Girl with greased quiff and leather jacket, 1959, AB Helsingborgs-Bild, Kulturmagasinet, Helsingborgs museer, Public Domain Mark

With its roots in the United States, rock 'n' roll was seen by many as a detrimental influence on European culture. Parents worried that this new style of music and its wild dances would have a negative impact on their children’s morals. Despite their efforts, Europe’s youth fell en masse for the revolutionary songs about themes they struggled with daily. Rock 'n' roll became the vehicle for a counterculture driven by protest, looking for a way out of a conformist society.

Paul Anka performs at Linnanmäellä, August 1959, U. A. Saarinen, Museovirasto - Finnish Heritage Agency, CC BY-NC-ND
Paul Anka performs at Linnanmäellä, August 1959, U. A. Saarinen, Museovirasto - Finnish Heritage Agency, CC BY-NC-ND

While teenagers embraced the ‘violent and noisy’ rock 'n' roll of Elvis Presley, the milder style of artists such as Paul Anka was more widely accepted.

Seen in the press photograph above is Anka – himself just a teenager – during his first performance on Finnish soil, to which his female fans reportedly greeted him with ‘a sound stronger than a million swifts’.

Rock-Olga, August 1959, Örebro Kuriren, Örebro läns museum, Public Domain Mark
Rock-Olga, August 1959, Örebro Kuriren, Örebro läns museum, Public Domain Mark

Whilst American rock music gained popularity across Europe, many countries soon had their own versions – from Chou Rave Hageur et ses Hot Dogs in France to The Dynamites in The Netherlands, Corrado Ei 93 in Italy and Rocke-Pelle in Norway. 

In Sweden, one of the first superstars was Birgit Jacobsson, alias Rock-Olga. After winning a talent competition and a bet with a competing singer using the same stage name, Rock-Olga went on to take her country by storm.

In the UK, where the economic revival was more limited, rock-and-roll culture became attached to the Teddy Boys, a youth movement with its own dress code that boosted the development of teenage culture. 

While Teddy Boys ignited a new fashion market, women’s clothes adhered to a more formal style. With shaped bust lines, full skirts, rounded shoulders and fitted waistlines, the dominating silhouette was radically feminine and iconic of the era – even though it stemmed from the late 1940s and Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’.

Combining elegance and comfort, here is Dior’s take on the adventurous modern woman. Having recognised the motor scooter’s popularity with French women, Dior was inspired by racing outfits for this ensemble of a wind-cheater type tunic with knee-length breeches.

The 1950s were also an iconic age in architecture and interior design. The Milan Triennial was an important forum dedicated to industrial, architectural and design innovation.

This picture by Italian master photographer Paolo Monti documents the 11th edition of the international exhibition and shows the American pavilion designed by Walter Dorwin Teague and Paul McCobb. 

11th Triennale in Milan ‘Eclettismo-formalismo’, 1957, Paolo Monti, Fondazione Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura (BEIC), CC BY-SA
11th Triennale in Milan ‘Eclettismo-formalismo’, 1957, Paolo Monti, Fondazione Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura (BEIC), CC BY-SA

Known as Mid-Century Modern (MCM), the style of the pavilion reflects trends also seen in contemporary European design: simplicity, inspiration from nature, curved silhouettes, use of glass and aluminum, spatiality, a bright palette, and a close link between form, function and aesthetics.

Fifties design and architecture have been in vogue ever since. Among vintage enthusiasts, remnants of the ‘golden age of Scandinavian design’ – with legendary designers such as Arne Jacobsen and Hans Wegner – are particularly coveted and the democratic ideals of movement resonate within today’s society.

Poul Henningsen with kites, 1957, Gunvor Jørgsholm & Gunvor Betting, The National Library of Denmark and Copenhagen University Library, CC BY-NC-ND
Poul Henningsen with kites, 1957, Gunvor Jørgsholm & Gunvor Betting, The National Library of Denmark and Copenhagen University Library, CC BY-NC-ND

Portrayed here is another one of Scandinavia’s greats: Poul Henningsen, designer of the famed PH-lamp series. Henningsen was also a multimedia artist, culture critic and an avid fan of kites. Throughout his life he studied the history of kites and built his own models. In 1955 he published P.H.’s Kite Book as a token to his lifelong passion.

Yet the 1950s were not all about innovation and forward-looking trends – as this photograph shows. The interior’s mix of patterned carpets, lace curtains and embroidered table runners is, in its own way, echoed in contemporary interiors under the guise of ‘boho-chic’.

Jubilee amidst a sea of flowers, 1953, Olof Bellander, Malmö museer, CC BY
Jubilee amidst a sea of flowers, 1953, Olof Bellander, Malmö museer, CC BY