my dream job,” she says.
Ellen’s personal collection of Fifties clothes and accessories – the more valuable pieces are still at home in Southampton – was bought from specialist shops. She often mixes and matches original, authentic garments with new, contemporary clothes. “My style can be quite kitsch and a bit over the top,” she said. “Some of my friends say ‘don’t you care that people stare at you’ but I say ‘no’ because it’s how I feel comfortable.”
As well as the clothes of the period, Ellen also loves the music and is a fan of the television series Mad Men, which encapsulated the era.
“It was a sexist, racist time and I wouldn’t have wanted to live then,” she explains, “but things were beginning to change and people were starting to challenge the way it was. And the clothes were fantastic.”
Most vintage clothing is now only available from specialist shops and dealers and it can command high prices. Ellen has paid as much as £300 for a mint condition early Fifties dress that was made in Hawaii. “But there are still bargains,” she says, “I found a late Forties blouse for £20.”
Because more people made their own clothes in the 1950s quite a few of Ellen’s originals are hand sewn. She has even created her own using authentic period patterns, bought on e-Bay or re-prints from McCalls.
Original accessories are more difficult to find than clothes and tend to be in poor condition. There’s also the problem that women in the Fifties had smaller feet than they do today. “My feet are only a size five, which is quite small today, but in the Fifties sizes two and three were standard,” explained Ellen.
She does, however, have a collection of jewellery from the era. including a number of Lucite brooches and a pair of Bakelite earrings. Such accessories, however, don’t come cheaply and a small brooch can fetch up to £30.
“Plastic was still new in the Forties and Fifties so it was quite desirable,” said Ellen.
There’s no doubt that Ellen cuts a striking figure in her Fifties-inspired outfits and it is a style that she says she will never tire of: “It celebrates everything about a woman and the female form. It’s timeless.”
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FASHION in the early 1950s was heavily influenced by Christian Dior and his New Look.
Extravagantly full skirts and an ultra-feminine silhouette made the look an instant hit with women but was less popular with the post-war British Government still grappling with shortages and the need for rationing.
Key looks of the era were the figure-hugging pencil skirts and wasp-waisted blouses with peplums, also circle skirts, cut from yards of material and worn with layers of net petticoat.
Dresses had ‘wiggle’ power and were tailored to show off every curve. Marilyn Monroe, the iconic figure of the decade, knew how to work the sheath dress.
The 1950s was a time when teenagers were invented and many modern scientific and technological developments changed the way of life in the Western World.
It was a decade that saw the election of Winston Churchill as British Prime Minister and the marriage of John F Kennedy to another style icon, Jacqueline Bouvier; Elizabeth II was crowned and in 1954 rationing ended.
In 1952 the contraceptive pill was first manufactured, launching the sexual revolution that took hold in the 1960s. A year later the first colour television was demonstrated in New York and the James Bond era began with the film Casino Royale.
Male style icons of the period were James Dean and Marlon Brando, who adopted the classic teenage look of Levi jeans, T-shirts and leather jackets.
Fifties styling is enjoying a revival at the moment and has inspired both film and programme makers.
Mad Men, for example, the late Fifties and early Sixties-based American series, has proved to be enormously popular – for both its storylines and fashions.
Perhaps in a time when life is so complicated and austerity measures are in the news on a daily basis, the Fifties offers a nostalgic escape to a simpler, more hopeful era.