In 1939, the onset of World War II in Europe, which was well-established as the fashion center of the Western World, brought swift and dramatic changes to the ways in which women dressed and thought about clothes.

Most of the top Parisian fashion houses closed in 1940 after France was occupied by Germany. Chanel, for example, shuttered and didn’t reopen until 1954. England, in the meantime, had to put all its resources into fighting back Hitler’s armies. Women signed up for the armed forces, and men were shocked at the site of women in uniforms, usually a khaki jacket with a knee-length skirt. As a result, women’s civilian clothes also became more militaristic, masculine, and severe.

The emphasis, particularly in England, was on the austere, “utility” look, as embellishments, frills, and lavish accessories were traded in for more understated and responsible common-sense fashion. Clothing designers touted these spared-down designs as a matter of national pride and allegiance to the war effort.

The trademark early ’40s look was a two-piece suit, the jacket featuring square shoulders and a fitted waist, paired with a straight skirt with a pleat or two. Another popular look was the shirtwaist dress with a minimal number of buttons, or a lightly pleated or gathered skirt, the waist defined by a narrow belt.

In June 1941, the British government ordered the rationing of cloth, clothing, and footwear. A household’s clothing allowance was a very modest 66 coupons, the same amount as its margarine allowance. By the end of the war, this rationing was reduced to 36 coupons. Costly imported silk stocking were also banned in that year.

Clothes made in England in those days used sturdy fabrics because they had to last a long time. Fashion magazines gave beauty advice on how to save buttons and fasteners, how to recondition handbags and shoes, and how to make cosmetics last. Decorative pockets were out, while trimmings were often made of dull colors, as dye was not available.

With Paris couture nearly out of commission and British fashion becoming necessarily spare, for the first time the world turned to America for fashion leadership—rationing in the...

As in the previous decade, the most influential force in fashion at the time was Hollywood glamour, which offered an escape from the grim realities of war. Naturally, regular women coveted the elegant evening gowns they saw on screen, particularly Joan Crawford’s sharply tailored look. But gossip magazines also fed the obsession with the daily lives of stars like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, and Lana Turner, showing them playing golf or lounging by the pool, which led to an interest in sportswear and casual dress.

In contrast to the stark British fashion, day-to-day American shirtdresses were made in vivid cotton prints, with bold abstract designs, patriotic red-white-and-blue patterns, and black-and-white polka dots or checks. Women living alone at home and working in factories embraced a practical casual style, with jackets, blouses, skirts, and slacks that could be mixed and matched. Headscarves became acceptable to wear in public.

Other popular American looks included “Mexican” peasant blouses, polka-dot “Pioneer” dresses, and checked “Country-and-Western” skirts. Levi-Strauss and Co.’s denim dungarees, now known as jeans, were becoming more popular with the general public, whereas only workmen had worn them before. America also pioneered the concept of “chemical” clothing made of synthetic materials like rayon and nylon, which spared precious natural resources such as cotton.

Even after the war ended in 1945, its impact on fashion could still be felt, particularly in the new mass-production techniques employed to make thousands of uniforms. But in 1947, new Parisian fashion designer Christian Dior asserted his bold “New Look” on the runway, a radical change from war-era fashion.

A call for returning women to femininity, Dior’s dresses featured tiny wasp waists, often created by built-in corsets, and incredibly full ankle-length skirts. These clothes used an abundance of fabric and trimmings, which helped restore France’s textile industry. The look was wildly popular, dominating fashion right until the end of the ’50s.

Dior called his line “Corolle,” which was French for flower petals. Indeed, compared to the utilitarian, World War II fashions that had dominated the first half of the decade, Dior’s collection was a bouquet of bounty, with yards upon yards of fabric lavished on just one dress.

In the postwar years and throughout the 1950s, designers were sometimes as fashionable as the styles they created. For example, when Christian Dior introduced his New Look in 1947, as much attention was paid to the professional debut of this new—but not young—designer as the collection itself.

Though the fashion press fawned over Dior (“Vogue” covered him obsessively until his death in 1957), many Europeans were shocked by the excessive use of material at a time when fabric was still be rationed. Others resented the ornamentation of women—fellow Parisian Coco Chanel dismissed Dior’s look as the equivalent of dressing women up like armchairs.

Chanel had been a fashion icon since the 1920s. Unable to sit by idly while Dior got all the glory, in 1954, at 71, Chanel, emerged from retirement to re-invent her trademark suit, which she now gave a shorter skirt and a matching cardigan jacket with braid for trim.

Perhaps in deference to Chanel and others, Dior’s subsequent collections were more pared down than Corolle. For example, his A-line dresses, whose silhouette resembled the letter A, were quickly embraced by scores of other designers, who saw them as the fashion equivalents of the clean lines found in Mid-Century Modern design.

Another great designer of this period was Yves Saint Laurent, who began his career at Dior in 1954 when he was still a teenager. After Dior’s death in 1957, Saint Laurent, who was only 21, was named Dior’s chief designer. This was a huge responsibility for the young designer and French fashion in general—at the time, Dior accounted for almost 50 percent of France’s fashion exports.

Happily, Saint Laurent’s spring 1958 collection for Dior was a huge success, the centerpiece of which was a line of trapeze dresses, which were narrow at the shoulders and wide at the hem. Saint Laurent had saved Dior and the French economy in one blow, but his fall 1958 collection was a critical and commercial disaster, as was the Left Bank-inspired Beat Look that followed.

The same year that Dior introduced his New Look, Emilio Pucci was on the ski slopes in Zermatt, Switzerland. That’s where “Harper’s Bazaar” photographer Toni Frissell admired a pair of stretch-fabric ski pants that Pucci had designed. Frisell invited Pucci to create some women’s winter fashions for an upcoming feature.

This chance encounter led to Pucci’s career as a designer of silk blouses and dresses covered with outrageously colorful prints—geometric combinations of purple, aqua, and white were tame compared to his trippy floral patterns of pink, green, yellow, and orange. In addition to tops, Pucci designed Capri slacks in vibrant solid colors, as well as scarves, silk handbags, and gloves.

By the 1950s Cristobal Balenciaga was pairing his gowns with equally enormous purple-velvet coats, while Gucci was introducing its now iconic green-red-green stripe, which was reportedly taken from the girth, or cinch, that secures a saddle to a horse. In other circles, cocktail dresses by a variety of designers were considered the height of fashion, or at least the most fashionable thing in one’s closet.

Sleeveless cocktail dresses from the 1950s ranged from basic black numbers favored by film sirens and would-be vixens to only slightly less modest wiggle dresses in metallic brocade. Cotton prints with arms that stopped above the elbow and peekaboo details around the waist were also common.

For 1950s girls attending the high-school proms, white party dresses were widely embraced, but so were billowy gowns in a range of colors, from pastel pinks to lipstick reds. Regardless of the color, a woven mesh called tulle, usually made from silk, rayon, or nylon and almost always starched, was the prom-dress fabric of choice.

Many prom dresses from this period were strapless, held aloft by fitted bodices, most of which were lined and boned. Sometimes a pastel tulle dress would be trimmed with white lace, other times taffeta in a contrasting or complimentary color would be wrapped around tulle at the waist and below the bust to create a form-fitting bustle.

Just about every department store sold prom dresses; you could even pick one up at Sears. Some of the 1950s labels that were best known for excelling at the form included Emma Domb, Dior, Mainbocher, and Will Steinman.

The 1950s was also the decade of the circle skirts. Unlike the boxy styles of the war years, circle skirts were loose and exuberant. Designed to flare to perfect circles when dancing, these longer skirts often featured appliqués of slogans and animals such as squirrels, kittens, and, of course, poodles. Very popular then, iconic 1950s poodle skirts are highly collectible today.

For tops, young women often wore cashmere sweaters, as in a pink cardigan over a pink poodle skirt. Such cardigans were often richly embroidered. Angora remained popular, but Orlon, Acrilan, and other synthetic knits that could be washed and worn by teenage girls gained favor as the 1950s progressed.

Women’s coat-and-jacket designers appropriated numerous looks that had been intended for male soldiers and seamen during the war years. There was the peacoat, a stiff, woolen garment that was particularly good at beating back chill ocean winds. Women also claimed World War I-era trench coat styles for their own.

In the pool or at the beach, women in the postwar years still wore wool swimsuits (these are quite collectible today), but wool was not the only material used by swimwear manufacturers. Stretch satin was also employed, and by the end of the 1940s, when the first two-piece suits began to appear, fast-drying nylon and Celanese rayon had essentially taken over.

By the 1950s, swimwear designers were sprinkling the outsides of their one-piece swimsuits with rhinestones and elaborate appliqué designs. But the biggest news of the 1950s was the smallest swimsuit ever, the bikini. As usual, Hollywood paved the way for its acceptance when it promoted the 1956 film “And God Created Woman” by hyping Bridget Bardot’s bikini scenes.

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