Words by Haili Hughes, images by Helen Hughes www.rockingweddings.co.ukLike most, when I think of the 50s, I picture a glorious vista of white picket fences, freshly mown lawns and high school dances filled with petticoats and polka-dot wearing teens sipping punch. But is this what the 1950s was really like? Perhaps in parts of wealthy, middle America but certainly not in the UK.
In the UK, the early 1950s were a time of post war austerity. Despite the Second World War ending in 1943, the ramifications and after effects of years of ‘make do and mend’ and rationing meant that while people were able to gradually start increasing their quality of life, things did not immediately go back to how they had been before hostilities began.
The decade was about more than just rock ‘n’ roll, poodle skirts and hot rods. Beneath the veneer of the perfect housewife and sparkling family home, times were changing and – as with any shift in society – public fears and anxieties were rising.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes in the social fabric was the shifting in gender roles. Even prior to the 1950s, women were beginning to get options about whether they wanted to carry on into further education. Although their scope of choice was fairly narrow prior to WW2, many capable women proved their worth, by keeping the country going while the men were away fighting in foreign lands. This new found sense of independence was something that widened during the 1950s. In his paper, “The explosion of female college attendance,” John Bishop* from Cornell University says that in 1947, there were only 523,000 women attending a college in the US. By the 1960s, this figure had almost quadrupled. Similarly in the UK, when the men returned from active service, many women were reluctant to give up their jobs and were no longer content to just take the traditional roles of wives and mothers. For many, a clerical job enabled them to have a career and still be able to run a household. More ‘professional’ careers might have included being a teacher or a nurse.
Another huge shift was the emergence of the teenager; before that children seemed to seamlessly pass straight into adulthood. However with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, young people were finally given a voice and it symbolised a whole new sense of freedom and rebellion, which actors like James Dean capitalised on.
However, for the marginalised and different, this sense of liberation didn’t exist. There was still a massive stigma against homosexuals and unmarried mothers. Also, the civil rights movement was in its infancy in the UK and racism was still rife. In the early 50s, many Caribbean people were invited to move to the UK to work. The treatment that some of them received was shameful; many were skilled workers, but discrimination and prejudice meant that often unskilled work was the only option.
Perhaps the most realistic portrayal of what life could really be like for the marginalised and working class in the 50s was the kitchen sink drama. Films such as ‘It always rains on Sunday’ and ‘Room at the Top’ show that the decade often enthusiastically lauded to be perfect, was not always a fairy story with a happy ending for many.
Perhaps my favourite example of a kitchen sink drama is the Shelagh Delaney masterpiece ‘A Taste of Honey.’ Released as a play and later as a film in 1961, it tells the story of Helen – the single mother with loose morals and her daughter Jo, who has brought herself up while her mother has enjoyed herself at parties. The film reflected many of the problems that were happening in society: whether it be the sexual promiscuity of Helen, the continuous flits from a myriad of houses due to not paying rent or the inter-racial relationship of Jo and her lover the ‘Boy.’ The film charted Jo’s teenage pregnancy and later her co-habitation with her homosexual friend, Geoffrey. It also allowed a shocking insight into the kind of reaction the marginalised received from the public and how difficult it was to be different in the decade.
What is so interesting about the story is that it is filmed in the working class areas of Salford, Manchester and Stockport. Seeing the scruffy children playing outside in the cobbled back streets and watching the bedraggled housewives scrubbing down their steps, really gives a new perspective to what the 50s were really like. An advert for perfection they were not.
Of course, we all romanticise the era we are interested in or grew up in. Maybe it stems from a sense of dissatisfaction with the era we live in. After all, psychologists say that nostalgic feelings can be good for you. So perhaps in fifty years’ time, when I am old and grey, I will reminisce on the 1990s; with their bad fashions, Tamagotchis and Brit Pop. Only time will tell…
Words by Haili Hughes
Photos: Rockin Weddings
Clothes: Skirt and blouse is Dresses by Julia at OkieMo and jacket is La Riviera.
 Quote from “The explosion of female college attendance,” by John Bishop of Cornell University from a Cornell University Paper published on 11.1.1990