You love retro, but at heart, you’re a rock girl. You want clothes that reflect both. Good news rockabilly clothing helps you cover both.
Plus, buying vintage clothes (or vintage accessories to go with your vintage-inspired clothes) is good for the environment. The resale industry in the U.S. makes about $4 billion annually and rescuing that perfect vintage item from a landfill lowers your carbon footprint.
Read on and rock out with our complete beginner’s guide to rockabilly clothing, from the history of the style to the basics of rockabilly to rules made for breaking.
A Short History of Rockabilly
In two words: rock on.
The Early Days of Rock Music
Rockabilly didn’t actually begin as a style – it was a style of music, one of the earliest forms of rock n’ roll. That means rockabilly can lay claim to the early pioneer of rock music.
Yup, the King himself. Elvis Presley.
Elvis’s music style on his early recordings – rhythm-driven and intense – is a textbook example of rockabilly music.
In the late 40s, broadcast radio played a mix of blues, R&B, and gospel, music which spurred white working-class musicians to blend black music styles with hillbilly boogie, honky tonk, western swing, and bluegrass.
The result was rockabilly – which, in its original use, literally meant rock played by hillbillies.
The rockabilly of the 21st century is more of a lifestyle than a music style. There was a revival in the 70s following Elvis’s death, but the style’s strong basis in stylized Americana has made it popular outside of the U.S.
What does that mean for American rockabilly girls? For one thing, your style is uniquely yours to experiment with – which is what rock n’ roll is all about.
Pin-Up vs Retro vs Rockabilly
First things first. What the heck is the difference between rockabilly clothing and retro? Or rockabilly and pin-up? Are they the same thing?
No, they’re not the same. The words don’t even necessarily mean the same thing that they did in ye olden days.
They are related, as they all refer to styles based in the 50s (except for retro, which we’ll talk about in a minute.)
Pin-up is a classic 50s style, though the pin-up style of today is different than the pin-up of the 50s. Why? It has to do with the liberation (and objectification) of women over several centuries.
The pin-up girl of the 1950s referred to a large photograph or illustration of a woman meant for pinning up on the wall – thus, pin-up girl. She was erotic, but also (in the beginning) fair game to hang up at work.
Pin-up style as we know it is based on 50s style, meant to play up feminity (and thus, to hint at female sexuality). Clothes are feminine, bold and playful (think bright floral prints and polka dots) and designed to emphasize hourglass curves.
Considering adding pin-up to your style? Check out our post on how to master your pin-up look.
That’s so retro!
The way we use this phrase tells you something about the style. It isn’t one specific style per se. It’s an aesthetic.
That is, retro isn’t based on any one particular era. It picks and chooses elements from a variety of time periods to gently suggest an old-soul style. Think fit-and-flare dresses or whimsical flares like chunky Mary Janes or tights.
The star of the show, rockabilly clothing!
Due to its roots in rock, rockabilly is a powerful style. It emphasizes bold colors (red is a girl’s best friend) as well as animal prints and showstopper details like skulls and bows. In other words, it’s a whole lot louder than pin-up and retro, and it’s not about to apologize for it.
Ready to roll? Check out our selection of rockabilly clothing.
No, it’s not an Alfred Hitchcock reference.
Rockabilly clothing has some style spinoffs connected to when the music style blended with other varieties of rock. The one you’ll encounter the most is psychobilly.
So What is It?
Consider this motto, “live fast, die young, leave a (not so pretty) corpse” and you’ve more or less summed up punkabilly.
Psychobilly came about as a blend of punk rock and rockabilly. There’s also a strong love of horror movies of the B variety. Think green slime and cavemen with a healthy dose of punk’s f-the-world mentality.
If you want exact dates, you can probably pin it on 1976 thanks to the Cramps, the first band to label themselves punkabilly.
It’s an eclectic hot mess, and it features more brash elements than rockabilly clothing. There’s no green slime, but green hair wouldn’t be out of place. Nor would acid green.
Thanks to the goth elements, you’ll also see accents like gravestones and bats, along with far more tattoos than your typical rockabilly, although rockabilly 50s elements like winged eyeliner and swing dresses are also on display.
The Basics of Rockabilly Clothing
Now that we’ve talked about what rockabilly clothing style is not, let’s talk about what rockabilly style is. Rockabilly can be flexible, but here are a few classic elements of a classic rockabilly look.
No, it’s not a strict rockabilly clothing requirement that you wear stilettos. Saddle shoes, badass engineer boots, or – if you’re looking to borrow from the guys – penny loafers are great alternative options if you’re worried about the safety of your ankles.
If you are game for stilettos, though, they add a great 50s feminine flair. Especially in lipstick red.
Name a rock concert you’ve visited lately that didn’t include mobs of people in jeans.
Back in the 50s, jeans were a sign that you were a rockabilly from the right side of the tracks. Cuffs were out of necessity since jeans were bought with growing room. Nowadays, they’re a sure sign of a rockabilly clothing fashion statement.
Remember: the keyword is bold.
When you doll up rockabilly style, the goal is to be noticed. Defined eyebrows are a great starting point, complimented with piles of winged black eyeliner and false eyelashes.
Keep your eyeshadow neutral, though – your eyeliner will do plenty of talking.
Bold Patterned Skirts and Halter Tops
Pin-up style is about the feminine. Rockabilly clothing is about being loud and walking the rebel walk.
Where skirts are concerned, this leaves the modern rockabilly girl plenty of options. In the early days of rockabilly, regional touches meant you could see a lot of variation.
Generally, the “right side of the tracks” rockabilly girls could be seen in swing skirts or full skirt dresses with crinoline and ponytails. It was a girlified version of the classic 50s look because these girls couldn’t or wouldn’t go all-out rebel.
On the other hand, those who wanted to show off their bad girl side opted for scandalous pencil skirts and sweaters that didn’t leave much to the imagination. Halter tops were also popular for this reason.
Make no mistake though: these weren’t their mamas’ skirts. Rockabilly clothing, especially skirts, is known to feature wild patterns including leopard print, cherry, moody florals and polka dots.
Few things scream rockabilly woman like a killer shade of red lipstick. Here’s a quick three-step guide to pull off your best Dita Von Teese red in three minutes flat.
- Line your lips with black liner (pencil eyeliner will work fine. Preferably with a duller edge so you don’t stab yourself.)
- Apply your favorite deep red. Cherry red is a good option, especially when pairing with other reds in your outfit.
- Blend the edges. This may take a few tries to get the hang of it, so be patient.
Et voila. Bring it on, world, because rockabilly lipstick is in the house.
Rosie the Riveter knew what’s up.
A bandana adds a more casual aspect to your rockabilly clothing, as well as a tougher edge. Just, don’t wear it like it’s a shower-skipping day and you’re hiding your whole head.
For how to tie your rockabilly bandana, refer back to Rosie the Riveter (like we said, she knew what’s up). Rosie’s bandana is rolled and then tied around her head. To do this, roll your bandana, wrap it around the back of your head and tie it on top.
Seriously, though. If it is a shower-skipping day, you can wear the bandana Aunt Jemima style and leave your pompadour bangs out for the rockabilly effect. The point is to not make it look like you’re hiding your greasy locks.
That said, dirty hair does help you hold classic rockabilly hairstyles more easily. Especially victory rolls.
Real talk: victory rolls aren’t actually from the 50s. They’ve been adopted by modern pin-up girls and rockabillies to gesture to the era because the hairstyle is so iconic.
A second dose of real talk: victory rolls are not for the fainthearted home hairstylist. They’re difficult, often frustrating, and time-consuming if you don’t know what you’re doing.
In these trying times, YouTube is a wonderful invention of the 21st century. So is our blog post on 7 steps to perfect pin-up curls.
Ladies, heat your curlers.
And you thought victory rolls were a pain? Oh sweetie, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
The pompadour requires time, patience and a diligent commitment to making a statement with your hair. There are a lot of ways to create the pompadour, including using your bangs or your entire supply of hair.
Beginners, don’t get overambitious on us. Try out just your bangs first to make sure a) you like the style, b) you know how to do it and c) the effort required to create the pompadour won’t make you want to set your hair on fire.
The Rules of Rockabilly (Are Made for Breaking)
Wait, what? Has rockabilly clothing got rules?
Not a single one that you need to worry about.
The further you get into rockabilly (and the advice blogs out there) the more you’ll run into certain rockabilly “rules” until you’re convinced you’re not rockabilly unless you meet x requirements before walking out the door.
Listen: your rockabilly style is about you. Here are three silly rockabilly “rules” and why you ought to break them.
Rule #1: Stray Cats Fans = Rockabilly Traitors
Side note to beginners: the Stray Cats were a band in the 80s credited as part of the rockabilly revival, albeit a stylized version. For this reason, their music and style and overall rockabilly-ness are a point of contention among rockabilly purists.
Now to our key points.
- Music taste is personal.
- Yes, the Stray Cats aren’t “genuine rockabilly” so much as an exaggerated, extravagant rockabilly.
- Does it matter? Nope.
- If you like the music, and you like rockabilly, you are still a rockabilly kid. No ifs, ands or buts.
Rule #2: Betty Page (Bangs) is a Requirement
Listen. We love Betty Page as much as the next vintage girl. But those Betty Page bangs are not universal.
Not everyone has the face shape for bangs. Not everyone’s hair curls cooperatively. Not everyone’s hair forms bangs well. Not everyone likes bangs.
For these reasons and many more, don’t limit your rockabilly clothing icons to Betty Page.
Rule #3: Genuine Vintage Clothes Are a Must
Let’s get real. Vintage clothes are going to frustrate you.
Genuine vintage clothes, that is. That’s because they’re not designed with a modern wearer in mind.
As we talked about in a previous blog post, most genuine vintage clothes are designed to fit a waist 10 inches smaller than the bust.
Get out a measuring tape. When’s the last time your waist was 10 inches narrower than your bust? Unless you wear corsets on a daily basis, probably never (which we don’t recommend, by the way. It’s horrible for your organs.)
A true 50s dress will leave you with a tight waist and a bust that looks more like a pillowcase. Stick with vintage inspired.
Rock Your Rockabilly Clothing
Congrats! You’re not a rockabilly newbie anymore!
We’re a trusted seller of high-quality vintage-inspired dresses, and we’re delighted to be a part of your adventure in rockabilly clothing. For the soundtrack to your rockabilly style, check out our blog post on the 10 best rockabilly songs of all time. Rock on.