Topics in the News
Women's Fashion: Femininity is the Key
By 1950 women were long gone from the factory jobs of World War II and were back home (usually in the kitchen and wearing aprons, to judge from advertisements of that era). Domesticity and femininity were the watchwords, and women wore wasp waists, voluminous skirts, and pearls by day and clingy, sequined gowns by night.
The "New Look."
Christian Dior's "New Look" took the fashion world by storm in 1947. Emphasizing the natural curves of the female figure, the shape of Dior's fashions resembled an hourglass. The bosom was emphasized by skintight tailoring; hips were padded; the skirt was midcalf in length, full, and "extravagant in its use of fabric"; the waist was slender, or "wasp." By 1950 the sensuous Dior designs and the hourglass figure reigned supreme in the postwar United States, where, as sociologists have noted, sexuality and maternity were the way to restore the population.
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Men's Fashions: Gray Flannel Suits
In the 1950s conformity was the password of men's fashions. And as long as...
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American Designers Take the Reins
Before World War II American fashion had little sense of national identity or style. Since the nineteenth century, in fact, Paris couturiers had set fashion trends for women in both Europe and America. Before the 1950s America's only distinctive contribution to international fashion was via Hollywood movies. This situation changed in the 1950s with the emergence of more than two dozen energetic and imaginative young men and women on the American fashion scene.
The "American Look."
"The 'American Look' is a young look because it comes from young minds," said a 1955 Look magazine article. "It's an American look because these designers are independent and free-wheeling, wary of imitating, anxious to create. They share a poxon-Paris spirit." These young American designers ranged in age from twenty-four to thirty-five in 1955, and they included such names as Anne Klein, Claire McCardell, Kasper, Rudi Gernreich, and James Galanos. They had a common purpose: to give American women comfortable yet chic sportswear that fit their active lifestyles and complimented the wearer, not necessarily the designer.
Simple and Comfortable.
American women in the 1950s were busy wives and mothers. Backyard barbecues, weekend car trips, get-togethers in front of the television,...
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Consumerism at an Early Age.
With the prosperity of the 1950s in full swing, American clothing manufacturers discovered—or perhaps created—new markets eager to buy their goods: children and teenagers. Television and printed advertisements instilled in 1950s kids at an early age a rampant consumerism that their parents had never had. The oldsters, after all, had grown up during the Depresssion, when thriftiness was next to godliness.
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In the 1950s America exerted an enormous influence on world architectural design, not only because of the volume of work being done but also because the most exciting new forms were being conceived and executed in the United States. Wealthy clients and the large number of emigrants from throughout the world made the United States the undisputed center of architectural innovation.
With a few exceptions (Le Corbusier in France, Yoshimura in Japan, and Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil), architects everywhere found themselves copying American trends rather than originating their own. Great architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Philip Johnson, and Edward Durrell Stone were all at work in 1950s America—and the quality and amount of their output were staggering. The trend was unabashedly modern, although by the late 1950s more ornamentation and exuberance were creeping in—the first stirrings of the postmodern era of architecture.
Frank Lloyd Wright.
Experts believe the greatest lasting influence on architecture in the 1950s and 1960s was that of Wright and Mies van der Rohe. Already an old man in 1950 (he died at age eighty-nine in 1959), Wright continued to design astonishing buildings throughout...
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The "Googie School of Architecture"
The optimism and euphoria that swept the country after World War II infused the outlook of 1950s architects. These men and women, already influenced by the brilliant Frank Lloyd Wright, had access to amazing new construction materials and building techniques generated by war technologies. Now it was time to design the postwar nation: the future was theirs.
Simultaneously, the car culture exploded. Huge, flashy American cars laden with shiny chrome and fitted with futuristic tail fins traveled the roads between the cities and the burgeoning suburbs in ever-increasing numbers.
How is it possible to lure the people in those cars off the highways and into the coffee shops and
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As World War II ended, more than ten million soldiers were discharged from the U.S. armed forces. Where were they going to live? The answer, it turned out, was suburbia—1950s style.
House Builder Levitt.
There were suburbs in America before the 1950s, but these were nothing like Levittown and its imitators. On 3 July 1950 developer William J. Levitt appeared on the cover of Time magazine, standing in front of a row of identical boxlike houses on newly bulldozed land. The caption read: "HOUSE BUILDER LEVITT: For Sale: a new way of life." First on Long Island, then near Philadelphia, and finally in New Jersey, Levitt built his dream houses and in the process created the suburbia of the 1950s.
The Levitt Design.
Levitt and his sons, who had built houses for the navy during World War II, brought mass-production techniques to house building. The Levittown houses, built on concrete slabs with no basements, were nearly identical in floor plan, although there were some slight variations in exteriors and color. The original designs had two bedrooms and one bathroom, and a family could expand the house by converting the attic or adding on. Lots were of uniform size (sixty by one hundred feet) with a tree planted every twenty-eight feet (two-and-a-half trees per home). In...
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Architecture: Space and Color
Space—lots of it—was the key feature of interior design in the 1950s. Influenced by the severe designs of Mies van der Rohe and other Bauhaus architects who sought an integration of visual arts into society, both American homes and public buildings were built with lots of spare, open space. House Beautiful magazine was lyrical about "our wonderful 20th century concept of space … the free and easy movement from the house to the garden and back to the house … vistas for the eye to roam or relax in—indoors and out and upwards." Said designer George Nelson in Living Spaces: "It is not efficiency that we are looking for, but freedom from dimensional barriers."
Breaking Down Barriers.
At the same time, walls and rooms became scarce. Wright's concept of "open" architectural plans meshed with the idea of flowing space, and great rooms—actually, no demarcated rooms at all—were the result. There was a bonus: the function of the room could change according to the occasion.
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Those Fabulous Cars
If any invention typified the wildly optimistic mood of America in the 1950s, it was the decade's large, long, sleek automobiles. Unlike architects, furniture designers, and fashion designers of the era, who produced simple, unornamented products in subdued colors, designers of the fabulous 1950s cars produced gleaming, exuberant creations of chrome and power—and in delicious ice cream colors, too.
Impractical but Stylish.
By 1954 there were forty-seven million passenger cars in the United States, and by 1960, 80 percent of American families owned cars. The cars were totally impractical. Their gas mileage was abysmal. They were designed for style, not safety. They were so long that they were hard to park, especially in cities. Their fancy grilles and acres of chrome were difficult to keep clean. But their shiny exteriors and spacious interior design screamed power and status. Moreover, they had those fabulous fins.
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Most American furniture in the 1950s was lean and spare, with virtually no curlicues or ornamentation of any kind. Indeed, American modern furniture designers prided themselves on simple, almost stark designs. How did interior designers and consumers spell relief in the 1950s? It was spelled "kitsch"—a German colloquialism for trash or rubbish. Kitsch has been called—only partly tongue-in-cheek—the only art form developed by the middle class.
The zany, playful, extreme accessories and decorations of the 1950s are called kitsch or "1950s pop." To call them whimsical is an understatement. The 1950s accessories were simply marvelous to the extreme.
There are some first-class examples of 1950s kitsch in lamps of the decade. There were lamps whose bases were ladies' legs; "bubble" lamps that hung in clusters; a weird chandelier called "Sputnik" after the Soviet satellite; and lamps patterned after Gumby, a popular 1950s doll; lamps whose bases were ceramic hula dancers, ballerinas, Spanish dancers, or African princesses.
Clocks from the 1950s are easily recognizable, from their pastel plastic cases to their odd shapes—often boomerangs, balls, or molecules. One of the...
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American Modern Takes a Bow
Prewar furnishings did not work in postwar homes. Young people married earlier, had more babies, and moved to suburbia, where the homes were different from town houses or city apartments. increased building costs shrank room sizes, lowered ceilings, and reduced the number of rooms and closets. Double-duty living areas, more open and spacious rooms, and fewer walls were also the style of the day.
Modern Furniture for the Modern House.
Lower, more simple furniture was needed, and talented architects and designers were more than willing to oblige. Indeed, many of the most influential designers of furniture and home furnishings in the 1950s were architects, for they designed the modern houses that could not be furnished with what was on the market. Today, one refers to 1950s furniture as "American modern"—austere, functional, mass-produced, often of synthetic materials like molded plastic and plywood laminate. But American modern is actually an amalgam of the German Bauhaus principles and Scandinavian influence.
Bauhaus Heads West.
The Bauhaus, a German architectural school begun by Walter Gropius, was founded on the principles of industrial technology and prices affordable to the masses. When the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis in the 1930s, several of its leading...
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Chanel, Gabrielle "Coco" 1883-1971
FRENCH COUTURIERE; POPULARIZED SIMPLE, WEARABLE CLOTHING
No More Tight Corsets.
In 1919 French designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel released women from the tight corsets of the era and introduced them to comfortable jersey clothing. In 1954, after fifteen years of retirement and just six months before her seventy-first birthday, she made a comeback and freed women once again from highly structured, constricting designs—this time the clothing of the "New Look." Critics were lukewarm, but women, particularly American women, loved her casual, softly shaped clothes and snapped them up. These designs ushered in a new relaxation in fashion that continues today.
Little is known of Chanel's early years except that she was orphaned as a young child. She started in fashion in 1910, making hats in Paris. Chanel opened her first dress shop in Paris in 1914 and closed it in...
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Dior, Christian 1905-1957
FRENCH FASHION DESIGNER AND CREATOR OF THE "NEW LOOK"
Christian Dior, son of a wealthy Norman manufacturer of chemicals and fertilizer, wanted to be an architect, but his family insisted he enter the diplomatic service. He prepared for a diplomatic career at the Ecole des Sciences Politiques but abandoned diplomacy in 1928 and became an art dealer. Illness forced him to give up that business in 1934, and when he returned to Paris a year later, it was as a fashion illustrator—first of hats, later of dresses.
"The New Look."
In 1946, when World War II cloth rationing was lifted, Dior opened his own salon. In the spring of 1947 the success of his first collection, called the "New Look," propelled him to the top of the French fashion industry. His idealized, ultrafeminine silhouette featured tiny waists; long, full skirts; padded busts; and rounded shoulders. Everything was made exquisitely of the best materials available. The New Look changed the shape of women's clothing and lifted the French fashion industry out of the doldrums. For this feat a grateful French government awarded him the Legion of Honor.
His successive collections (including the H-Line" in 1954 and the "A-Line" in 1955) continued to be popular, and...
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Eames, Charles 1907-1978
ARCHITECT AND DESIGNER OF FAMOUS FORM-FITTING CHAIRS
Although he worked with a variety of fabrics, machinery, and buildings, Charles Eames was best known for the series of chairs that still bear his name. In the 1950s his extraordinarily comfortable chairs, built low and responsive to the body, were snapped up by consumers wanting the new American Modern furniture but wanting comfort, too.
Born in Saint Louis to a Civil War veteran, Eames won a scholarship to study architecture at Washington University but flunked out, partly because he spent too much time working in one of the city's large architectural firms and partly because the traditional teachers at his university disapproved of Frank Lloyd Wright, one of Eames's idols. In 1929 Eames went to Europe, where he learned about the work of the great German Bauhaus architects. He opened an architectural office back in Saint Louis in 1930.
Cranbrook Academy of Art.
In the late 1930s Eames was offered a fellowship to study at the Cranbrook Academy of Art of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Working with the director's son, Eero Saarinen, he entered a molded-plywood chair in the Organic Design Competition conducted in 1940-1941 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York...
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Fuller, R(ichard) Buckminster, (Jr.) 1895-1983
ENGINEER, AUTHOR, AND INVENTOR OF THE GEODESIC DOME
Man of Many Talents.
"Bucky" Fuller was an inventor, engineer, architect, mathematician, cartographer, philosopher, scientist, environmentalist, poet, author, and educator who, because of his wide range of interests and abilities, has been compared with Leonardo da Vinci. He is most famous for his creation of geodesic domes—structures of honeycombed triangles encompassing maximum space and strength with minimal materials. Since their invention in 1947 geodesic domes have been used in thousands of structures throughout the world.
Fuller had impaired vision as a child, and he was fitted for his first eyeglasses at the age of four. "I was filled with wonder at the beauty of the world and I have never lost my delight in it," Fuller told one of his biographers. In kindergarten he built his first tetrahedronal octet truss (three squares combined into eight triangles) out of toothpicks and dried peas. Many years later this construct became a key element of his geodesic domes.
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McCardell, Claire 1905-1958
CREATOR OF THE "AMERICAN LOOK" IN FASHION
The daughter of a banker and state senator, Claire McCardell as a small child cut out and dressed paper dolls from her mother's fashion magazines. After high school she attended the Parsons School of Design in New York, later studying at the school's Paris division for a year.
For Ordinary Women.
Unlike other designers of the time who copied the stilted Parisian fashions, McCardell decided to modify them to fit the ordinary woman's pocketbook and demand for comfort as well as fashion. McCardell is credited with originating the so called American Look of the 1950s, the forerunner of today's comfortable, easy fashions. Clothes should be comfortable as well as handsome, she said, and should be appropriate to the occasion. They should fit well and be attractive.
McCardell used such American fabrics as calico, seersucker, ticking, gingham, denim, and wool jersey to make simple, relaxed, wearable clothes. She...
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Norell, Norman 1900-1972
POPULARIZED THE CULOTTE; AMERICAN PACESETTER IN THE WORLD OF HIGH FASHION
Born Norman Levinson in Noblesville, Indiana, Norell learned about high fashion at an early age from his mother, who subscribed to French fashion magazines and dressed in avantgarde styles. He studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York City and later became a costume designer for Paramount. In 1928 Norell went to work for the legendary Hattie Carnegie, with whom he stayed until 1940, when he went out on his own.
Norell was one of the few American dress designers considered to be an equal by many Parisian couturiers in the 1940s and 1950s, when Paris still ruled the fashion world. Considered the father of American high fashion (Hattie Carnegie was the mother), Norell created designs that were sophisticated, dramatic, and of the highest workmanship. He was the first to show long evening skirts topped with sweaters. His long, glittering, sequined dresses, popularized by Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, never went out of style. The smoking robe, the chemise, the jumper, and the pantsuit were part of his collection. His culotte, a divided skirt that looks like a conventional skirt but allows for easy movement, was heavily copied by competitors.
The Artificial "Norell...
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Quant, Mary 1934-
LEADING FASHION DESIGNER IN THE YOUTH REVOLUTION OF THE 1950S AND 1960S
Mary Quant studied at Goldsmith's College of Art in London, where she met Alexander Plunket-Greene. The two opened a small boutique called Bazaar in London's Chelsea district in 1955. Two years later they were married.
Making Her Own Designs.
In the beginning Bazaar sold clothing from outside designers, but Quant soon became frustrated at the dearth of appropriate styles for young people. Clothes for youth should reflect that youthfulness, Quant believed; they should be spirited and unconventional, not stuffy and boring. Quant enrolled in night classes, bought material from Harrod's department store in London, and made up her own styles—aimed at independent, affluent working girls in their late teens or early twenties. The styles were a sensation, with a permanent line of young people waiting to get into the store.
Mod and Mini.
Quant is given credit for starting the Chelsea or Mod look of the mid 1950s and creating the miniskirts of the 1960s....
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Saarinen, Eero 1910-1961
DESIGNER OF THE "WOMB" CHAIR AND PROLIFIC ARCHITECT
Son of well-known Finnish architect and educator Eliel Saarinen, Eero Saarinen moved to the United States with his family in 1923. It was at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, headed by the elder Saarinen, that Eero blossomed.
After winning first prize with Charles Eames in the 1940-1941 Museum of Modern Art's Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition, Saarinen began working on an "organic" chair design. He believed that a chair was incomplete without a person sitting in it, and he was determined to design a truly organic chair in which all parts blended in a unity of design. The result was the Womb chair, so called because its comfortable construction encouraged the sitter to assume a fetal position. The construction was of a molded plastic shell and fabric-covered latex foam upholstery on a steel frame with nylon swivel guides. There was...
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St. Laurent, Yves 1936-
"BOY WONDER" OF FRENCH FASHION AND CHRISTIAN DIOR'S SUCCESSOR
Born in Algeria.
Born and raised in Oran, Algeria, Yves St. Laurent went to Paris at age seventeen to try his luck in theatrical and fashion design. After winning first prize for a cocktail dress he designed for the International Wool Secretariat competition, he was taken to meet Christian Dior, the famous designer. After a fifteen-minute interview Dior hired the nineteen-year-old St. Laurent. Dior became St. Laurent's mentor and said of him, "St. Laurent is my right arm. I need him."
House of Dior.
Dior died unexpectedly in October 1957, and twenty-one-year-old St. Laurent was named to succeed the master as head designer of the House of Dior. His first showing, in 1958, was a smash hit as his Trapeze, or "little-girl look," took the fashion world by storm. After the showing Parisians demonstrated in the street and chanted, "St. Laurent has saved France." The Trapeze was as popular in America as elsewhere in the late 1950s. His last fashion collection for the House of Dior was in 1960, when he introduced the "chic beatnik" look, featuring knit turtleneck collars, heavy-knit sleeves, and black leather jackets edged in fur.
His Own House.
In 1962 St. Laurent opened his own house of haute couture. He...
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Van Der Rohe, Ludwig Mies 1886-1969
FOREMOST ARCHITECT OF CORPORATE AMERICA
Considered one of the founders of modern architecture, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's directed his concepts toward industrialization and harmonious proportions. Mies practiced architecture in Berlin, Germany, from 1911 to 1937, serving as the last director of the famous Bauhaus school from 1930 to 1933. He became internationally famous after World War I with his design of two steel skyscrapers entirely sheathed in glass. These were fore-runners of his creations in the United States, where he settled in 1938 after fleeing from Nazi Germany.
Glass and Steel.
In the 1950s Mies's glass-and-steel skyscrapers (" glass-and-steel boxes," his detractors called them) were adopted by much of corporate America. Chief executive officers liked the well-ordered look of Mies's sleek, geometric buildings; his creations became a symbol of corporate power and spawned imitations all over America. Mies's famous buildings included the Sea-gram Corporation headquarters in New York City, which set a precedent for that city's commercial...
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Wright, Frank Lloyd 1869-1959
GREATEST ARCHITECT OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
A trailblazer in modern American architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright left a legacy of more than seven hundred buildings that spanned more than half a century, from the Robie House in Chicago (1904) to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City (1959). Already elderly when the 1950s began, Wright continued to be active, designing provocative, exuberant masterpieces until his death.
Always an Architect.
From the beginning Anna Wright, a Wisconsin schoolteacher, wanted her son to become an architect. Since the University of Wisconsin offered no courses in architecture, he enrolled as a civil engineer in 1884 but left the university without graduating and went to Chicago in 1887, when many of his early designs were completed. He called himself a farm boy, and in 1900 Wright designed the first of his famous "prairie houses" (a low, ground-hugging type of bungalow ideally suited to the Midwest), for which there was no precedent....
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People in the News
In 1953 twenty-nine-year-old Pierre Cardin showed his first couture collection in Paris. He was an instant sensation in Europe and America.
American designer Bonnie Cashin in 1953 opened her own studio in New York. Her distinctively avantgarde sportswear and layered coordinates, often made of leather, were prophetic of future decades.
In 1951 American designer James Galanos began his own business in Los Angeles with two hundred dollars and two assistants. His ready-to-wear clothes became a symbol of luxury.
French designer Hubert de Givenchy in 1952 launched his first fashion collection in his Paris boutique. The collection consisted of mix-and-match blouses, skirts, and trousers—mostly in casual, inexpensive cotton. The look quickly spread across the Atlantic.
Architect Douglas Honnold in 1950 designed a proto-type built in several California cities for Biff's Drive-in with neon tubing and metallic reflections. This look spread throughout the country.
In 1955 architect Philip Johnson's New Harmony Shrine in New Harmony, Indiana, a bell-shaped structure with shingle roof that was inspired by Hindu temples, was so complicated that an IBM computer took two weeks to calculate its compound curves.
Anne Klein, an important designer in...
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COTY AMERICAN FASHION CRITICS' AWARD
(The "Winnie"—to an individual selected as the leading designer of American women's fashions)
1953—Thomas F. Brigance
(Award to a designer whose work merits a top award for a second time)
HALL OF FAME
(" Winnie" designer chosen...
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Anthony L. Aste, 88, former bootblack who founded Griffin Shoe Polish Company, 8 December 1954.
James Baird, 79, American civil engineer, 16 May 1953.
Alexander Samuel Beck, 93, founder of A. S. Beck shoe stores, 11 April 1955.
Arthur Besse, 64, president of the National Association of Wool Manufacturers since 1933, 24 November 1951.
Walter W. Birge, 74, pioneer in the development of rayon, 13 June 1952.
Arthur W. Bush, 78, a founder of the Nunn-Bush Shoe Co., 13 November 1950.
Hattie Carnegie (Henrietta Kanengeiser), 69, first American custom designer with ready-to-wear labels; she set the pace of fashion design for a generation, 22 February 1956.
John J. Cavanaugh, 93, men's hat designer, founder of Dobbs Stores, 24 January 1957.
Edna Woolman Chase, 80, editor of Vogue from 1914-1952; she initiated women's fashion shows in the United States, 20 March 1957.
John H. Cheatham, 67, president of Dundee Mills, former president of American Cotton Manufacturers Association, 17 February 1950.
E. Harold Cluett, 79, former chairman of Cluett, Pea-body shirtmakers, 4 February 1954.
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Richard Horn, Fifties Style, Then and Now (New York: Beech Tree, 1985);
Peter Lewis, The Fifties (New York: Lippincott, 1958).
Architecture & Design
Joseph Alsop, "I'm Guilty! I Built a Modern House," Saturday Evening Post, 222 (20 May 1950): 31;
"Architectural Oscars," Time, 67 (16 April 1956): 86;
J. A. Barry, "Frank Lloyd Wright: The Man Who Liberated Architecture," House Beautiful, 97 (November 1955): 240-245;
J. Burchard and A. BushBrown, "100 Years of American Architecture," New York Times Magazine, 12 May 1957, pp. 26-27;
Cherie Fehrman and Kenneth Fehrman, Postwar Interior Design: 1945-1960 (New York: Reinhold, 1987);
O. Gueft, "Furniture—Decade of Modern: How It Grew," New York Times Magazine, part 2, 9 May 1958, pp. 54-55;
John A. Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1946-1975 (Iola, Wis.: Krause Publications, 1982);
Alan Hess, Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1986);
Bevis Hillier, Austerity Binge: The Decorative Arts of the Forties and Fifties (London: Cassell & Collier Macmillan, 1975);
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Important Events in Fashion, 1950–1959
- William J. Levitt expands his mass-production techniques of building identical boxlike houses in Levittown, New York, assembled by crews using precut materials, thus accelerating the rush to suburbia.
- The White House is gutted and remodeled during the first year of a three-year project. Only the outside walls remain unchanged during the rebuilding.
- New York's United Nations Secretariat building, featuring all-glass east and west facades, is completed to provide offices for the UN's thirty-four hundred employees on land overlooking the East River.
- The "Sun House" at Dover, Massachusetts, heated solely by stored-up rays of the sun and erected by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is occupied in comfort by a New England family throughout the winter, opening up the possibilities of solar heat for house warming.
- Miss Clairol hair coloring is introduced; it takes only half the application time needed by other hair colorings.
- Sales of at-home leisure wear grow with the increased number of television sets purchased for entertainment.
- Orlon is introduced by E.I. du Pont de Nemours, which had begun developing the wool-like fiber in 1941.
- Cotton's share of the U.S. textile market falls to 65 percent, down from 80 percent in 1940,...
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