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:

 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


A brief look at the year of 1962


In 1962 the world was on the cusp of a new era, politically, socially and technologically. A photograph of the designer Irene Galitzine wearing one of her own creations from her 1962 spring collection (the Italian fashion press voted her designer of the year for 1962) suggests this new era; Galitzine looks as if she is about to step out into a brave new world.

The year was dominated by the Cuban Missile crisis as the US and the USSR played showdown over nuclear testing and the space race. John Glenn was the first American to go around the earth in space which he did in February 1962. Contributors to the ICOM Costume Committee 1962 dress memories project talked about the real sense of fear which the Cuban Missile crisis prompted; the sense of a world on the brink of disaster, and a dilemma for which there was no easy or comfortable answer. It ended in November 1962 when the USSR agreed to dismantle its missiles in Cuba and the US agreed to end its blockade of the Caribbean country.

There was to be no happy ending for one well-known figure. On 19 May 1962 Marilyn Monroe sang her sultry version of Happy Birthday for the US president John F Kennedy who turned 45 a few days later. Less than three months later the Hollywood actress, star of Some Like it Hot and Gentleman Prefer Blondes was dead; her demise producing many column inches and much speculation.

There was more hope for many new nations which emerged in 1962. Many countries in Africa and the Caribbean gained independence from their former colonial powers; Jamaica, Algeria and Rwanda were among them.


Musically 1962 covered a wide range from Elvis Presley’s ‘Rock a Hula Baby’ to Françoise Hardy’s ‘Tous Les Garcons et Les Filles’. Middle aged crooner Neil Sedaka had success with ‘Breaking Up is Hard to Do’ while hits like the Isley Brothers’ ‘Twist and Shout’ hinted at the new direction of music. By the end of 1962 the Beatles were the iconic Fab Four with the arrival of Ringo Starr.


Cinema in the 1960s continued to work hard to respond to the threat of the small screen with epic films like Spartacus and Lawrence of Arabia. The seemingly more modest hero of Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, based on Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, was equally popular; the film quickly made $20 million at the box office.


The art world was equally diverse. One work to cause a stir, and an exemplar of pop art, was Andy Warhol’s soup cans, first shown by the dealer Irving Blum, shown in this photograph sitting in front of the 32 canvases. Of course the popularity of the tomato soup can image which has been relentlessly replicated, including on the famous paper dresses of the late 1960s, often obscures the fact that there were 32 different soup cans represented, one for each Campbell’s soup flavour.


In fashion well-known figures helped to set trends. One of the most widely copied was Jackie Kennedy. The cartoon from 1962 demonstrates the appeal of her style as many women sought to imitate the first lady. She was much praised for the simple yet elegant style that she exhibited on her goodwill tour of India and Pakistan that year. Another example of the clean, unfussy lines which typified her dress sense was the appropriately red wool suit, with an asymmetrical fastening and large red buttons that she wore for her televised tour of the White House, aired on Valentine’s Day 1962.

If women were impressed by Jackie Kennedy men certainly took note of Ursula Andress’s bikini clad moment as Honey Ryder, rising out of the water in the James Bond film Dr. No. My mother said that one of the elements that added to the brazen quality of this act was the fact that unlike most modest young women on the beach Ryder made no attempt to cover herself up as she exited the water; pure psychological and sartorial defiance. No wonder she became known as Ursula Undress. The bikini from this classic cinema moment was sold in 2001 for some $60,000.

You can’t have fashion without designers and just as politically and culturally a new era seemed to be round the corner so the same was true in fashion. This photograph of Coco Chanel has a sense of gently balancing on the sartorial line of old and new, as the doyenne of couture, Chanel, cigarette in mouth, puts the finishing touches to a simple black dress. In its clarity of line it’s well suited to the clean lines of the coming years.

Other designers caught this mood of simplicity and youthfulness; the Christian Dior evening gown here mirrors others designed in 1962 which tended to the long and sleek rather than the fuller dresses which had characterised the previous decade. Mary Quant continued to establish her youthful style; by 1962 she had two Bazaar shops in London (one in the King’s Road and one in Knightsbridge) as well as showing her collection for the American market.

Of course commentators often point out that Mary Quant’s style in its original form was only accessible to a relatively small number of young women because of its expense. Many had to modify and adapt the ideas they found on the catwalk. At one level this was done by high end copies of catwalk designers.

Vogue of course was packed full with fashion inspiration, though it was an expensive publication, as were its patterns and many women turned to cheaper alternatives to stay abreast of the latest trends. Even Vogue however experienced something of a shakeup as a new generation of models and photographers began to emerge. They’re perhaps best represented by Jean Shrimpton and David Bailey who in 1962 hit New York to shoot a gritty, urban and unlikely fashion sequence that sent eyes rolling at Vogue HQ, quite different from the modest and socially conservative images that might have been expected. Bailey shot Jean (and her teddy bear) on New York street corners and skyscraper roof tops. In 1962 fashion was beginning to get attitude.