Betsy McCall’s fabulous ’50s fashions

Betsy McCall’s fabulous ’50s fashions

Van Ausdall, Marci

Tail fins, rock ‘n’ roll, hula hoops and television ruled pop culture when American Character’s 8– inch Betsy McCall doll burst onto the scene in 1957. More than just a decade, the ’50s were a way of life and a state of mind. The nation was prosperous and its outlook optimistic. Little Betsy McCall and her fabulous clothing reflected that era so distinctly that today, she and her wardrobe have become artifacts of history.

A decade marked by a baby boom and unprecedented consumerism was a perfect venue for Betsy. With her angel face, jointed body made of the miracle material plastic, and numerous outfits, the doll became an overnight sensation. Since she possessed a pedgree that included McCall’s magazine, a prominent fashion publication, and a history as the magazine’s regularly appearing paper doll, Betsy McCall was destined to have a great wardrobe. Advertisement claimed it took a full yea to complete Betsy McCall first 18 ensembles.

By the time Amercan Character discontinued Betsy in 1963, she had more than 100 well-made and detailed outfits in her wardrobe; each piece of Betsy’s clothing carried a message about her time. To interpret the messages, we need only look closely.

For many men and women in the ’50s, the American dream meant getting married, having children and living happily ever after in a pleasant suburban house. Men were the breadwinners. A woman’s role was to raise a family, support a husband, help the children with school, keep a spotless house, prepare meals, dress the family fashionably, and remain optimistic and attractive.

Betsy McCall’s wardrobe conveys the ’50s American dream in many ways, including her elaborate bride’s dresses. Betsy’s owners could select from three different bridal ensembles. Each one was a pure art form, designed over a complex structure that included an underskirt, nylon ranching and a taffeta slip to help make the gown as full as possible.

For cooking and cleaning, Betsy donned perky outfits called Little Cook and Mommy’s Helper. Little Cook was a red– and-white checked cotton dress with a fitted waist, full skirt and detachable white apron. Betsy even had her own red plastic pots and a saucepan or a muffin pan. Mommy’s Helper was a pink-and– white cotton pedal-pusher jumpsuit and cobbler’s apron with large see– through pockets.

The only Betsy McCall object that might be viewed as career-related was a gift set called Betsy McCall Designers Studio. The background of the clear, cellophane-topped boxed set was printed to look like a sewing center. In addition to a Betsy doll dressed in a red– and-white robe, white felt tam and white shoes and socks, the set contained a sewing kit, a pre-cut pair of pajamas tied to a dress form and a white felt dress with a red flower at the waist. A designer studio was the perfect accompaniment for this little fashion plate.

Then, as now, a little girl’s primary job was going to school. Since pants were considered improper school attire for little girls in the ’50s, Betsy’s closet is flush with decorous dresses named Schoolgirl, Recess and Schooldays. In Betsy’s decade, this cleancut, youthful attire was not limited to grammar school. It also predominated on high school and college campuses. Betsy’s two striking Co-Ed outfits are representative of what a well-dressed ’50s college student would wear to class.

In classic, frilly, little-girl’s style, Betsy had no less than five flounced, pastel dresses with sheer layers and lace in her closet, all called Sunday Best. There were three different styles, two of which came in different pastel colors. The styles were distinct, with unique accessories and hats ranging from a wide-brim horsehair to a woven pillbox. Betsy’s many Sunday Best outfits evidenced the tradition of dressing family members in their finest clothes for church on Sunday and enjoying some leisure time together afterwards, perhaps at an ice cream parlor.

With the 1950s phenomenon of increased free time, Sundays were not the only day for rest and recreation. Prosperity and the emphasis on family togetherness assured some degree of leisure time for almost everyone. Betsy’s wardrobe reflects this phenomenon with an outfit for almost every leisure activity, including clothing for traditional sports of the affluent. These pursuits were becoming accessible for the growing middle class. Betsy owned several riding and ice-skating outfits called Pony Pals and On the Ice, a beach sunsuit called Sun N Sand, cowgirl garb, a special At the Zoo outfit and a complete skiing outfit called Winter Weekend.

Perhaps the most universal middle class ’50s leisure-time activity was watching television. Indicative of television’s popularity and yet relative novelty during the ’50s, Betsy had a special outfit called TV Time. It was a darling turquoise-and-white casual pedal– pusher outfit that included a little plastic television. Betsy herself was eventually advertised on Saturday morning children’s programs. Children’s television personality Shari Lewis and her puppet Lamb Chop were featured on the bubble-wrapped cards that packaged Betsy’s later outfits.

For dancing, another very important ’50s activity, Betsy could choose among ballerina outfits in four different styles and colors, a pink plaid square-dance dress and, of course, many beautiful gowns for proms and ballroom galas. One example was Cotillion, a blue strapless evening gown with an extra-full tulle overskirt adorned with ruffles and a few tiny rosebuds. It had an attached taffeta underskirt, matching slip and panties, a wide-brim horsehair hat and satin slippers. In this gown, Betsy was the picture of femininity and elegance-the reigning themes of the Paris-dominated high-fashion world of the ’50s.

Just after World War II, Christian Dior, one of the greatest couturiers of Paris, had introduced what would become known as the New Look. With its tightly fitted waist, full skirt and emphasis on the bust, the New Look was a complete reversal of fashion trends and essentially a throwback, reminiscent of pre-1920s and classic little girl’s styles. The New Look signified society’s desire to return women, who had helped in the war effort, to a comparatively idle lifestyle, a romanticized childhood or a little of both.

Dior’s New Look was extremely popular in America. It was no accident that the majority of Betsy’s outfits were New Look designs featuring tightly fitted waists, petticoats and full skirts. Most of Betsy’s dresses, like those of all ’50s women and girls, featured full, huge skirts, even for casual daywear. Betsy’s New Look evening dresses were also full, often having several layers of fabric and ruffles.

While the dictates of Paris high fashion heavily influenced American women, it was less relevant to teenagers. Their influences came from the movies, television and music. Elvis Presley and James Dean made blue jeans popular with audacious young men. When Marilyn Monroe squeezed herself into a pair, young women quickly followed. Even Betsy, whose image was clearly one of conformity, had two blue jeans outfits, Farm Girl and a one-piece denim jumpsuit, the latter part of a gift set called A Day At the Ranch.

Nightwear also became important in the ’50s as the popularity of slumber parties spread. Betsy’s casual Pajama Party, casual Sweet Dreams pajama set, ultra feminine Sweet Dreams negligee and elegant lounge sets called Brunchtime and Glamour Girl all capitalized on the trendy sleepover.

However exquisite, the reign of ’50s feminine fashions was destined to end. By the early ’60s, the world that Bevy represented began to transform dramatically.

Although American Character ceased production of her in 1963, Betsy McCall never has lacked a loyal following. Like a grand work of art, Betsy and her fabulous ’50s wardrobe have endured. Today, American Character’s flinch Betsy McCall is valued as a beautiful and innocent reflection of a culture that, for a brief time, truly believed it knew exactly how all people ought to live.


Copyright Cowles Enthusiast Media Feb 2001

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.