If you closed your eyes and imagined an outfit from history that says “fun” the poodle skirt might come to mind, right? After all, it does have large, fluffy dogs applied to the outside and is meant to swoosh perfectly to rock and roll tunes or lay perfectly when sitting at a soda fountain counter. Although the fashion staple of the 50s is now a deeply ingrained part of the American consciousness, it’s history can be traced, yet is little known. I recently learned about the curious invention of the poodle skirt and decided that it is a story that needs to be told more often.
1947 and the New Look
Before I get into the invention of America’s favorite felt fashion, it’s important to take a look at why the full circle skirt was the look de jour in the 50s. The skirt style itself had been introduced a few years earlier by Christian Dior in his 1947 New Look line. In the early years after the end of World War II women’s fashion was in great need of a freshening, and Dior eagerly took up the challenge.
A lover of flare, Dior wanted to create clothing that reminded women of his version of the “good old days” when they could be extravagant and glamorous. The style featured an exaggerated feminine silhouette and clothes that had round shoulders, cinched waists, narrow skirts, or very full skirts. Though the round, full skirt was always a part of his collections, it became an increasingly highlighted part of his collections in the very early years of the 1950s.
I love this look so much! What about you?
Our designer: Julie Lynn Charlot
In the very same year that the New Look was unveiled, an actress and opera singer by the name of Julie Lynn Charlot found herself in a dilemma: it was the holiday season and she had nothing fancy to wear to an upcoming party. Julie Lynn was newly married, and the couple was a bit down on their luck as Mr. Charlot had recently lost his job; new clothing was simply not in the budget. Undeterred, Julie Lynn devised a solution. She did have some experience with clothing design, as she had often had her stage clothing designed according to her instructions during her years as a performer, though as she recalls, she had little skill as a seamstress and the costumes all had to be constructed for her. This too she had a solution for: her mother just happened to own a factory that used felt, which she knew to be easy to work with and durable. Julie Lynn obtained some felt and set to work to replicate the full skirt style that had just become so popular.
This first skirt was designed with seasonal appliques (when I first read that I immediately became determined to create my own Christmas themed felt skirt this year) and was a huge hit at the party. Thinking that she might be onto something, she created three more and offered them to a boutique in nearby Beverly Hills. The cute holiday skirts didn’t stay on the sales floor long, and the boutique ordered more, but requested some non-holiday embellishments. The poodle soon graced the front of one such design and the skirt became a fashion train that moved through the Western world at light speed.
Where did the poodle in ‘poodle skirt’ come from?
All of the (very few) blog posts and articles that I read on the invention of the poodle skirt mentioned that the flagship boutique requested a canine design from Julie Lynn as dogs had recently become quite popular in America, but a nagging suspicion that there was more to the story wouldn’t leave me. I decided to turn to the thorough hosts of the Dressed podcast to see if they may have covered the history of the poodle skirt and had more information. I wasn’t disappointed. Episode 28 tells the story of Julie Lynn Charlot and her most-famous design in great detail. As it turns out, in 1948, the same year as the initial poodle skirts were being handmade in the Charlot home, the 1st Westminster Dog Show had taken place, and the world was set ablaze with dog mania.
The poodle claimed a special seat at the dog fanfare table. More than any other breed it became synonymous with refinement and a sign that someone, especially a female owner, was particularly high class. Film executives went so far as to have their top starlets photographed with the breed — oh how chic and glamorous! So while Julie Lynn had first created a skirt with an adorable group of dachshunds, the boutique soon requested a poodle design. The rest, my fashion history lovers, is history.
The most fun clothing trend of all time?
For the next several years girls and women alike enjoyed the poodle skirt, which quickly became the term used for a felt circle skirt with a large applique. Julie Lynn continued to produce the skirt and tops to go along with them, and her label today is still highly sought after. She wasn’t stingy with the rights to the look, however, and even worked with a pattern company to produce a pattern so that girls and women around the globe could get their DIY on.
While poodles remained the most popular adornment, conversation starters of all sorts soon appeared on the fronts of the skirts. Young girls seemed to have kept largely with poodles and other animals, but older females got very creative with their chosen designs. Teenagers enjoyed age-appropriate designs such as records, catchy phrases, and hot rods. The skirts were popular among this age group as rock and roll continued to take hold, with the skirts moving perfectly to any beat.
Grown women added a bit of sophistication to their skirts with designs such as flower pots, the Eiffel Tower, and martini glasses. Then you have designer Bettie Morrie who combined her love of backgammon with her love of the full skirt, having the game sewn right into the felt itself.
A very lasting legacy
The poodle skirt was a trend for its time. While the 1950s were for many a return to the easier pre-war days, with the 1960s came an entirely new set of cultural concerns. In many ways, things would never be as carefree as we like to think much of the 1950s were. Women’s fashion was about to take a turn in a completely new direction and the poodle skirt ceased to be used for daily wear. However, Julie Lynn Charlot had created a piece of clothing that brought women of many generations together for several years of fond memories, and as time has passed we have refused to forget about the fun of wearing a poodle-clad flared skirt. While it’s fun to see them each Halloween, I think the look is ready for a comeback, what about you?