Using Reference

(Part 2/Ideas/Using reference)

Exercise – Using Reference

The 1950s

I already have a good selection of books about the fifties as well as book of the fifties.

My first, and probably most significant reference for the 1950’s is my memory!

I started school in 1948, left primary and went to the grammar school in 1956 so I have a very clear memory of what it was like.

People and Costume – I remember what I wore on school days ; 1,baggy cotton interlock knickers, usually dark blue or dark green for school with elasticated legs, 2, cotton vest (only available in white for children – (ladies could get pink),3, a liberty bodice – effectively this was like a second vest but thicker material, 4, a petticoat, this was usually cotton for girls and was a full length garment not cut off like a waist slip, 5, a cotton shirt and 6, a school tie, 7 A gym slip which was a warm woollen garment like a sleeveless pinafore dress but box pleated from the shoulders downwards. 8, finally, a knitted cardigan, sometimes bought but more often knitted at home or by a relative.

People always tried to look ‘well-groomed’. They carried a pocket comb and ladies always had a lipstick in their handbag. Personal presentation was important. Most people had ‘best clothes’ which were worn on limited occasions – church, weddings, funerals, important occasions etc. Even people with very limited incomes tried to maintain ‘standards’.

There was great deference to people of a ‘better class’ – lawyers, doctors,  teachers, priests, and other recognised professionals, especially policemen.

Manners were important, saying please and thank you to everyone eg the bus conductor, a shopkeeper, anyone who performed a small service.

Most people strived for a ‘better’ accent. Regional accents were considered ‘lower class’ and often put people at a disadvantage.

I have books, knitting patterns, dress patterns and family photos from the 1950’s.

Architecture and interiors – I studied domestic architecture at school and did an A level in ‘The Arts of daily life’ which included a good deal about interiors. I can recognise 1950’s houses and having spent many years renovating properties am familiar with the building techniques of that period.

British public architecture of the period is fairly recognisable being ‘the new style’ after the damage done by the war and usually pretty pedestrian. There are innumerable photographs available online to illustrate this. I am also familiar with the work of Jorn Utzon (Sydney Opera House), Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Frank Gehry et al.

Art – painting, drawing sculpture

Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore were both active sculptors in the fifties and probably the most wellknown at the time. Their works are easily available to view in Yorkshire.
Art almost stopped and turned a corner after the second world war. There were no particular schools of thought which survived. Many artist were transposed to other countries, often America during the conflict. It seems New York became the capital of the art world in the 1950’s as so many artists had relocated there.
Art works are easily accessible on-line so most paintings can be found using the right search properties. I do have a number of art books so have access to many paintings in hard copy.

I have a small selection of original magazines, sheet music and newspapers from this period. They show the fascinating changes which have taken place in layout, typography, photos and drawings. It is mostly in black and white and gives an aura of ‘formality’.

In addition there is a wide range of data available on-line.

Here are a couple of random photos from my archive of 1950’s data – cars in this instance showing a few of the iconic shapes/models of the time.

Graphic design, posters, books, typography, transport



Left is a few sheets of music from my archive.

These are very useful in that they show photos, illustrations and font types which were popular at the time.

They also tend to use the style and fonts which were used in advertising in the 50’s too.


Film, TV

TV was just getting started and not widely distributed in homes. Many sets were bought to see the Coronation but they were expensive. I have a muffin the mule puppet which was a very popular programme in the early fifties as was the Flowerpot men.

I have a copy of the Film Annual for 1958 which is full of information about the stars and current films.

A review of the fifties from a visual point of view.

Colours were not so bright and artificial as nowadays, they were less gaudy and less in evidence in most publications. Images were often in black and white with an occasional colour plate in textbooks. In children’s books  monochrome of bicolour drawings were often the only illustrations. Newspapers never hand coloured plates in them.

Adverts in books and magazines were as likely to be black and white as coloured. Television was still black and white. It was the late sixties before colour TV was around. There were coloured films at the cinema, notable the Disney films but there were also lots of black and white ones.

Clothing was similarly subdued in colour compared to today. There were lots of coloured clothes but modern acrylic dyes were not in use to provide the extra saturation. Disperse dyes were invented in the 1920 but only reached clothing fabrics in the 1950 when acrylic yarn became more available. The most common garment worn by women for at least part of the day was the ‘pinnie’ -the pinafore or at least, an apron. This dates to a time when clothes were precious and expensive and one didn’t own many. Therefore it was important to keep what you had clean. Some housewives were rarely seen without one. Hats, for both sexes, were commonly worn when going out.

Interiors were generally quite dark but the fashion trend was towards brightness and whites and pastel shades entered the kitchen along with the hitherto unheard of ‘white goods’. Wallpapers became brighter and upholstery fabrics lost their dull colours gradually. White paint which did not turn yellow so quickly became available. Much of the newest furniture had spindly legs, slightly splayed.

Advertising hoardings replaced the metal wall adverts and shop fronts became more high profile.
The first supermarkets arrived in the provinces in the 1950’s and gradually overtook the traditional shops.

In the streets there were sleek new cars echoing the giant automobiles from across the Atlantic.
These were in modern colours, not all black, and had shining chrome. However, it was still very common to see a horse and cart in the street – the rag and bone man, some hauliers, milkmen and draymen with shire horses. There were also trolley buses and trams in some places.

Reflections of the fifties

‘Wayfair’, an online business has quite a large selection of new 1950’s ‘retro’ furniture. This shows the spindly legs.

Robert’s ‘Revival’ line sells DAB radios in the style of 1950’s ‘transistors’.

Many companies make ‘vintage inspired’ clothing of the fifties.

Smeg have a range of kitchenware echoing fixities shapes and style.

Sanderson have a range of retro wallpapers including 1950’s designs.

Room to show how different life was in the 1950’s

I have drawn this with a Staedtler drawing pen with a fine nib. It is  approximately A4 size. I have drawn it more or less from my memory of what various rooms looked like when I was a child.

The woman in the chair is well-dressed in skirt, blouse and cardigan. She wears a scarf as rooms were not warm and has a one bar electric fire on. Her occupation while sitting is knitting although she may also be listening to her new transistor radio. She wears a pair of smart shoes.

The room is quite Spartan. The carpet is a square with bare floorboards around it. The woodwork is brown although lighter paints came into fashion at this time. There is a ‘trendy spindle leg table with her newspaper on it and the radio.

She gains extra light from the standard lamp by her side. A well-stocked book-shelf is next to the cream-tiled fireplace. A mirror hangs over the fireplace above the wooden-cased chiming clock.

There is a pouffe to use as a footstool with an open photograph album on it. There is a hearth rug in front of the fireplace.

The coloured versions of the picture below show that the carpet and wallpaper are patterned.

In order to try something different as per the next project, I reprinted the drawing onto pastel paper and coloured the picture with pastels. I have not used them for ages. I then created a third version by brightening and saturating the coloured version on the computer.

The top version is the original. The lower one has been enhanced. In fact the colours in the top one are probably more life-like as it looks too warm and cosy in the lower version.