Sartorial memories of a defining year

Alexandra Kim

ICOM Costume Committee board member


In 2012, to celebrate a fabulous fifty years of the ICOM Costume Committee, we asked our members to contribute a 1962 dress memory.  1962 was a year defined by the Cuban Missile Crisis and Marilyn Monroe’s death, when the charts were filled with music from Elvis Presley, Françoise Hardy and Neil Sedaka.  The photographs and written testimonies which our members contributed revealed not only how much our relationship with clothes has changed but how potent dress is at evoking memories.


The clothing of childhood

Knitted garments were a staple of wardrobes for infants.

Cotton print dresses, sailor suits and traditional outfits were all popular  types of clothing for little girls.

Teenage girls embraced the full-skirted style of the early 1960s, often in dresses made by themselves or their mothers.

There was a sense that there were many sartorial rules which teenagers had to follow.

"My school clothes were generally knee-length skirts. At school, in an attempt to keep skirts from getting too short, we were required to kneel, and the skirt had to touch the floor to be acceptable." Katia Johansen, USA

High School yearbooks provide a great source of photographs documenting different teenage styles. 

"…they show the everyday public school life of American middle-class teenagers in the early 1960s." Vicki Berger, USA


Starting out on your own

For those leaving home, whether heading to university or starting their first job, new found independence offered the opportunity for greater sartorial freedom.

Fashion, as represented by magazines like Vogue, was a standard to which many aspired but which had to be achieved by ingenuity and individual adaptation.

"Jeans were de rigueur and we bought them from the Army and Navy Surplus shop. They had to be tailored to fit the legs more tightly, rather badly done for the most part, and worn with ‘Sloppy Joe’ sweaters." Naomi Tarrant, UK

For others individual preferences were key factors in choice. 

"1962 immediately conjures up skimpy-round-the-hem brown (to go with my brown hair, & a good imitation of sacking) dress, little waist shaping, fawn & white check collar to cheer it up, and just about knee-length.  I never liked skimpy."  June Swann, UK

For university students on tight budgets money to indulge in fashion was scarce.

"Fashion we might read about but on the kind of student grants most of us had we couldn’t afford to buy it. …. One of my friends received a full grant but had to pay her parents for her keep during the holidays as her father disapproved of girls going to university, so she never had any money for clothes." Naomi Tarrant, UK

Clothing memories emphasised the close sense of camaraderie felt by many at university. 

"I also acquired a half share (!) in an angora top, black and green check, loose fitting, very smart but very itchy, made from two stoles for one of my wealthier co-students who found she was allergic to it." Pam Inder, UK


A university suitcase

"1962 was the year I went to Manchester University. Up to that point I had worn school uniform most of the time – bottle green skirt, white blouse, green/yellow/red striped tie and the most hideous blazer known to man. With ankle socks. I arrived at university with a minimalist wardrobe – it all fitted into one suitcase. I can remember most of it:

  • Two Marks & Spencer pleated Terylene skirts (one plain grey, one grey with a darker check) – the trick was to feed them into a stocking, then, supposedly, you could stuff them into the corner of a suitcase. I don’t actually think you needed the stocking …
  • Two ‘sloppy Joe’ heavy knit sweaters – one yellow ‘V’ neck (impossible to keep clean in pre-smokeless fuel Manchester, so seldom worn), one emerald green with a polo neck.
  • One rather strange thin blue ‘jumper’ with a white collar
  • One ‘V’ neck grey pullover worn with a ‘dickie’ – a separate white polo necked article that you tucked into the ‘V’ – I had two of those.
  • One pair of beige ‘slacks’ made of something like cavalry twill, with tapering legs.
  • One full skirted brown and white checked cotton dress with a big white collar and crossover bodice.
  • One orange/yellow/white striped summer dress, with a full skirt and shirt-waist, from Wallis
  • One pink and black scribble print cotton dress, again with a full skirt, bought in Germany
  • One bright blue ‘sail cloth’ skirt from M&S
  • One short sleeved white blouse
  • One home made red and white check blouse with tie neck."

 Pam Inder, UK


Here comes the bride

Famous figures provided style inspiration for wedding outfits. 

Dresses were made locally and used again


Sewing Skills

Sewing your own clothes was common activity for many girls and young women in 1962.

Patterns were a clear way to achieve the fashionable shape whether high end Vogue patterns or more modestly priced rivals.

Many teenage girls were adept seamstresses, quite happy to sew their own clothes to get the look they wanted.


Fashion and photographs

Many members explained that they struggled to find photographs and that they didn’t have many casual snaps.

In an era when the world seems to snap away with their i-phone every second it’s hard to think of a time when cameras might have been too expensive or not carried all the time, to produce a running record of our lives; 

"Fortunately, few photos survive from those days – cameras were a luxury few students possessed and mobile phones, with or without cameras, were decades away." Pam Inder, UK

Most of the submissions were in black and whitemagazines may have been filled with colour images but this was a time well before the ubiquity of the colour image and most home snaps


Further information

History of the ICOM Costume Committee

1962 – events of the year

Vogue magazine covers from 1962

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