The bolero is here to stay – fashion archive, 2 July 1954

In 1950, when the strapless dress, supported by bones, became popular, a brief jacket loosely described as a bolero also arrived on the scene as a modest cover to so much bare skin, and has stayed with us ever since. Most of the leading designers at some time have announced that the strapless dress is “out.” They have beguiled us away from it with shoestring straps, the halter neckline, or, this year, with an enchanting fichu made of diaphanous fabrics. But no one declares the bolero “out.”

It turns up at the fashion shows season after season. I am always surprised when a leisure dress with a complicated bodice does not have a removable bolero. On any English beach when the day is hot enough for cotton dresses, every female – from small children to stout matrons – has a bolero near at hand to slip on over a sundress when the beach is left behind.

Yet in spite of its almost universal adoption it is not a style that is easily worn well. So many of the boleros are badly cut and fitted. The great attraction is its usefulness – now almost a cliché – in making one dress do the work of two. The theory is that you have a bare top dress for holiday or leisure and the bolero transforms it into a dress decorous enough for town wear. Seldom does this transformation come off. There is little difficulty in telling when a bolero is worn over a beach-dress and I notice that the main function of the dress, comfortable and easy to lounge in, tends to remain uppermost. The outfit seldom “dresses up” satisfactorily as, in theory, it is supposed to do.

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Skirt and bolero by Jules-François Crahay for Nina Ricci, 1960.

Skirt and bolero by Jules-François Crahay for Nina Ricci, 1960. Photograph: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

There was a time when I thought the graceful shawls and stoles might break the strong hold of the bolero, but there is an art in wearing them effectively and most women have given up the struggle. In any case these attractive wraps enhance bare shoulders, they do not conceal them.

The bolero is only attractive if it is as well fitted as the dress, particularly at the shoulders. I notice that this summer’s princess-line dress lends itself to a well-fitted bolero, tied or buttoned just under the bust and emphasising the smooth unbroken sweep of midriff and skirt. These boleros are closely moulded to the figure and complement the dress instead of appearing an afterthought on the part of the designer.

Another beach-into-street style that does work is a large square collar with as much in the front as at the back. The corners are buttoned on to a strapless dress and no hint is given that there is a sun-dress beneath the demure collar.

Approaching from the other end – that is to say a formal outfit that by removing the bolero can become more casual – I have seen several successful variations. A toreador’s jacket, hanging straight and fastened at the neck is a long-sleeved version that is most becoming. Quite the prettiest of these I have seen was worn with a simply cut dress of pastel poplin. Both dress and jacket were covered with delicate self-colour embroideries that gave a highly decorative touch.

Yet another style is the long-sleeved tailored jacket which really does make a slim-skirted dress look like a summer suit and when removed reveals a dress with all degrees of uncovered shoulders. Such jackets are worn even with a boat-shaped neckline which can hardly be called décolleté at the seaside but which can be too revealing for more discreet occasions.

This is an edited version.


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