Christina Napoli is a mature fashion-conscious transwoman who epitomes the “Golden Age” of Fashion…the 1950s. Nora Simone was able to capture this special interview with Christina who resides in the Washington, DC area. Anyone who knows Christina understands her deep appreciation for women’s fashion from that era. Nora says, I’ve long admired her put-together look: from casual to glam. In fact, her photo has been featured in some of my Sister House writing as examples of classiness. She recreates the look as none others have.
Read and enjoy the interview, then slide over to By-Gone Eras in the Playroom and read further about fashion in the 1950s. And don’t forget to read our extensive article on Marilyn Monroe, our favorite fashion icon from that era. And check out all our photos from Casa Susanna and our many other Vintage Crossdressers
Why is the period between the late 1950’s to the early 1960’s considered the “Golden Age” of women’s fashion?
After the Great Depression and the devastation of World War II, the United States became a political, military, and economic superpower during the 1950s. With this unprecedented new prosperity and optimism for the future, women’s fashion took off emphasizing glamour, elegance, femininity and the female body shape more than any time previously. For the first time in history, high fashion emerged from the salons of the wealthy and became available through movies, television, advertisements and catalogs (like Sears) to middle class and working-class women. Also, due to advances in manufacturing technologies and processes, high quality fabric could be produced in great quantities at affordable prices for the average American. Most casual clothing was made of thick high-quality cotton or wool while luxurious and very feminine fabrics like silk, velvet, satin and animal fur were much more common in the average woman’s wardrobe. Consider that compared to today’s glut of cheesy polyester and faux fabrics made for low cost and disposability. Finally, in the “Golden Age” it was widely important that a woman’s clothing matched her shoes and accessories in style and color.
Sadly, with the cultural, political and social changes of the early 1960s, the “Golden Age” of women’s fashion came to an end. To many, women’s fashion of the “Golden Age” was a symbol of the “Establishment” and unfortunately was a casualty of these changes. Today much of today’s fashion is driven by the “street fashions” of teenage and college age girls, and not by adult women. Also, comfort and not style in women’s fashion seems to be the number one priority of the average American woman of today. Just go to the airport, your local Mall or an office and you will see the overwhelming majority of women wearing pants and flat shoes just like the men. In my opinion, many women of today wear outfits in which colors and styles clash for an overall unattractive look. Oh how I miss the “Golden Age” when most women in everyday life wore skirts, dresses, heels and stylish hats……and everything matched! I also miss Mrs. Cleaver and Donna Reed on TV cleaning the house wearing heels, a pearl necklace and a floral print dress LOL, just kidding.
What are some classic looks from this period?
The full bodied skirted dress was probably the most popular look, especially during the first half of the 1950s. The bodice was fitted and a gathered full skirt ballooned out from the waist. For added fullness a petticoat could be worn underneath the skirt. Another classic style was the body hugging sheath dress and today is referred to as the “wiggle” dress. Other classic styles born in the 1950s were pencil skirts, tailored streamline suits made famous by Coco Chanel, low cut tight sequined evening gowns, stiletto high heel pumps and high heel mules (also known as springolators). The tailored streamline suit was also re-vitalized by Jackie Kennedy in the early 1960s. Hats and gloves were popular accessories with most dresses. And most women of the “Golden Age” seem to wear fur coats and stoles when they went to special events.
Even though most people today seem to associate 1950s fashion with the birth of rock and roll and what teenage girls wore (i.e. poodle skirt), the classic fashion of the era was driven by adults. These classic looks also highlighted the increasing openness of sexuality in our society by emphasizing a woman’s breasts, small waist, curvy hips and a full derriere. After all, Playboy and the proliferation of the so called “girlie” magazines all began in the 1950s. And movie stars like Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and in Europe, Anita Ekberg help define and popularize this curvy look. Back then most slim girls also wore girdles to help them accentuate a hourglass figure.
OK – So what the heck are Springolator shoes?
They are my absolute favorite style of shoe! During the 1940s, the backless high heel mule bedroom slipper became popular due to its ability to make the leg look long and sexy while still allowing the wearer to be comfortable. As the mules were moving out of the boudoir and out in public during the 1950s, women were complaining that they were difficult to keep on. In response to this problem, American shoe designer Beth Levine created and introduced the Springolator backless stiletto mule in 1956. The Springolator shoe featured an elastic insole that was designed to create tension between the shoe and the bottom of the foot to stay on the foot, without slipping off, or going clack-clack when the wearer walked. The Springolator quickly became a bestseller as everyone from movie stars, fashion models, pin up girls, burlesque queens, office workers to the girl next door wore them. And men loved or lusted after women who wore them. Many shoe companies made Springolators until the early 1960s when the political, cultural and social changes killed the demand for this very feminine and sexy style shoe.
Photo 11 – Sideview of a Pair of Springolator
Is Dita von Teese an appropriate style icon? Who else inspires you to create this look?
Yes, she is. Even though she is a burlesque dancer and wears risqué costumes when she performs, many of the photos Dita posts on social media has her wearing classic 1950s high fashion suits, sheath dresses or glamorous 1950s style evening gowns. I was and continue to be inspired by clothing worn by actresses of the era such as Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Loretta Young and Gene Tierney. I’m also inspired by several fashion (super) models of the 1950s such as Suzy Parker and Dovima. And my favorite designers of this era are Jacques Fath, Christian Dior, and of course Coco Chanel.
What stimulated your interest in these styles? How do you maintain interest?
As a child growing up in the 1960s I was enthralled by the outfits worn by movie actresses of the era, as well as female singers appearing on TV variety shows like the Ed Sullivan Show. I especially loved when they wore glamourous sequined evening gowns, luxurious fur coats or stoles and mules/Springolators. All my life I enjoyed watching movies made in the 1950 and early 1960s, especially for the fashion, and this continues even today. As a child I also enjoyed playing with the little girls in my neighborhood and their Barbie dolls. Barbie’s of that era had an extensive and very beautiful “Golden Age” wardrobe and most of her casual outfits included my favorites, the sheath dress and the Springolator!
I maintain interest by spending a lot of time reading blogs and websites about 1950’s fashion. Also, I search online and collect 1950’s era photos of beautiful actresses, models in magazines like Vogue and Harpers Bazaar and pinup girls wearing the fashions I love. Remember I am retired and can stay up to 5 AM searching the Internet. Finally, I continue to shop online for retro and some vintage 1950s clothing and shoes because I get a thrill or happy high wearing these fashions.
Certainly, the most exciting and creative way I’ve maintained interest are the photo shoots I’ve done. These photoshoots are with professional photographers and makeup artists and they recreate scenes of 1950s life through women’s fashion. In my Film Noir series, shot in black and white of course, I play a nightclub singer from the wrong side of the tracks who becomes quite the femme fatale. Film Noir is a genre of detective and crime movies with dark themes filmed in glorious black and white during the 1940s and 1950s. Probably the most well-known examples of these movies are Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and the Big Sleep. If you are interested in seeing my Film Noir photos check out my FACEBOOK Album entitled “Film Noir Story Baltimore 1953” for a story written by and starring me that captures the look and feel of this classic movie genre. Each photo in this series is like a movie scene with dialogue and advances the story line.
Are Golden Age styles flattering for average transwomen body types? What are typical challenges?
Some 1950’s fashions are flattering for the average built transwoman, some present challenges that can be overcome. Full bodied skirted dresses do flatter and feminize the average transwoman’s built. Also because all 1950’s dresses and skirts are below the knee, this helps to conceal the muscularity of the legs of some transwomen.
Dresses and skirts in general do feminize the look for all transwoman, pants generally do not. As for me, I not only look but I feel very very feminine when I’m wearing a dress or skirt. Since I wore pants for all my life prior to my transition in 2015, I now only wear pants when the weather is chilly.
High heels popularized in the 1950s, like the classic pump, also feminizes the average transwoman’s look by making her feet appear smaller in length. Athletic shoes and flats do not. The higher the heels, the smaller the feet look, but if the heels are too high, the legs may appear overly muscular and manly. In my opinion the ideal heel height to maximize a feminine look ranges from 2″ to 4″. Kitten heels (usually about 2″ high) are very stylish and a good compromise for comfort if you have foot or ankle issues.
The 1950’s fashions that I adore the most are the sheath dress and the pencil skirt. To wear these two favs of mine, I recommend wearing a corset or waist cincher/girdle and hip pads to accentuate and feminize your natural figure. And if you are not well endowed on top, I also suggest you wear breast forms or a padded bra to give you that hour glass pin up girl figure. Also, my love for these two styles has motivated me to lose about 15 pounds. And I hope to loss 5-10 additional pounds so I can look more feminine wearing these body hugging looks.
Do you have favorite seasons or locations to showcase your favorite retro styles? Do you travel or would you relocate because of that? If so, where?
Not really, because the 1950’s fashion I love can be worn all four seasons. When the weather gets cool, it’s time to throw on your fur coat or fur stole over your sheath dress or blouse/pencil skirt. Then replace the bare legs of summer with nylons attached to a garter belt of course. And then slip on high heel pointy toe pumps or stiletto heel leather boots.
How difficult is it to find retro style clothes in your preferred style?
It’s not very difficult if you shop online. Amazon.com has amazing variety and rather inexpensive retro 1950s style dresses, tops, skirts, slacks, swimsuits and shoes. Also, there are many online merchants such as Pinup Clothing which specializes in high quality reproduction 1950s fashion. Most of these merchants even sell retro 1950’s accessories like hats, handbags, jewelry, lingerie, and nylons.
How committed are you to authenticity? For example; is pantyhose allowed?
When I put together a 1950s style outfit for my photo shoots I also want to feel like a woman who lived in that era, so no pantyhose! All of my dresses are reproduction and with one exception all my shoes are reproductions of 1950s styles. However, my handbags are vintage and most of my hats and fur are too. There is a lingerie company called Rago that still sells products that look exactly like the products in their 1950s catalog. I even noticed that the product number for some of their bras and girdles (today they can them shapewear) haven’t change in 60 years! I always wear Rago lingerie under my 1950’s outfits.
Is authentic vintage clothing a realistic option? What are limitations?
No, not for me. I have shopped at antique stores and vintage clothing stores but the experience was rather frustrating. (But I live and shop in the suburbs. However, big cities such as New York and Los Angleles have many more vintage clothing stores of quality.) Usually, I left empty handed because I could not find the style I wanted or if I did, the condition of the items was poor or if in outstanding condition too expensive for my budget. I also have shopped online on ebay and it was frustrating for the same reasons. Plus the idea of wearing some unknown person’s used clothing from 60 years ago is not appealing to me.
Another limitation when shopping for vintage clothing is sizing. Vintage clothing large enough to fit today’s average transwomen are very difficult to find. In general, women back in the 1950s were much smaller when compared to women of today. Plus, the sizing scale was different/smaller back then. For example, Marilyn Monroe was 5 feet 5 inches tall, weighed about 115lbs, 37-23-36 measurements and wore a Size 10 dress manufactured in the 1950s. Today a woman with Marilyn’s measurements will wear a Size 4!
I regularly search eBay for vintage Springolator shoes but it is very rare to find a pair in excellent to mint condition for my Size 10 feet. Back then women had smaller feet and the sizing scale for shoes reflected this. I estimate that I need vintage size 12 shoes to fit me. I was also disheartened to see several 1950s ads for Springolators that said they are available up to Size 9 which is probably the equivalent of Size 7 today. I do have one pair of vintage Springolators. They are black and clear Lucite with rhinestones and look brand new. I won them on eBay for about $60 and my research concluded they were made in the early 1960s. I hope to add more to my shoe wardrobe.
I also won several auctions on eBay for a mink coat and two mink stoles. They only cost me about $300 combined but I spent about another $300 having them validated as authentic and then refurbished. I researched the store labels sewn inside these mink items to determine they were originally sold during the 1950s or 1960s. Unlike clothing and shoes, high quality vintage handbags in excellent condition are often available on eBay for a modest price. I won three auctions for handbags, each with bids under $50 and all three are in near mint condition. Two of the bags are patent leather and one looks like alligator skin. And I love the sound the gold metal clasp makes when you open and close handbags of this era.
Do you have friends who share your appreciation for a retro look? Are there organized groups of enthusiasts to meet on line or in person? Are there men as well as women interested?
No, all of my friends seem to live in the present. Only exception is makeup artist/photographer Elizabeth (Beth) Taylor who is working with me on my Film Noir Story. However, I have interacted with several women online who share my enthusiasm. And my favorite online place to go on a daily basis is a Facebook Group called “Mid Century Fashion“. There are over 71,000 people in this group and it seems like about 95% are women. I also noticed that a few transgender women are members of this group.
How popular is the retro look given the casual nature of American fashion today? What is response from GGs?
Overall, I don’t think it’s that popular as most women today prefer to wear pants, even in the workplace. However, on those rare occurrences when women decide to dress up, the sheath dress and pencil skirt are still very popular.
But I have noticed small pockets of online groups of younger genetic women who enjoy wearing 1950s retro fashions. And with the fairly large number of online merchants specializing in retro fashions, people must be spending enough money to keep these merchants in business. But unlike clothing, lingerie and accessories, women shoes that first appeared in the 1950s like stiletto pumps and sexy mules are extremely popular today. Just go look in the shoe department at your local mall or go to DSW. And the bikini was created during the 1950s and now dominates the women’s swimsuit market.
How else do you express appreciation for the Golden Age of women’s fashion? For example, do you prefer TV shows like Mad Men or dated movies? Do you have photo shoot projects?
Since I’m now retired, I literally watch movies and TV shows from this era on a daily basis and my appreciation of the fashions worn by the actresses is stronger than ever. I can say that Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is one of the most important sources that inspires my fashion sense today. Some of my favorite TV shows from the era that I enjoy both the stories and seeing women’s fashion are Perry Mason, the Twilight Zone, the Alfred Hitchcock Show, 77 Sunset Strip, and Make Room for Daddy. I was also a devoted viewer of the Mad Men TV series but only the early episodes of the first few seasons showed the types of clothing I love. The rest of the series featured 1960s counterculture fashions and the awful fashions of the 1970s.
As I mentioned earlier, I love doing photo shoots recreating the looks of the 1950s. To complete my Film Noir Story, I plan to do one more photo shoot. I also love to use these photo shoots as a way to travel back in time, without actually having a time machine! Another photo shoot I’m in the early stages of planning has an early 1960s theme. Stay tuned on my Facebook and Flickr pages.
What advice do you give other transwomen who want to create that authentic Golden Age look?
If you are on a budget, buy retro dresses, skirts and shoes. But to raise the level of authenticity to your retro clothing and shoes, buy vintage handbags, furs and accessories because prices are moderate. And let me know who you are, so we can shop or do a Golden Age photo shoot together!
Thank you Ms. Napoli. That was fascinating!
For those who’d like to learn more, Christina Napoli shares her photos and thoughts on Facebook.
Nora Simone is a regular contributor to Sisterhouse.net. Her writing and images are distributed widely and she is thrilled to share fashion perspectives from her amazing friends. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.