The Ultra-Feminine “Femme” of the 1950s

American women’s fashion was perhaps at its most feminine during the 1950s. Cinched waists, large busts, full hips, and red lips made up the style known as “The New Look.” It was also at this time that members of the lesbian community in America had to choose to be either a “butch” or a “femme.” In dressing “femme,” homosexual women of the 1950s chose one of the most exaggeratedly feminine looks seen in American fashion history. A good place to see this feminine style is the online vintage fashion and beauty archive, Glamour Daze.

 

 

In Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America,  Lilian Faderman describes the roles of the “butch” and the “femme.” She says that when a young woman entered the lesbian subculture of the 50s, she was urged to choose a role by other lesbians. The “butch” typically wore more masculine clothing, such as pants and button-up shirts, and was supposed to “control emotions, do husband-type chores around the house, and be the sexual aggressor.” [1] The “femme” wore more feminine clothing, such as dresses, nylons, and high heels, and “were supposed to
cook, be softer, more yielding, and stand behind a butch as a woman stands behind a man.” [2] These roles, although appearing to imitate heterosexual gender stereotypes, were unique in that they reflected natural sexual drives (“butch” sexuality was more aggressive and forward, and “femme” sexuality was more timid and coyly flirtatious). [3] These roles simultaneously subverted and reinforced our gendered expectations with regard to female dress. The  “femme” and “butch” were recognizable as the heterosexual female and male, but those who played these roles adapted them to their homosexual relationships.

Christian Dior ballgown with matching shrug, silk velvet and silk satin, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1948. Part of “The New Look”

If a lesbian of the 50s chose to dress the “femme,” they were buying into an ultra-feminized style, introduced by Christian Dior in 1947. [4] Known as “The New Look,” this  style epitomized femininity by emphasizing those attributes that make us ladies. These included full hips, tiny hourglass waists, large and pointed busts, voluminous eyelashes, rosy cheeks, red luscious lips, and soft and flowing hair.

These styles can be seen in the vintage magazine ads, film clips, and articles on Glamour Daze. In a film clip showing a Paris Catwalk Show of the “French Look” of 1956, the narrator Ed Herly describes the super-feminine looks:

“A black cocktail bodice tapers from tight bodice to wide hip….” [5]

“The intricate shirring and sculptured bodice emphasizes the supple drape of the fabric…” [6]

“In Jaque Heimes telescope line, two wide panniers cup the billowing skirt…” [7]

The tight fitting and tapered bodice would certainly show off a lady’s bust and the wide skirt would draw visual attention to wide hips. The shirring and sculpturing on the next dress bodice may even add volume for women looking to accentuate a smaller bust. Wide panniers (originally seen on voluminous skirts of the 18th century) exaggerate and present an hourglass figure. All of these characteristics serve to draw out the most feminine parts of a woman’s body and would make for the ultimate “femme.” Even the language in the film clip seems a bit sexualized with descriptors like “full-bodied,” “supple”, “snug”, and “cup”, bringing attention to the way that the clothing comes into contact with the woman’s body.

In making the choice to dress “femme,” a lesbian of the 1950s entered into a particularly gendered role. She chose to present herself as the more female side of her relationship, and could express that femininity with “The New Look.”

[1] Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, 176.

[2] Ibid., 176.

[3] Ibid., 176.

[4]http://glamourdaze.com/category/1950s-wardrobe

[5] 1950’s Fashion – Vintage Paris Catwalk Show

[6] 1950’s Fashion – Vintage Paris Catwalk Show

[7] 1950’s Fashion – Vintage Paris Catwalk Show

4 thoughts on “The Ultra-Feminine “Femme” of the 1950s

  1. Kelly – it is very interesting how gender differences were fabricated and enforced when there was in actuality no outwardly physical difference between them. Does this speak to a perhaps innate need for balance in any relationship – no matter the gender involved? Or is this simply the first trial phase in an overall movement to embracing a “third gender?”

  2. I think it actually speaks to a small step in the quest for equality for lesbians in the 1950s. It seems that adopting a specific role was a way for lesbian culture to identify with mainstream culture in a “normal way,” but that it was only one step in many more that lesbians would take to assert their equality no matter their sexual orientation.

  3. I find it interesting that there is both a “femme” and a “butch” look in lesbian culture. In Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Lillian Faderman writes about a woman, Wilma, who in order to deter her colleagues from identifying her as a lesbian wore dresses, hose, and high heels. However, those engaging in the role of the “femme” in lesbian culture would have been wearing a similar style of dress. I therefore find it intriguing how little those who were pursuing those engaged in “homosexual tendencies” knew about the roles played out in lesbian culture.

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