During World War II (1939–45) fashion had taken a backseat to the war effort, and dress designers had been severely limited in what they could make as governments placed severe restrictions on the kinds and amounts of cloth designers could use. In the fifteen years that followed the end of the war, fashions in the West went through a series of sweeping changes. Women's fashions reached levels of richness and luxury that had not been seen since the turn of the previous century. In addition, fashions across Europe and the United States highlighted women's femininity and Paris, France, reclaimed its spot as the fashion capital of the world.
In 1947 French designer Christian Dior (1905–1957) introduced a collection of women's clothes that shattered all the wartime rules. Called the New Look, this collection was most notable for its long, billowing skirts with many pleats. One of his dresses used fifteen yards of fabric. Many people were offended by the excess of Dior's collection. They felt his dresses were an insult to a world economy that was still deeply troubled after the war. But Dior's New Look soon became extremely popular. Wealthy women clamored to wear his dresses, and manufacturers soon copied his styles, introducing a range of clothing modeled on the New Look. For the next seven years, Dior's look, which included soft, rounded shoulders, a narrow waist, and accessories like gloves and umbrellas, was the single biggest influence on fashion.
Dior's New Look was part of a larger return to femininity across the Western world. The war years had forced women into unusual roles. Many worked outside the home for the first time, and the clothes they wore did not accentuate their female forms. As men returned from the war to claim jobs and start families, women also returned to more traditional roles. During the Great Depression (1929–41) and World War II women's magazines had emphasized
The rise of ready-to-wear
Ever since the nineteenth century Paris had dominated the world of fashion. The best designers lived in Paris. They introduced their styles, and those styles were loved and copied around the world. But when German conquerors took control of France during World War II, the dominance of Paris was interrupted. Some French designers left their country, and designers in the United States and England looked to develop fashion houses of their own. (A fashion house is the term for a small company that designs, makes, and sells high-quality clothing and accessories. It is usually associated with a single designer.) After the war the daring designs of Christian Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895–1972), Hubert de Givenchy (1927–), and others helped refocus attention on Paris, and Paris did remain an important center for fashion. However, the emergence in the 1950s of Italian designers such as Roberto Capucci (1930–) and Simonetta Visconti, and of American designers such as Claire McCardell (1905–1958), seriously challenged French dominance of women's clothing design.
Another major challenge to the dominance of the Paris fashion houses was the rise of the ready-to-wear clothing industry controlled by large international corporations. Before the war if a person wanted well-made clothing they had to have it custom made by a tailor, and they paid a premium price. During the war manufacturers developed skills in making clothing, especially military uniforms, that allowed them to make quality clothing to fit different sizes of people. As a result regular people could now afford well-made, quality clothing called ready-to-wear, because it was purchased ready to wear without need for alterations from a tailor. Ready-to-wear clothing companies sent representatives to the major fashion shows, purchased top-quality clothing, and then made and marketed clothing lines based on high-fashion designs. This allowed common people to wear fashionable-looking clothes, but it certainly changed the fashion industry. The Paris fashion houses clothed the very wealthy, and the ready-to-wear industry provided inexpensive imitations for the masses. Before too long the designers figured out that there was more money to be made selling to the masses, and they began to develop ready-to-wear lines of their own. This was a major change in the fashion industry from the first half of the century, and it continues to this day.
Conformity and the youth explosion
One of the drawbacks of the rise of the ready-to-wear industry was that it allowed everybody to look the same. Major retail chains such as Sears and J.C. Penney sold clothes nationwide in the United States, and they didn't make major changes in their clothing lines from year to year. Also, the trend in the United States after the war was to fit in with the crowd and not cause a disturbance. These trends led to real conformity in the way that Americans dressed. People didn't want to stick out and look different, so they chose safe, conservative clothes. For businessmen this meant the gray flannel suit, the uniform of the white-collar, or business professional, worker. For women this meant a simple tight-waisted dirndl skirt and a sweater, or a range of mix-and-match sportswear. This mix-and-match look for mature women was known as the American Look. And for college students the favored look was called the Preppy Look.
While American adults valued conformity in their clothing styles, in the mid-1950s young people began to develop distinctive styles of their own. In France in the late 1940s young people calling themselves "Existentialists" dressed in shabby clothing to show their disdain for fashion. As their name implied, they existed just to exist, so clothes didn't matter so much. A similar group of Americans called themselves beats, or beatniks. Both groups favored jeans for men and women, leather jackets, and the color black. In England stylish youths pursued the teddy-boy look, wearing long jackets with velvet collars and other extravagant outfits. By the mid-1950s, however, youth styles had gone more mainstream. The rise of rock 'n' roll music encouraged youths around the world to rebel against their parents' values, and one of the main ways they did so was through clothes. The uniform of the rebellious rocker consisted of blue jeans, a T-shirt, a leather jacket, and black boots.
The 1940s and 1950s were a fascinating time for fashion. On the one hand there were daring innovations in style, offered by big-name designers; on the other hand many people tried to look like everyone else by buying ready-to-wear clothes from major chains. It was a time when even the rebels tried to look just like other rebels, and little girls around the world took their fashion cues from a teenage fashion doll named Barbie.
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Miller, Brandon Marie. Dressed for the Occasion: What Americans Wore 1620–1970. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 1999.
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Steele, Valerie. Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.