Rompin’ and Stompin’ Rockabilly

I have a feeling posting with a busy schedule is going to be quite difficult, but I promise to not leave you and my blog hanging! Going into a fashion program will probably force me to write more and I know it will definitely make me more fashion-savvy, as well as expand my creativity and ideas for this blog.  Bright and early the other morning, sitting in my Microeconomics class, I noticed a girl in a super retro look and instantly remembered I wanted to dedicate a post to sharing what ‘Rockabilly’ culture and fashion is all about. So thank you, random girl whom I will probably never see again! Actually, one of the girls I work with at Betsey Johnson has a very modern take on Rockabilly fashion – she’s got the big long hair and carefree attitude – keep reading so you know what I’m talking about!

What exactly is rockabilly?! According to Wikipedia, “Rockabilly is one of the earliest styles of rock and roll music, dating [back] to the early 1950s.” The term ‘rockabilly’ is a combination of the words ‘rock’ from rock and roll, and hillbilly, a reference to the country music that contributed strongly to the style’s development. Rockabilly is generally considered to have been significantly popular from the early 50s to the early 60s, primarily in the Southern USA; though once its influence, like several other subcultures, reached the mainstream, it never truly disappeared. Several rockabilly revivals took place throughout the music industry, most notably in the 80s with the popularity of American rockabilly band Stray Cats.

Stray Cats


You’re probably wondering where the whole fashion aspect falls into place in the rockabilly era. Well, that’s one thought often pondered by both the sellers and buyers of vintage clothing, and the answer is a bit more complicated than the question of “what does a rockabilly style look like?” As any genre of music has done throughout history, rockabilly had a heavy influence on fashion during the 50s and 60s, which definitely evolved into a more complex definition into today’s fashion. 

The way rockabilly was to the traditional sensibilities of mainstream music of the late 40s to the early 50s, rockabilly fashion was the same to the buttoned up, more conservative look of the post war era. The virtuous pin up girl of the 40s had given major way to the more risque Bettie Page ladies of the 50s and 60s. Adding more spice into your wardrobe became more and more popular as these icons blossomed. 

Bettie Page & Marie McDonald

If you’ve ever seen the film “West Side Story”, you can easily recognize two commonly seen looks within the rockabilly era. The youth of the early 50s in America were quite fast on embracing the sounds of rockabilly – but the same way that people defined their character with the tracks they lived by, the looks were just as dramatically showcased.  You were either a goodie two-shoes or lead your life in rebellion.

Those who were less willing to rebel against their parents sported a rockabilly look that was clean cut with just a splash of edge. Bottoms were mostly denim – a wardrobe staple for all – and the bottom cuff came naturally, as pants were either hand-me-downs or purchased on the longer side to last throughout growing years. The cuff has transformed into a mainstay in rockabilly dressing to this day – you may have not thought of cuffing your pants as dating back to this era, but it is the time when it all began! As for the wholesome girls, their looks included full skirt dresses with a whole-lotta crinolines (we have tons of those at Betsey!!), flats or low heels, and flirty ponytails. An exaggerated version of the adult 50s look with a girlie twist, they still stayed away from teased hair and bright red lipstick.

Gloria DeHaven
For those who could simply care less in terms of abiding by the rules, they definitely showcased a look that took rockabilly beyond its limit. This included loud colors (even for men) and patterns that could be seen in two-tone shirts and jackets or atomic and novelty prints. If you’re familiar with vintage fashion, you’ll know what a “ricky jacket” is, but I have to let you in on a little misnomer – Ricky Ricardo from “I Love Lucy” was actually seen wearing a two-tone jacket once on the show, yet a whole era of rock and roll fashion was dedicated to this. Girls were seen wearing tighter clothing with colorful hues, teased their hair into beehives and cut framing bangs alongside their foreheads to showcase their eyes, and strutted in heels to further accentuate their sex appeal.

Marlon Brando; Brigitte Bardot

From a day to day basis, youth were seen wearing engineer boots – a natural choice for hot rodders and bikers – and leather jackets to match, thanks to movies like “The Wild.” Ladies had their turn in showing off their racy side by shunning their full skirts and dresses (which mysteriously hid their body) and instead opted for scandalous pencil skirts and tight sweaters – not exactly leaving much room for the imagination to run wild – and stiletto heels marked the final maneater touch. Although most girls at that time didn’t know of Bettie Paige, they did acquire their naughty fashion sense from movies that showed one of the leading blonde sex symbols of the 50s, Jayne Mansfield. Think of all that big teased hair, bold red lipstick, brightly colored blouses and skirts – we wear most of that now!

Carole Landis

As regional influences came about, the rockabilly look was modified;Western rockabilly lovers embraced Western Swing as well as Southwestern fashion influences. This included heavily embroidered satin or gabardine shirts on both men and women. Patio sets, also known as squaw sets with sandals, wedges, or espadrilles were also commonly seen. In the south, during Elvis’ ‘early years’, he sported gingham snap shirts which was greatly reflected in men’s fashion. 

Martha Vickers

While rockabilly was quite the narrow window of time and a style not exactly popularized and spread throughout society, it is easy to look back and see which types of clothing contributed to what we now refer to as the actual term ‘rockabilly.’ Just as all clothing from the 20s is not a ‘flapper’ look, not all clothing from the 50s to the early 60s is considered rockabilly. It was simply an influential look unique and dear to the time that has inspired fashion designers and vintage fans in the years since. We’ve seen it on the runways, in several advertisements and campaigns – Guess being a famous brand to include a retro 50s vibe through their models’ outfits, makeup and hairstyles – and even celebrities like Gwen Stefani sports a retro hairdo often.

Chili Williams

Are there any items of clothing or beauty looks that immediately remind you of the rockabilly era? Do you sport the look – if so, how? I’ve always been a fan, but it’s quite easy to go overboard and make yourself look like you’re about to go swing dancing. But over at Betsey, we don’t really mind that because life should always be a big, colorful, flouncy festival, right?! Right. 

I hope you enjoyed this little history lesson on the rockabilly look of the 50s and 60s. I’m off to finish completing the construction of my hats for my sewing class, then I’ll be back with another must-have piece on my list of 30-Day Fall Essentials. Hope you are having a wonderful day so far!

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