During the first half of the 20th century, designers were an unquestionably important part of the fashion world, but 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. 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.

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 a...

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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)



The history of 20th-century women’s fashion largely played out in the pages of magazines such as “Harper’s Ba… [read review or visit site]

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

The Fashion Columbia Study Collection (FCSC) is the digital home of the Columbia College Chicago’s fashion archiv… [read review or visit site]

1960s Fashion and Textiles

1960s Fashion and Textiles

Put on your go-go boots and check out this wavy, groovy tribute to 1960s fashion and textiles, courtesy of the Vict… [read review or visit site]

Vintage Fashion Guild

Vintage Fashion Guild

The VFG is a non-profit international educational organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of vinta… [read review or visit site]



Bursting at the seams with content, this site contains hundreds of pages of fashion and costume history, including … [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage 40s 50s Orignal Nabre Mantles Suit Jacket With Real Fur Trim 12 14 MVintage 50s 60s Original Green Lurex Wiggle Dress 6 8 Xs S Vintage 50s Original Sketchy Floral Print Nylon Dress A Lorna Model 10 12 S M Vintage 50s Original Deep Blue Velvet Cocktail Dress 10 S Vtg 50s Sheer Voile Navy + White Polkadot Pleated Flutter Nautical Midi Dress SmVintage 50s Original Mint Green And Black Lurex Cocktail Dress 10 12 S M Vintage 50s Original Three Piece Set- Bodice Skirt And Wrap 6 8 S Vintage 50s Original Velvet And Taffeta Rhinestone Floral Dress 10 S Vintage 50s Original Unusual Heavy Satin Dress By Elmoor 8 10 S Vintage 50s Original Bullocks Pink Satin Brocade Dress W Full Skirt 8 S Vintage 50s Original Susan Small Black Velvet Cocktail Dress 10 S Full Skirt Exquisite! 1940s-1950s Lilli Ann Swing Coat Cape • flecked Black Wool & VelvetVtg Ca 1950s Chimayo Southwest New Mexico Red Blanket Jacket, Likely Ortega LVintage 50s 60s70s Pendleton All Wool Check Jacket W Tie Waist 10 12 S M Vintage 1950s Brown Brocade Tapestry Silver Fox Fur Collar Princess Coat JacketVintage 50s Original Check Print Cotton Shirtwaister Dress 12 M Vintage 50s Original Emerald Green Shot Silk Taffeta Party Dress 8 S Vintage 50s Border Santas Sleigh Extremely Full Novelty Christmas Skirt Lucy DayVintage 50s Van Raalte Sheerio Nylon Panties Lace Legs Dbl Mushroom Gusset H34Vintage 50s 60s Girdles Lot W Garters Dead Stock Medium Small~ Vintage 50's Vanity Fair Sweet Tangerine Lace Inset Nylon Panties 6 ~ ~ Vintage 50's "roomy" Babydoll Pink Lorraine Tailored Nylon Panties 7 ~ Rare Vtg 1950s Pink Sheer Nylon Pretty Dove Grey Lace Full Bum Pantie Knickers LVintage 40s 50s Original Pale Pink Flocked Tendrils Evening Dress 8 S Vintage 50s Original Novelty Print Cotton Skirt By Sportaville 6 8 Xs S Vintage 50s Orignal Harella Blue Label Grey Suit Jacket 14 16 M L Vintage Hand Painted Mexican Circle Skirt 1950s La Moda Al Dia Donkeys & VillageVintage 50s Original Sqwaw Patio Set Dress Top And Skirt Alpha Sportswear 8 S Vintage Original 50s Emerald Green Knitted Lurex Full Length Dress 16 18 20 L XlVintage 50s Original Silver Brocade And Magenta Full Length Evening Dress 10 S Vintage 1950s St Michael Sheer Bri-nylon Lacy Flouncy Slip Dress Petticoat 36"Vintage 50s Full Circle Skirt Holiday Christmas Charms Novelty Iowa DistressedVtg 50s Woven Nude Silk Minimalist Tailored Tie Belt Midi Wiggle Party Dress S/m~ Vintage 50's So Adorable Gotham Cream Nylon Panties W/ Wide Double Gusset 6 ~ Vintage 50s Original Gold Lurex Capri Trousers 8 10 S Vintage 50s Original Red Velvet Skirt By Valentine London Alpine Pockets 10 S Vintage Garterbelt Garter Belt Garters 1950s Siimone Sheer Black Lingerie 26Rare Vintage 1950s Sheer Sensual Nylon Frilly Lace Full Bum Pantie Knickers L/xlVtg 1950s Genuine Russian Sable Mink Fur Dress Coat Wrap Tails Collar Stole Boa Vtg 1950's Carlye Black Lace W/ Chiffon Streamers Cocktail Dress Pin-up Sz M~ Vintage 50's Gotham Sheerest Chocolate "feather" Motif Double Gusset Panties 6Vintage 50s 60s Ll Bean Wool Jacket Plaid Black Red Cream Hunting Camping Thick Gold Brocade Evening Dress & Fur-trimmed Jacket Vintage 1950's~ Vintage 50's Munsingwear Sunny Yellow Satin Stitched Semi Sheer Panties 6 ~ Vtg 1950s 50s Black Floral Cotton Full Skirt Shirtwaist Rockabilly Day Dress S/m~ Vintage 50's Vanity Fair Classic Lace Front Nylon Tricot Black Panties 7 ~ Vintage 40s 50s Kraeler Wool Swing Coat Vintage Full Slip Silky Nylon Blue Pennys Gaymode 1950s Shadow Panel Lingerie 44Vintage 50s 60s Autumn Haze Emba Mink Fur Stole Cape Wrap Light Brown S/m/l/xlGreat 5 Piece Lot Vintage 40's 50's 60's Dresses Coat Cocktail Day Nice ShapeVintage 50s Novelty Border Print Christmas Fireplace Scene Full Skirt Lucy DayVintage 50s Original Black Taffeta And Velvet Dress W Full Skirt 8 SVintage 50s Style Embroidered Hearts Dress From H&m 10 12 S M Vintage 1950s Opera Holiday Silk Dress Coat Natural Brown Fox Fur Collar CuffsVintage Women's 1940's-1950's Western Classics Sportswear Top Shirt DistressedVtg 50s Cranberry Red Finecraft Wool Knit Pin-up Sweater Wiggle Skirt Dress Xs/sVintage 50s Original Dalton Magnin Cashmere Novelty Applique Acorn Cardigan S MVintage Original 1950s Sweetheart Blue Cocktail Dress W Gold Stars Novelty 6 Xs Vintage 50s Original Chocolate Brown Lace Dress By Hildebrand 6 8 Xs S ~elegant Vintage '50s Silver Gray Mink Fur Stole~nr