Black Tie Can’t Die: 70 years of women’s formal fashion

By Kathryn Tann

As I hurtle through my final year at Durham University, I can’t help but look at my (now rather large) collection of formal outfits and wonder: will there be opportunities to wear them in the ‘real world’? Or are we living blissfully in a black-tie bubble?

Maybe it is old-fashioned. Maybe there isn’t a place for ball gowns anymore. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be sorely missed. Dressing up for an occasion is something I really enjoy – it brings a bit of creativity and excitement to busy terms. It’s a British tradition that has evolved in countless interesting ways throughout history, and for centuries it has provided women with the chance to make a statement and express themselves.

This year, Palatinate will have been around for 70 years. When it first went to print in 1948, formal attire wasn’t quite the same as it is now, but in many ways, things haven’t changed at all.

In 1948, three major things were happening in female fashion: the war-time rationing of fabric had ended, meaning skirts were getting fuller by the day; style was in the news and new trends had the potential to spread across continents; and just like the roaring 20s, women were using clothes to make a point. They had emerged from the war with more rights, more respect, and more confidence than ever before in Britain. Things were exciting, especially for the next generation: the students.

It was the age of film stars and fashion icons. Students at Durham University in 1948 would have had women like Marilyn Monroe, Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor leading the way. They would have read about Christian Dior’s jaw-dropping ‘New Look’, and watched as Paris made its name as the fashion capital of the world. Just like today, there were major controversies going on for women and their clothes. The early forties had seen the rise of the fitted skirt, seen by some as far too revealing of the feminine figure. But now, thanks to Dior, the flared skirt was entering the stage too, and this time the argument (from men and women alike, especially those of the older, war-time generation) was that fashion was becoming wasteful and extravagant.

“This year, Palatinate will have been around for 70 years. When it first went to print in 1948, formal attire wasn’t quite the same as it is now, but in many ways, things haven’t changed at all.”

The Royal Family, being perhaps the biggest ‘celebrities’ in Britain at the time, also played a part in setting trends (perhaps little has changed there – Kate Middleton’s coat will still make a double page spread). The then-Princess Elizabeth visited Durham only a few months before Palatinate was founded, to lay a foundation stone for a new building: St Mary’s College. Women had been graduating from Durham for over 50 years by this point, and the Princess made a pertinent speech marking the hopes she had for the future of women at British universities. Princess Elizabeth was a young and powerful female role model, and so, like many other icons of the time, her influence in fashion was fuelled by respect and admiration.

So with all these changes underway, what would the average woman studying at Durham in 1948 have worn to a black tie occasion? A designer skirt could cost a small fortune (again, no changes there), and there weren’t the same number of high-street alternatives that we have today. Catwalk fashion was far less accessible to the average woman. However, I like to think that the students of Durham were clever: just like we resurrect retro gems found in charity shops, these women would have adapted what they had to match the tidal trends (though without social media storms, re-using an outfit was far more acceptable). Likewise, when it comes to formal wear, there are plenty of classic styles that never grow old. It’s really hard to find photos specifically of Durham students all dressed up, but in a year like 1948, there would undoubtedly have been a wonderful mixture of forties figure-hugging dresses, timeless floor-length designs, strapless necklines, layered petticoats and, above all, cinched-in waists which celebrated those womanly curves, after years of war-time frugality and practicality.

Whilst many of the dresses at a 1948 formal dinner may not have made it to the dining halls of 2018, the reason I believe black tie to not really have changed that much is that there’s still so much variation. Women are still using it as an occasion to make a statement, to turn heads. And the same goes for men: the classic suit is being adapted and re-worked more and more, and male students are boldly embracing these opportunities to ‘dress up’. For me, formal wear is a tradition which challenges its own rules every year. There is a constant renewal of past trends and endless opportunity for individuality. Black tie lets us feel both brave and beautiful, and that’s why it can’t die.

Photographs: Sophie Gregory

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