The 1950s Are Back, at Least on the Runway

jenny walton in prada

Edward Berthelot

The same fashion coup de foudre that most girls of her generation felt upon seeing Kate Moss or Alexa Chung struck Jenny Walton when she first watched Roman Holiday. That swirling full skirt Audrey Hepburn wore while careening around the Eternal City imprinted on a teenage Walton to such a degree that she started taking sewing classes and constructing her own clothes. (“Because,” she says, “I wasn’t really happy with what was at the mall in New Jersey.”)

Walton, now an illustrator, influencer, and street-style star, has been working the ’50s look ever since. She still makes some of her clothes, but these days, you’re equally likely to find her in names such as Prada and Miu Miu—often featuring a skirt of generous circumference. Now, it seems, fashion has caught up (or gone back) to what Walton’s been doing all along. For fall 2023, Prada, long a purveyor of the ’50s silhouette, went all in, showing A-line white skirts, some adorned with 3D flowers. Bottega Veneta followed up its viral purple full skirt from fall 2022 with a pale-yellow floral style. Maria Grazia Chiuri showed all manner of swingy floral editions at Dior; Richard Quinn created a debutante-worthy strapless gown that bowed out at the hips; and Carolina Herrera’s Wes Gordon tried out both miniskirt and original-flavor versions of the exaggerated, bell-like shape. (“I find there to be something quite modern about this silhouette—the contrast between the pinched waist and dramatic A-line skirt,” Gordon says. “Right now, this feels very fresh.”)

carolina herrera fall 2023

Carolina Herrera fall 2023.

Launchmetrics Spotlight

The return of a key silhouette from a more restrictive era is, like Barbiecore and cottagecore before it, something that can be read as regression or as a wink—all depending on the context. For Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT, some of these new versions reference the New Look, as created by Dior in 1947, and the ’50s golden age of haute couture. She also sees them as a response to fast fashion, putting an emphasis on the primacy of silhouette and tailoring—things that can’t be duplicated.

Walton clocks another reaction: countering the choke hold of social media. For the past screen-besotted decade or so, “if a designer sent out something that was sparkly and full of sequins, every phone would go up, and every influencer would go, ‘Wow.’ Because you’re all fighting for attention…and there’s only so far you can go with that. You can only go so neon or so shiny,” she says. “You’re designing not for the silver screen, [but] the iPhone screen. How sad.” Now a tasteful, unadorned-but-assertive shape is the new
dopamine dressing.

prada fall 2023

Prada fall 2023.

Courtesy of the designer.

The revival of the circle skirt comes along with some uneasy echoes of the 1950s in the culture at large. On one hand, we’ve made an un-ironic return to ’50s values, brought back by the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the ramped-up puritanism in our culture. On the other, the media is exhuming the false nostalgia for “simpler times.” Upcoming projects like Ryan Murphy’s miniseries Feud: Capote’s Women, in which Chloë Sevigny and Naomi Watts play society swans, and Priscilla, Sofia Coppola’s cinematic portrait of Elvis’s wife, Priscilla Presley, are sure to peek under the hood of the Thunderbird that was the decade, exposing its secretly subversive elements.

As far as the retrograde connotations of the look go, Steele says, context matters. “If you were dressing like you were walking out of the 1950s, it’s hard to make a claim that that would be particularly progressive in any way. But we’ve seen how that kind of look can be turned on its head. Just like stilettos could be ‘I can’t walk. I need a man’—or ‘Down on your knees, you worthless CEO. I’m in charge.’”

richard quinn fall 2023

Richard Quinn fall 2023.

Carlo Scarpato

“That’s one of the real conundrums with fashion, because it’s not just that you can’t choose what it means,” Steele adds. “You never could. It’s always something that’s collectively determined, and it’s in constant flux, because you never know when something else will step into it and you’ll suddenly see it in a new way.”

But, says Walton, “It would be a shame to completely discard a style based on certain connotations or things that were true during the time that look first came to be.” She suggests bringing things squarely into 2023 by styling the look in a more casual way: say, pairing your Hepburn-esque circle skirt with a Talking Heads T-shirt to show you’re in on the joke. Or sporting skirts the way they were styled at the Prada show, with simple sweaters or utilitarian pieces. She also recommends steering clear of anything that might make you look too costumey—like, I offer, you’re in a community theater production of Grease. If “you wear it with a 1950s beaded cardigan,” she jokes, “you start looking like you should be going to get a milkshake.”

This story appears in the September 2023 issue of ELLE.


Headshot of Véronique Hyland

ELLE Fashion Features Director

Véronique Hyland is ELLE’s Fashion Features Director and the author of the book Dress Code, which was selected as one of The New Yorker’s Best Books of the Year. Her writing has previously appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, W, New York magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, and Condé Nast Traveler. 

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