Circle Skirts:

the 1950s and beyond

       Most vintage clothing dealers agree; among more modern vintage fashions, circle skirts are the hottest items around. Though their basic silhouette is always the same, circle skirts come in a dizzying assortment of styles, from simple and demure to fun and frivolous. What’s more, collectors are unlikely to run across the same circle skirt twice.
       Full and flaring circle skirts (which were originally worn over net petticoats) began to appear in some fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazar around 1949. By 1952 (and until the early 1960s), mail–order fashion catalogs carried large selections of circle skirts specially designed for teenagers, pre-teens, house wives, and chic singles.
       True circle skirts are not gathered or pleated. What makes them unique and special is that they are formed out of a single piece of fabric—literally, a circle with the center cut out for the waist. (Less expensive versions were created with two pieces of fabric and two seams.) Circle skirts were made in any number of fabrics—cotton, silk, muslin, etc.—and were often quilted, hand–painted, embroidered, or appliquéd.
       A subcategory of circle skirts—and the one most people think of immediately when they think "1950s"—is the poodle skirt. Poodle skirts were circle skirts, usually created from wool felt and decorated with appliqués, plus embroidery, beading, and/or spangles; the name “poodle skirt” was derived from the first creation of these felt skirts, which literally had appliqués of poodles on them; later, everything from cray fish to artists palettes were appliquéd onto poodle skirts.
       In the 1950s, most women wore circle skirts, and circle skirts were sold everywhere—from stores specializing in inexpensive clothing to fancy department stores like Saks. Whether wealthy or middle–class, for everyday wear, adult women generally chose rather plain circle skirts, with few or no decorative trims. For evening, however, many women wore circle skirts adorned with glitter or sequins. And for teenagers, highly decorative circle and poodle skirts with lavish appliqués, sequins, and other decoration were the thing to wear both to school and to parties.
       The original concept of the circle skirt—that is, of a skirt made from a single piece of fabric—was “invented” in the 1890s, when slim but flaring skirts were favored. However, the look then was very different and still quintessentially Victorian; those skirts were floor–length, had trains, and were covered with furbelows.
Why this clever means of creating a skirt lost its appeal by the end of the Edwardian period—only to pop up again in the 1950s—is a topic of speculation. Circle skirts do require wide fabric, and quite a lot of it. Long versions, like those worn at the turn of the century, were impossible to make without adding a flounce to give the full length required by fashion; fabrics simply weren’t wide enough to make a circle skirt that ended at the floor or ankle. Turn of the century circle skirts also had a tendency to cling to the figure, and by the 1910s, fashion was moving away from the curvy figure and moving toward box–like clothing that concealed feminine curves. The birth of rock ‘n’ roll also seems to have played its part in the rebirth of the circle skirt. The jitterbug of the 1940s and 50s, where young women swirled around the dance floor (in what must have seemed a mad fashion to their elders), screamed for a full skirt. Only the circle skirt would fly through the air gracefully, revealing colorful petticoats.
       The revival of an old Victorian style also fit in with the “New Look” of the era. After WWII, designer Christian Dior made a decided effort to rid women of their severe, war–rationed attire by designing clothes inspired by the fashions his mother wore at the turn of the century. In 1949, he presented longer skirts, full and wide, held out by crinoline petticoats, with nipped waists accentuated by modern girdle–corsets. The circle skirt was a natural part of that revival. There are also some rumors that an opera singer named Juli Lynne Charlot created the first poodle skirt. In the 1940s, she experimented with appliquéd sweaters; when a wealthy friend backed a project to develop machine–made appliqués so that Charlot could go commercial, the singer supposedly began experimenting with appliquéd circle skirts, too. Indeed, later, Charlot designs were popular in expensive shops like Lord & Taylor.
       Poodle skirts never caught on with the adult crowd, but became a way for teenagers to create a fashion decidedly their own. Felt was probably used for these skirts because it was inexpensive and quick and easy to sew. The best part, of course, were the appliqués, which ranged from silvery telephones to black records surrounded by the words “See ya later, alligator.”
      When the fashion for circle skirts took off, sewing pattern companies like Butterick, Simplicity, Vogue, and McCall’s were not long in picking up on it. They published numerous patterns for circle skirts—which is interesting, because all circle skirts are essentially the same design, and no pattern is really needed to create one. The companies issued fewer poodle skirt patterns, but these usually offered more variety in design, with appliqués ranging from simple poodle designs to huge flowers. In fact, most poodle skirts were homemade. In addition to be available in sewing pattern form, circle skirts were sold in make-at-home kits. Available from dime stores, the kits came in tubes and included everything from the pre–cut fabric to thread.
       Some read–to–wear manufactures carved careers out of selling off–the–rack poodle skirts. One of these was Gene Burton, who sold primarily via mail–order ads in the back of magazines like Seventeen. His skirts were fun, inexpensive, and tailored for the teen market, but he was not alone. Junior House Milwaukee and Kinneloa of California also heavily advertised in teen mags.
       Two of the most likely places collectors will find circle skirts today are vintage clothing stores and shows. Condition is of especially great importance; because circle skirts are relatively “new” pieces of vintage clothing, little or no damage is demanded by collectors, and colors are expected to be as bright as when they were new.
What can collectors expect to pay? Price is mostly determined by how unusual (or not) the skirt is, but the average circle skirt with little or no decorative trimming sells for $10 to $30. Those with ample decoration may go for up to $60. One collector admitted that she paid $400 for a single poodle skirt—a green number with appliquéd lobsters all over it, and as far as she is concerned “it was worth every penny!”
       Perhaps the most important things to watch out for when shopping for skirts, however, are reproductions. Modern felt poodle skirts are often easier to find than origin