Why is the 1950s housewife making a comeback?
It’s not often that you meet a woman today who would describe herself as a housewife. This unglamorous, dated term, synonymous with domestic drudgery, has been made redundant by changes in attitudes and childcare solutions that have allowed more women to pursue careers. While some women do still choose to stay at home and care for the children, the housewife of the 1950s had little other choice.
The most well-known 1950s housewife today is perhaps Mad Men’s Betty Draper, the immaculate ice-queen, whose boredom and discontent can be excruciating to watch. At one point, she says sadly to a potential suitor: “We all have skills we don’t use. I was an anthropology major at Bryn Mawr. Can you believe that?”
Yet while many women today would shudder at the thought of having to live the life of a 1950s housewife, as a style icon, she’s never been more popular.
It was remarkable to see not one, but two fashion designers adopt the 1950s housewife look at London Fashion Week a few days ago. Designer Louise Gray sent her models down the runway with all manner of domestic household items attached to their outfits, such as plastic shopping bags, custard tart tins and foil trays. They looked, as the Daily Mail described them, like “dishevelled housewives”.
Ukrainian designer, Ekaterina Kukhareva, also chose to embrace the look. An army of Betty Drapers descended down the catwalk, with diamante encrusted rollers in their hair.
But Kukhareva explained her Stepford Wives theme in terms of empowerment: “As with all of my collections I get inspired by powerful women. I specifically looked into this era because women were taking the power into their hands and beginning to fight for their rights. I think these women were really sad in their ‘cul-de-sac’ lives and they were going a bit crazy. They were tired of staying at home.”
Elsewhere, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, two successful young singers, have also deliberately chosen to channel their inner retro housewife. In an interview for Harper’s Bazaar, Swift gushed about her love for dresses, including those that make her feel like a 1950s housewife, “which I enjoy feeling like, for some reason.” But in the same interview, Swift made some other revealing remarks, at one point saying: “it’s wonderful to hand over the reins to your boyfriend when you control so much of these big, high-pressure decisions, you know?”
Ironically, it is this week that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the seminal book that urged women to ditch their aprons in search of more fulfilling careers, celebrates its 50th anniversary.
It’s an irony that has not been lost on Shira Tarrant, a professor of Women’s Studies at the California State University and the author of Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style. “The 1950s housewife has definitely made a comeback as a popular style icon”, she says.
“Wearing kitschy aprons or a form-fitting Betty Draper frock can be fun, sexy, or even practical. But this fashion revival is also powerfully symbolic and political. At this very same moment when opportunities are expanding, there is a revived appeal of the 1950s middle-class housewife look, with all its domestic associations still held firmly in place. This timing is curious. Just when social and economic expectations are shifting, we go retro.”
But the revival of the 1950s housewife look isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. Dressing up doesn’t need to be a problem for feminism and there’s even something liberating about fashion designers like Kukhareva reinventing the housewife as a newly emancipated, sassy renegade marching down the catwalk.
Yet playing dress up should remain firmly within the remit of style. When fashion blogs breezily talk about ‘celebrating’ the housewife without thinking of its wider associations, and when women like Swift and Perry denounce feminism or show a lack of understanding of its ideals, it’s time to ensure that it’s just the flower-print 1950s dresses that stay retro, not our underlying attitudes.