Written by Axelle Vansteenkiste. Reviewed by Maude Bass-Krueger.
In the 1950s a lot of important fashion houses, like Givenchy, arose in Paris. Belgium did not have a couture scene to rival Paris, but there was one house that made a name for itself in the fifties: Delvaux was founded in 1829, making it one year older than Belgium itself! In 1958 the World Exhibition took place in Brussels, for which Le Corbusier had designed his Philips Pavilion. Inspired by this architectural masterpiece, Delvaux designed its iconic bag, Le Brillant. This bag was extremely popular and is still in production! The combination of its features based on fine architecture and excellent craftsmanship was the key to its success. Even First Lady Jacky Kennedy loved the timelessness of the Brillant bag. Delvaux clearly made quite the impression on the world with its most prominent design. This is already very spectacular, but even more so because the 1950’s were only the start of original Belgian fashion. Until then, Belgium had always copied Parisian fashion. This shows that even in the early years of Belgian creativity, this country already made quite the impression in the fashion world.
Of course, fashion wasn’t all haute couture in Belgium, especially after the damage of the Second World War. Yet, it was not the war but the decrease in women’s emancipation movements that influenced women’s fashion during the war. In Belgium, women have been allowed to vote since 1948. Most women felt like they had succeeded in their feminist mission after they obtained the right to vote, since this was their most prominent demand. A lot of women lost their rebellious, feminist, mindset because they were content with their new-gain right. This led to the decrease in women’s movements, which then led to a more classical way of dressing. This is because women went back to their more stereotypical gender roles and there was a less rebellious vibe among women.
Belgium had its “golden years” in the fifties, partly because salaries were raised thanks to trade unions. This salary increase made it possible for families to live on only one income, so women did not have to work anymore. This also affected the way women dressed, since they could now dress elegantly instead of practically. In this decade fashion began to look very neat and elegant again. To understand this trend, it is important to know that for most Belgian people in this post-war period, it was seen as necessary to own a house, have a nice car, and look fashionable. This is also why many pictures of families in the 1950’s are taken in front of their cars. To give a better view on what is seen as fashionable in the fifties, I will describe how men and women dressed on a classic day.
A typical woman of that time would wear an A-line dress or a skirt that fell below the knee and would narrow her waist. If she was wearing a skirt, she would wear a matching blouse with a high neckline that prevented her from showing any cleavage. They would wear elegant shoes like sandals or heels that matched the rest of the outfit. Most women had short hair, but those who didn’t would put their hair up with pins. Accompanied by a hat, a red lip, gloves, and some classy jewelry, women would start their day.
Thanks to archive pictures, it is clear that men still wore suits, just as the decades before. Grey, brown, and blue suits were popular in the fifties, and they were usually worn together with a plain white shirt, a tie, and classic shoes. If they wanted a more casual chic look, they would lose the tie and wear their collar open. Things also change in men’s fashion in Belgium. Men would not only wear the more classical suit but also checkered motifs became very popular. In combination with an English bow tie, a fine mustache, and an easygoing hairstyle, a modern Belgian man was made.
Looking back on the fifties in Belgium, it’s clear that people wanted to look elegant and chic. Delvaux and its Brillant bag are a perfect Haute Couture example of how class and elegance ruled the fashion industry in the 1950s. Yet the fact that not only the rich but also working-class people want to look very refined is what stands out in this era. From the shoes to the hair, everyone tried to look very elegant and classy. This way of dressing was possible because of the booming Belgian economy, which made fashion accessible for the first time to every man and woman. This idea of elegance will disappear in the sixties when youth culture will have the upper hand in fashion.
“Brillant.” Last consulted on May 5 2023, https://eu.delvaux.com/en/iconics/brillant.
Bronselaer, Karlijn. “Belgium.” in Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion. Volume 8: West Europe.
Debo, Kaat and Linda Loppa. “Belgian Fashion.” in The Berg Companion to Fashion.
“Fifties Web.” Last consulted on May 1 2023, https://fiftiesweb.com/fashion/1950s-mens-fashion/.
Images: Huis van Alijn en Delvaux