In this interview, Kim Casamassima discusses the rockabilly fashions of the 1950s and explains how the vintage rockabilly look has been revived and adapted over the years. She also discusses the stylistic clichés and misperception that often stand in the way of an accurate understanding of the decade, a time when even tough guys wore penny loafers and pompadours were the exception rather than the rule. Read her vintage-clothing blog, The Girl Can’t Help It.
Jayne Mansfield is buried in my hometown. You could drive past the cemetery and see her heart-shaped headstone from the road. We had our own historical society, a tiny little museum, if you can even call it that. I remember going on a class trip there once. Some of her things were displayed, like long sequined cocktail dresses and some of her little personal effects. That stayed with me into my adult years: “Wow, as cheesy as my little hick town is, Jayne Mansfield is buried there.”
I think the first classic 1950s movie I saw—I was maybe 17—was “Where the Boys Are.” I loved the campiness and the clothes. It struck me like, “Oh God, I love those dresses.” It was a relatively short hop from wearing them to eventually selling them.
About three years ago I quit my “real job” in retail and started selling online fulltime. When you first start out, you assume the thrift stores are going to be a goldmine for vintage, but you end up buying things that don’t sell. So you move on. I’m at the point now where I place newspaper ads to buy vintage. I go to church rummage sales, hand out business cards and say, “This is what I love. Give me a call.”
In fact, I’m going on a vintage-clothes buying call this week. A woman said she had a cedar chest full of her grandmother’s clothes. That’s how I do business now, but you never know what you’re going to find when somebody claims to have old clothes. It could mean bad polyester from the ’70s, or really great stuff.
Collectors Weekly: What styles are you particularly drawn to within 1950s fashion?
Casamassima: My whole shtick is the rockabilly, bad girl/bad guy thing. It starts with the B-movies, the rock-and-roll movies, the hot rod and juvenile delinquent movies from the ’50s. The characters are always teenagers. They listen to rock and roll and tick off their parents by driving fast, smoking cigarettes, and wearing their clothes a little too tight.
It wasn’t called rockabilly in the ’50s. It wasn’t even necessarily a lifestyle. The word rockabilly describes the lifestyle as we see it now. Back then, it was just teens being teens.
Collectors Weekly: When was the term rockabilly coined?
Casamassima: It comes from the combination of rock and roll and hillbilly music. I think the first time it showed up in a song was around 1955 with “Rockabilly Boogie” by Johnny Burnette. It wasn’t really a word that was thrown around a lot back then. Rockabilly music as a genre never really took off, but there are a few very famous exceptions, namely Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. But even their rockabilly heyday only lasted for a few years.
The word was revived in the ’70s. People were reacting against disco and some of the other musical genres of that time. They just wanted to get back to classic rock and roll. There was a ’50s revival then, and a lot of rockabilly bands started—Levi Dexter, the Polecats. In the ’80s, of course, we had the Stray Cats. They’re probably the most famous rockabilly-revival band.
The look really blew up again in the ’90s, thanks to Brian Setzer and his swing orchestra. That jumpstarted the interest in 1940s and ’50s swing fashion, and it hasn’t died down since. It’s not even a subculture anymore because it’s pretty much everywhere. You can go into Hot Topic now and buy a strapless dress with cherries on it, and it’s called rockabilly. But it’s really been bastardized when you start selling the clichéd ’50s looks like the cherries and flames. It’s sort of a mockery of what ’50s fashion really was.
Fifties purists aren’t into the clichés like driving a pink Cadillac and sipping a milkshake at a diner. They’d much rather just wear their ’50s clothes, drive their ’50s cars, and listen to the original bands over any neo-rockabilly group. I don’t really want to put a label on anyone, but there’s the modern rockabilly crowd that’s all about the flames, cherries, and buying repro bowling shirts. Then there’s group B, who are into the classic, pure ’50s vintage gear and music.
Collectors Weekly: Do ’50s purists collect the cars?
Casamassima: Absolutely. They definitely go after the classic ’50s cars. They want a Mid-Century Modern home built in the 1950s or ’60s, and they’ll completely redecorate their house period-correct 1950s. Some people won’t buy microwaves or cell phones. I think that’s pushing it. But the purists are very much about getting back to this romanticized, classic era of living.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the key clothes for the classic rockabilly look?
Casamassima: For women, pencil skirts and cardigan sweaters, always on the tight side. You see that classic outfit in just about every ’50s juvenile-delinquent movie; the tighter the better. Towards the end of the era, when the country was starting to see more beatniks, the women were wearing oversized cowl-neck sweaters and tight, black stirrup pants. That’s almost an entirely different subculture than the bad girls and guys. The “good girls” wore the full skirts and full dresses.
Nobody really walked around looking like the Fonz or one of the T-Birds from “Grease.” That’s another cliché. The leather jacket and cuffed jeans were born not so much as a fashion statement, but out of necessity with the emergence of the California hot-rod culture. It was a blend of that and Southern moonshine runners. The black leather jackets and engineer boots were almost like their uniform. They served a purpose.
Cuffed Levi’s jeans have always been the choice for anybody on the rockabilly scene. But these weren’t worn to make a statement either. For example, you see “Leave It to Beaver,” and even Beaver’s wearing cuffed jeans. Clothes were passed down in families from one brother to the next. A lot of times if the clothes didn’t fit, you cuffed them up.
The modern rockabilly guy, though, wears the leather jacket, the cuffed jeans, and Converse sneakers. They were worn to play basketball, too, in gym, but somehow that’s also been bastardized over the years as the uniform of the rockabilly guy.
Men who are into the ’50s also always go for the classic Ricky jackets, which got their name from Ricky Ricardo and “I Love Lucy.” Ricky was seen wearing one of those jackets a couple of times, and that became the uniform. But the gabardine jackets he wore were really just laidback weekend jackets. If you were going camping, that’s the kind of jacket you wore.
Now everybody covets them because they’re cool. They’re two-toned. Sometimes they have wild designs. They’re not easy to find in good shape because they were worn outdoors. They’re like a holy grail of sorts if you can find a good one in a large size with a great pattern or two-tones. That’s something people go crazy for. I love them. I’d love to find some.
For shoes, believe it or not, a lot of men wore penny loafers. We always assume it was either engineer boots or a pair of Converse, a pair of Chucks. But they wore penny loafers or dress shoes because that’s what they had and because they were leather. Like a leather jacket, they took a beating and lasted a long time. It’s kind of funny to think of a tough guy wearing penny loafers.
Collectors Weekly: Where did “the Fonz” style come from?
Casamassima: There was a lot of ’50s nostalgia in the ’70s. I think the creators of “Happy Days” took the Fonz character from Marlon Brando’s in “The Wild One”—the bad-guy biker wearing a black leather jacket, white T-shirt, and jeans. After the show’s first couple of seasons—the Fonz’s original persona was deemed too threatening for ’70s audiences—he became less tough, more like a buddy, and a little more lighthearted.
In the ’50s, bikers were portrayed as booze hounds. They started fights. They were threatening. They were scary in the ’50s movies. By the early ’60s, all the campy beach movies like “Beach Blanket Bingo” also had a biker gang in them, but they weren’t tough and threatening. They were goofy. They were like bikers on “Gilligan’s Island.” Everything was a lot more lighthearted at that time. Of course, by the late ’60s, things got much more serious.
Collectors Weekly: What patterns and colors are prominent in the rockabilly look?
Casamassima: Pink and black shirts for men seem to be coveted. It’s funny because “real men” didn’t wear pink in the ’50s. A man was a man and a woman was a woman. They wore cotton, button-down leisure shirts. Labels like Campus and McGregor came out with a lot of plaids. There were atomic prints. By the mid- to late ’60s, you saw a lot of gold lamé in men’s shirts. In the ’50s, most teenagers and men in their 20s dressed the same way—a pair of dress slacks and a plaid shirt.
“As cheesy as my little hick town is, Jayne Mansfield is buried there.”
The difference between the high school football player wearing an outfit like that and the bad guy was simply in the details of how it was worn. Guys didn’t walk around with a pompadour and sideburns and cuffed jeans and a leather jacket. There was a strong dress policy in most schools. They would’ve been kicked out.
To show that you were a tough guy, you’d do little things like roll up your sleeve cuffs, turn your belt to the left and the buckle over to the side, peg your pants, roll them up and cuff the bottoms. That was their way of saying, “Don’t confuse me with Joe Schmo the football player.” It wasn’t pompadours and sideburns, no way.
Collectors Weekly: Did women and girls have different looks?
Casamassima: It really was the tighter clothing. A girl would cause a sensation by showing up at school wearing a tight sweater with a bullet bra underneath. I remember my mom telling me that between ’59 and ’62, when she was 18 to 20 years old, she ran with the bikers, not the hot-rod groups. She said she and her other girlfriends would wear their skirts so tight that they couldn’t even sit down in school. So they would end up getting detention.
A bad girl who wanted to get by without causing a stir in school would go along and wear button-down shirt dresses, full-circle skirts with a blouse and maybe a patent leather belt to go with it.
Rock and roll was seen as a threat in a lot of areas. You saw a little bit of it in “Great Balls of Fire,” that movie about Jerry Lee Lewis. Elvis came on screen, did his dance, and it was mayhem. So I think a lot of teenagers knew better than to go to school dressed a certain way. I think most of them stuck to the rules. The tight stuff came out after school and on weekends. That’s when they really rebelled.
Where these clothes were worn varied across the country. For example, the hot-rod clubs of the ’50s originated in California, not so much here in the northeast. Here, going to drive-ins or the cliché diners was the thing to do. Maybe out West or in the South you’d go drag racing, kind of like what you see in “Rebel Without a Cause.” That movie created a spike in Hanes and BVD white T-shirt sales because James Dean wore one. Who would’ve thought?
Collectors Weekly: Did fashion differ regionally?
Casamassima: I think it was pretty much the same across the U.S. The fashion, music, movies, and whole subculture also made it to England. England is kind of like our sister country when it comes to interest in the ’50s, even with the resurgence in the ’70s of the Teddy Boys, or the Teds. The Teds were into rock and roll and that whole scene, but their fashion was completely different. That’s one major difference among the ’50s subcultures of the U.S. and England.
Here, a guy might wear his buttoned-down shirt rolled up and his jeans cuffed. The Teddy Boys were a lot more polished. They had their clothes tailored, and they were pricey. They wore long, draped jackets with a velvet collar and high-waisted trousers, or drainpipe trousers as they were called.
That’s also where creepers were born. They were suede, crepe-soled shoes. They were actually leftover military surplus after World War II. England was a wreck, so men took these creepers because that’s what was available. Creepers have changed over the years, but that’s their origin.
Collectors Weekly: Were there Teddy Boys in the ’50s?
Casamassima: Yes, in the ’50s and again in the ’70s. There were Teddy Girls, too, just like we had bad girls. They also wore pencil skirts. I believe oversized sweaters were their thing. I’m not as knowledgeable about Teds’ culture as I am the American version. But Teddy Boys and Teddy Girls were a lot like the so-called greasers or bad girls or JDs in the U.S.
In England they were pretty much called Teds throughout the country. But in America, the name depended on where you lived. If you were in the Baltimore area, you were called a drape. In another part of the country, you would’ve been called a hood, short for hoodlum.
In fact, in John Waters’ film “Cry-Baby,” which is set in Baltimore in the ’50s, the bad guys are called drapes. As a kid growing up in the ’50s, Waters looked up to the bad boys and bad girls and loved rock and roll. So he likes making movies that reflect that part of his life, the exciting and dangerous aspects of that culture.
Back then it wasn’t like you could just walk into the mall and pick out your exact waist measurement. Sizing was a lot different then. Before the birth of the mall, there were dress shops. Even small towns had them.
I don’t deal in couture as much because the rockabilly scene is very blue collar. The things I come into are the kinds of clothes sold at your neighborhood dress shop—basic labels like Fruit of the Loom. Most people associate Fruit of the Loom with men’s underwear and T-shirts, but they made some really cute dresses with fabulous novelty prints and rhinestones. Fruit of the Loom was a great middle-of-the-road brand. Most of America wasn’t buying Dior, Balenciaga, or anything like that. The lower- to upper-middle class was going to a dress shop and buying a basic cotton day dress.
Collectors Weekly: So designers weren’t a big part of rockabilly?
Casamassima: Not at all, heck no. The rockabilly scene was working class. The guys would have to get an after-school job, maybe working with a local mechanic. A lot of the teenagers in the ’50s drove cars from the ’40s or earlier because they had to work for it. That’s partly where the engineer boots and cuffed jeans come from. You’re not going to wear your dress pants and penny loafers when you had to work on your old car.
Hairstyles for women also changed between the beginning of the decade and the end. Towards the end of the 1950s you saw a lot of backcombing, and the beehive came along by the early ’60s. Men’s hairstyles didn’t really change much. If you were to open up a high school yearbook and look at a picture of a guy from 1945, he wouldn’t look any different than a guy from 1955. Hairstyles for men really didn’t start changing until the late ’60s when longer hair came in vogue, thanks to the Beatles.
The pompadour with sideburns is also a cliché. Sideburns weren’t allowed in high schools in the ’50s. That was not something your average 18-year-old would be wearing to high school. That’s more like the outfit of the modern rockabilly guy.
It’s like tattoos now. A ’50s purist would know that you don’t get a sleeve of tattoos. That was not at all common. Returning sailors from World War II would come back with an anchor tattoo. So tattoos are definitely a modern spin on the ’50s. Tattoos were generally reserved for military men.
Collectors Weekly: How did the pompadour become a part of rockabilly in he first place?
Casamassima: Elvis had a pompadour, of sorts. It wasn’t a big quiff like the Teddy Boys wore. It wasn’t all hair-sprayed, backcombed, and teased. Elvis had a very conservative pompadour and slight sideburns if you look at a lot of photographs from the ’50s. Tony Curtis was Elvis’s inspiration more than James Dean. The huge, pork chop sideburns were Elvis’s fashion in the ’70s. I think the sideburns of the ’70s rockabilly revival took their cue from Elvis’s sideburns at the time.
It’s important to remember that the amin audience for all of this were 14- to 20-year olds. That was the dominant age group. They were the ones who went to see the cheesy sci-fi movies or the rock-and-roll flicks with Little Richard and Bill Haley. Actually, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” is the first rock and roll song ever heard in a movie, “Blackboard Jungle” from 1955. That’s really what started it.
When the song started playing in the movie, teenagers started dancing in the aisles. It was the music of their generation in a movie playing right in front of them. It drove them crazy, in a good way.
These days, rockabilly seems to keep getting trendier and trendier. It’s never really gone away since the ’80s. The newer generations are maybe in their early 20s. A lot of them get started with the repro stuff, but they eventually get into vintage.
The cool thing about vintage is that you can like any era. You can wear something from the ’70s with something from the ’50s and make it look modern and really cool. You can mix it up.
The people who buy the vintage clothes I sell want to wear it, not collect it. They love the style. When they get it, they wear it.
Collectors Weekly: Are certain pieces of clothing more popular than others?
Casamassima: As far my own collection, I’m a sweater girl. I buy ’50s and ’60s cardigan sweaters. That’s my thing. That love is reflected in what I sell as well. I try to always have a lot of sweaters for sale at my website.
Vintage seems to be seasonal. In the springtime, people are looking ahead to summer. More swimsuits and basic cotton dresses are sold. Before the holidays, I sell more formal party dresses, with taffeta and rhinestones. But really, if a vintage buyer sees a swimsuit she likes in the dead of winter, she’ll buy it. It might not be there next time.
I also have a lot of ’50s cotton dresses. So my standard outfit in the spring and summer would probably be a novelty print dress. I have one that has a city skyline on the bottom. It’s one of my favorites. I’ll usually pair that with a cardigan and flats. I’m really tall so I stay away from heels because I feel like a giant already. I like pencil skirts with a cardigan and a patent leather belt. It’s comfortable and sexy, but not too sexy. It’s like ’50s sexy. It’s not showing off anything.
Collectors Weekly: Since this was a youth-driven fashion, what were other people wearing in the ’50s?
Casamassima: For older men, professional men, towards the end of the ’50s and into the ’60s, they’d wear clothes like what we see on “Mad Men,” although I’m really getting sick of “Mad Men” being used as a phrase to describe ‘things that don’t fit properly’. In general, the standard suit of the working businessman included a skinny lapel, skinny tie, cufflinks, and a skinny belt.
The common housewife would wear a cotton button-down day dress. The difference between, say, a 30-year-old housewife’s cotton dress and a 15-year-old’s would be the cutesy things like ballerinas and poodles on the teen dresses. I love novelty prints, really crazy and bizarre ones. A 30-year-old at that time probably wouldn’t have been walking around wearing a dress with bunnies on it. But I would.
By the end of the ’40s and into the ’50s, consumerism was booming. There was no shortage of fabrics. It was a happier and lighter time. People were getting jobs and making money. Women’s fashion during the war years tended to be a little more masculine, as seen in the jackets with big shoulders. Women’s clothing became more feminine in the ’50s.
Dior is credited with the New Look era starting in ’47 and going into the ’50s. He was renowned for using up to 50 yards of fabric in a dress, which was unheard of in the ’40s. So you’d see longer dresses, a lot more fabric, and full-circle skirts. That would’ve been a no-no in the ’40s when you had more of an A-line dress style to conserve fabric. In the 1950s, you saw fuller skirts and actual full-circle skirts. Dior had calf-length or longer dresses and party dresses. Around 1956 you saw a lot of draping in women’s cocktail dresses, like the swag that would hang from the hip.
Collectors Weekly: Did trends change over the course of the decade?
Casamassima: By the end of the ’50s there were fewer of the full skirts and full dresses. You’d see more fitted suit jackets and A-line tweed skirts. The fabrics weren’t as big and flowing. Things got a little more streamlined in men’s lapels, and ties got slimmer. The ’60s, of course, was just a completely different story altogether, especially by the mid-’60s, the Mod era.
In the 1950s, two-tones were also pretty big. Two-tone colors were popular in cars. Men’s shoes would be made out of black leather, but then they have a white leather top, sometimes in a snakeskin pattern. That also comes from Ricky Ricardo. Men and women alike wore black-and-white saddle shoes. Sometimes they were yellow and white, maroon and white.
Men’s gabardine jackets were cropped and zipped up the front. A lot of times, it would be one color around the top yoke and shoulders, then the sleeves and the rest of the jacket would be another color. Or the top might be a pattern, and the rest of the shirt would be a solid color. That was popular in the ’40s as well.
A lot of these clothes were made out of rayon, the cold rayon, around toward the beginning of the decade. Eventually that turned into slubbed silk and tweeds. Slubbed silk is a lot like tweed. Dacron was an early version of the polyester that was used in the late ’50s and early ’60s. It had been in development since the ’40s as an alternative to cotton and silk, which were rationed fabrics during World War II. Rayon was also born because of rationing. They needed an easy-to-produce manmade fabric. So that’s where rayon and Dacron came from, which, as we know, turned into regular, gross polyester.
I generally don’t sell anything much past the ’60s, but if I have something from the ’70s, it won’t be polyester. It doesn’t sell. It’s just not cute. Once polyester gets a smell in it, it never goes away. But it takes a beating and doesn’t shrink.
Collectors Weekly: Were there any particular design themes or motifs for the 1950s prints?
Casamassima: There were novelty prints in regular cotton, button-down shirts for teenage boys and men in their 20s. Atomic prints were popular because it was the atomic age and all. The standard checked shirt was popular. There were shirts with cowboys and Indians on them. You name it.
Whatever was popular at the time would show up on a shirt. In fact, I have a shirt for sale right now that’s got a Davy Crockett print on the collar. Prints were very playful despite it being such a conservative decade. Men rocked a lot of crazy prints. Of course, we covet them now. They’re not easy to come by.
Labels like McGregor, Campus, and Sir Guy were renowned for making fun novelty prints. One problem is that men are larger now than they were in the ’50s, so the larger sizes are really sought after. An extra-large shirt in really good shape is going to be expensive.
A cool print ’50s men’s shirt or a ’40s rayon men’s shirt are always good sellers. The older Hawaiian shirts from the ’40s are always in demand. The Hollywood jackets from the ’40s and ’50s and the gabardine jackets sell well. The classic modern, period-correct rockabilly look is the gabardine jacket, button-down shirt with a cool print or longer-belted Hollywood jacket from the ’40s, with a high-waisted pleated pant.
Collectors Weekly: What types of accessories go with the rockabilly look?
Casamassima: Colorful plastics like Lucite bangles and bracelets. Charm bracelets are classic. For women in their 20s or 30s with a bit more money to spare, you’d see whole matching earrings, bracelet, and necklace sets. But for your typical blue-collar 18-year-old, it would just be a charm bracelet or plastic bangles. In the current rockabilly scene, you see a lot of cherries. I don’t think I’ve ever come across cherries in any real ’50s accessories. From the ’30s and ’40s, you might find a celluloid pin with cherries or possibly a Bakelite costume jewelry necklace with cherries, but not in the 1950s.
For myself, I like the cheap plastic stuff. I’m not about diamonds and gold. I like the campy, novelty jewelry. I like costume jewelry. I love plastics. I love charm bracelets. I have a lot of those. You can still buy them fairly cheap. They’re easy to obtain.
Married women or professional women were buying the snakeskin and the lizard handbags with the matching shoes, but your average teenager might just carry a basic leather or patent leather purse. Patent leather was cheap and available in different colors. The bag often came with matching shoes as well, stilettos or heels. Patent leather clutch handbags came in jewel tones. You can find them in pastel candy colors like light pink and light aqua.
Collectors Weekly: What other aspects of the 1950s are you attracted to?
Casamassima: I love the rockabilly music of the ’50s and the bad B-movies. “Don’t Knock the Rock” is one of my favorites. A lot of doo-wop groups showed up in these rock and roll movies. People like Little Richard, Jean Vincent, and Eddie Cochran would be in them sometimes.
“The Girl Can’t Help It” from 1956 is a classic. My blog’s name is taken from that Jayne Mansfield movie. Little Richard was in that. The hot-rod movies like “Dragstrip Girl” and “Girl Gang” are pretty funny. The plots are ridiculous. Usually the moral of all of these movies is something along the lines of, “If you’re bad, you’re going to get into a car crash.”
Collectors Weekly: You basically live in the 1950s. Is your house all 1950s?
Casamassima: Yes, I’m a purist. The house I live in is mint green on the outside. It was built in 1950. It’s a ranch. For the past 10 years, I’ve been decorating the lamps with fiberglass lampshades, putting starburst clocks on the walls above sectional sofas I’ve collected. I’m really trying to go period-correct, era-correct. I just love it.
But in my blog, The Girl Can’t Help It, where I talk about vintage, I think a lot of my readers enjoy that I don’t take a reverential tone. You can be playful. It doesn’t have to be serious. You can mix things up.
(All images in this article courtesy Kim Casamassima from her store Fast Eddie’s Retro Rags)