Post–World War II: 1946–60

The world woke up from a six-year-long nightmare in the summer of 1945. World War II (1939–45), which had pitted the Allied forces of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, Canada, Australia, and other nations against the Axis forces of Germany, Japan, Italy, Austria, and others, finally ended, but the effects of the war lingered on for years afterward. The economies of Europe and Japan were in ruins, and people around the world struggled to recover from the deadliest war in human history. Yet over the next fifteen years, the world did recover. Led by the United States, the economies of the world expanded and people in the West enjoyed new access to consumer goods. Meanwhile, countries such as the Soviet Union and China embraced a radical form of government known as communism. Political differences between the United States and the Soviet Union, headed by Russia, soon led to the Cold War (1945–91), and nations across the globe aligned themselves with one of the two world powers. Amid the difficulties and excitement of postwar recovery, economic expansion, and renewed conflict, people turned to fashion for relief from their worries and for ways to express themselves.

Postwar politics

Changes in world politics proved to be very important in the years after World War II. The United States and Russia were allies

Following World War II, there was an emphasis in American society on conforming to standards of dress and behavior. Reproduced by permission of © .
during the war, but that friendship would not last for long. The problem was that the two countries had very different ideologies, or ideas about how political and economic systems should work. The United States was a capitalist multiparty democracy, which meant that people had the opportunity to seek out economic gain for themselves and that all citizens had the right to elect their representatives from among several political parties. Russia, which headed an alliance of nations that came to be known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the Soviet Union, was a Communist state. Individuals could not own property, and the profits of everyone's labor were pooled and distributed by the government, which was controlled by the Communist Party. The Soviet Union granted everyone the right to vote, but voters could only choose representatives selected by the Communist Party. In practice it was the party that controlled the state, and the people had little say.

The United States and the Soviet Union were so opposed to each other that each suspected the other of seeking to control the world. As soon as World War II ended tensions grew between the two countries, called superpowers because they were the strongest countries to emerge from the war. Both countries developed powerful nuclear weapons that they could use to destroy the other. Both countries created huge armies and posted them near each other's borders. They began to spy on each other, and they tried to convince other countries to join with them against the other. They created a world in which countries had to choose sides and join with the capitalist West or the Communists. Their conflict, which lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, was called the Cold War, and it dominated the world politics of the era. In the capitalist West economies boomed and people enjoyed access to a range of consumer goods, including fashionable clothes and shoes; in the Communist world people lived in very basic conditions and cared little about such luxuries as fashion. For example, in Communist China, all people were required to wear simple clothing to show that there were no differences in social class. Fashionable attire in the postwar world was only made in capitalist countries, making the West the center of fashion between 1946 and 1960.

The rise of consumerism

The United States emerged from World War II the most powerful country in the world. Though it had spent billions of dollars fighting the war, it sustained little damage. In fact the war had strengthened the United States's ability to produce goods, and the United States found the ruined economies of Europe and the rest of the world markets hungry for U.S. products. The United States created a plan to help rebuild the economies of Europe called the Marshall Plan, named after the U.S. secretary of state George Marshall (1880–1959). It provided aid to European countries in exchange for a commitment to capitalism. The United States helped Europe recover, and in turn European countries became the biggest consumers, or users, of U.S. goods.

Helping others helped the United States, and its economy boomed in the 1950s. This boom helped create a condition called consumerism, which meant that people had enough money to allow them to produce a range of goods beyond the bare necessities. Americans purchased televisions, automobiles, homes, and clothes in record numbers. They were encouraged by an advertising industry that developed a range of ways to convince people to buy their products. Advertisements on television and radio, and in magazines continually urged Americans to purchase more and more goods. The result was the creation of what historians now call a consumer society, where the consumption of non-necessary goods and services drives the economy.

One of the biggest industries to benefit from the end of the war and the rise of consumerism was the fashion industry. People had grown tired of the clothing restrictions that governments had enacted during wartime, and soon returned to wearing luxurious and expressive clothing. New fashion trends such as the New Look and the American Look for women and the Bold Look for men offered more lavish styling and richer fabrics than had been available for years.

Clothing manufacturers who had produced millions of military uniforms for servicemen fighting in World War II had figured out how to mass-produce clothing, and in the years after the war they began to market well-made and even stylish clothes to common people. Stylish clothing once had been only for the rich, but after World War II members of the ever-growing middle class could afford good clothes. Fashion magazines like Esquire for men and Vogue for women promoted these new fashions, and giant national retailers like Sears and J.C. Penney sold them.

Conformity and rebellion

The end of one war and the beginnings of the Cold War created real stresses in American social life. Soldiers returned from the war eager to return to normal life, to buy homes, start families, and hold regular jobs. There was a national enthusiasm for a return to normality that created pressures for people to conform to standards of dress and behavior. Businessmen were happy to have a uniform, the gray flannel suit, for their daily work dress, and women embraced mix-and-match sportswear and clingy sweaters with real enthusiasm. Men wore crew cuts and women wore bouffant and beehive hairstyles. The 1950s are often simplified as a time of great conformity, a time when everybody wanted to act, think, talk, and dress the same.

By the mid-1950s, however, a growing movement away from the conformity and regularity of adult culture developed in both Europe and the United States. Teenagers in Europe and the United States began to reject the values and conventions of their parents. They listened to a new form of music called rock 'n' roll, and they adopted new rebellious clothing styles. By the late 1950s the Western world saw the emergence of a definable youth movement, and in the 1960s that movement would begin to dominate fashion.

The sweeping political and social changes of the years 1946 to 1960 had a direct relation to the fashions that people wore. From women wearing the billowy New Look dresses of 1947 to the gray-flannel-suited businessmen of the early 1950s to the dangerous-looking greasers of the late 1950s, the way people dressed reflected their attitudes about the changing social and political climate of the period.


Anderson, Dale. The Cold War Years. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 2001.

Finkelstein, Norman H. The Way Things Never Were: The Truth about the Good Old Days. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1999.

Gerdes, Louise I. The 1940s. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

Kallen, Stuart A, ed. The 1950s. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

Reynolds, Helen. The 40s and 50s: Utility to New Look. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens, 2000.

Scott, A. C. Chinese Costume in Transition. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1960.

Xun, Zhous. 5000 Years of Chinese Costumes. San Francisco, CA: China Books and Periodicals, 1987.

Dress in Communist China
Clothing, 1946–60
Headwear, 1946–60
Body Decorations, 1946–60
Footwear, 1946–60

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