history

The Fascinating True Story Behind 1950s Poodle Skirts

by Laura Caseley
Laura is a writer, illustrator, and artist living in New York City.

The 1950s brought us a lot of things that we still love today. There’s classic cars, UFO-inspired architecture and furniture (fun fact: that style is called “Googie” design — really), and plenty of great music.

And if you were a girl during those times, you might remember the full, swinging skirts with cute appliqués, popularly known as poodle skirts.

The cinched waist and full skirt was the silhouette of the era, and the skirts and dresses came in all kinds of styles and patterns. The poodle skirt became iconic, so much so that it’s become the standard image when we imagine a quintessential ’50s gal.

These circle skirts were decorated cloth cutouts that were sewn or ironed on.

They could be simple silhouettes or complex designs, and sometimes even letters.

The skirts were a favorite with teen girls, who paired them with sweaters. Appliquéd skirts also became popular with adult women, but usually with more subtle, less cutesy designs.

But where did the fashion statement come from? Why is it the one we remember so well today? And if you’re a fan, is there a way to rock a poodle patch in the 21st century? (Short answer: yes.)

Take a walk back through time and see how the poodle skirt came to be, and how it’s evolved over time!

ladies in poodle skirts

The iconic trend of the very recognizable and adored poodle skirt started way back in 1947 — and didn’t actually start with a poodle, although that would have been a very cute way for this fashion trend to begin.

50s fashion

Actress and singer Juli Lynne Charlot, then 25, was invited to a Christmas party but had nothing festive to wear, no materials, and no sewing skills.

Luckily, her mother owned a factory that used felt, which gave her an idea.

I cut the circle out of felt, which allowed me to cut a complete circle skirt without having any seams,” Charlot later said.

“I added some whimsical Christmas motif appliqués and the result was so attractive that I received many compliments at the party.”

Charlot poodle skirts

And soon, she was fielding orders for more skirts like it. Charlot would go on to start her own fashion company, which stayed in business through the 1980s. Today, she lives in Mexico.

pattern piece for poodle skirts 50s fashion

Meanwhile, the style became a classic, and you can still find tutorials online to make your own circle skirts, which conveniently don’t require any seams and don’t need to be hemmed. They’re also simple enough that you don’t need a lot of sewing expertise to make one.

And you can personalize them with whatever you want!

 

50s fashion for poodle skirts

So why poodles? The design started because, in the 1950s, fashionable women were often seen walking cute little dogs on leashes. And that gave Charlot an idea.

The above photo shows Charlot today with a replica of her original poodle design, which showed three poodles.

50s fashion poodle skirts

The poodle design was one of the most popular, and soon teens across the U.S. were wearing poodle skirts to school dances and other social events.

By this time, Charlot owned her own clothing factory with 50 employees and was expanding her fashion designing skills. And yes, she’d learned to sew by this point!

50s fashion poodle skirts

Poodles weren’t the only thing people stuck on their skirts, though. Other appliqué designs were also popular and could reflect just about anything. Their placement on the skirts also varied.

50s fashion poodle skirts

And just like Charlot’s Christmas-themed prototype had been a hit, seasonal designs were popular, too. This adorable version comes in baby blue and features an angel and a decorated Christmas tree.

50s fashion poodle skirt

As the trend took off, the appliqués became more complex as Charlot, as well as other designers, kept pushing themselves to come up with new ideas. What fun to have plenty of new designs emerging all the time!

poodle skirt 50s fashion

Women at home were making them, too, thanks to easy-to-sew skirt patterns that even come with little appliqué patterns included. This sweet and fanciful umbrella version is so cute and quirky!

50s fashion flower pots

Poodle skirts, whether or not they had poodles, were both high fashion and creative DIY projects, and girls could express themselves with their own unique designs. Think it’s time to bring back the trend?

50s fashion bettie morrie

And things could also get pretty silly.

In 1953, designer Bettie Morrie, who loved both big skirts and backgammon, combined her two loves to create board game skirts, which included board games stitched right into the felt.

 

poodle skirts 50s fashion

Game pieces were kept in a special decorative pocket. So if there was a lull at a social function, there was always something to do! What an ingenious and multi-functional design element!

50s fashion cute designs

And while younger girls and teens opted for cute designs like poodles, records, and youthful things, older women opted for more elegant and abstract patterns and designs.

That way, they could partake in the trend without looking too kiddish.

50s fashion fancy

Some of the appliqués for women got really fancy, and included rhinestones, sequins, and fringe.

In a way, they’re almost like a precursor to the complex patterns that would adorn clothing in the 1960s.

50s fashion applique

And the appliqués didn’t always have to lie flat. This skirt has fluffy rosettes that bloom right off the fabric. We love a fanciful textured option like this!

50s fashion kelly green

And the fun applique designs, well they weren’t just for skirts, either! This stunning Kelly green gown is perfect for a spring cocktail party. Not only is the design a bit kooky, but it’s flattering as well!

50s fashion archival photo

Do you remember poodle skirts, or are they a little past your time? Is this a style you’d like to see come back?

We’d be happy to see a resurgence of this fun and festive design!