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    

Vtg 50s 60s Pelican Novelty Border Print Cotton Full Skirt Rockabilly Day DressAlfred Shaheen,honolulu_1950s Vintage Hand Printed Cocktail Dress Unique Bust1950s Dirndl Dress From AustriaStunning Vintage 1950s Rockabilly Crisp Paper Nylon Lacy Slip Petticoat M/lTrue Vtg 50's Rockabilly Light Blue/grey Floral Motif Wide Skirt Dress Sz 14/16Vintage 50s Wiggle Bombshell Sarong Dress Xs S Bust 33 Waist 25Vintage Lot Of 50s Silk Cocktail Party Dresses Wedding Dress Mink Furs S40s 50s Vtg 5 Pc Dress Lot Wedding Prom Gown Tulle SilkVintage Catalina Masterpiece One Piece Swimsuit 1950's "sparkle" Size 12/34 NewVintage 1950s 50s L'aiglon Pastel Flowers Border Print Cotton Nipped Waist DressVtg 50s 60s Autumn Floral Velour Full Skirt Secretary Party Day Midi Dress M Hawaiaan Vintage Hand-painted, Sequined Full Circle Dress 1950's Vintage 50s Novelyt Print Skirt Pleated Bullfighters Flamenco DancersVintage 50's 40's Madalyn Miller L Print Circle Skirt Womens Southwest Rare Euc50s 60s 70s Vtg 10 Pc Dress Lot Skirt Suit 30s Style Maxi Dress Mod Spage AgeGlamorous Vtg 1950s Black Silky Nylon & Lace French Knickers Tap Panties Xl50s Multi Stripe Cotton Golf/day Dress M 40-30-36Killer 1950 Red Hot Elizabeth Taylor Tulle Lace 50s Bombshell Couture Full SkirtVtg 50s 60s 70s Dress Up Lucy Pinup Blouse Skirt Wholesale Lot 22 Pc CircleSuperb Original 1950s Cocktail Dress In Lace, Satin And Chiffon - Uk 8 / 1050s-60s Black Velvet Ballerina Style Party Dress Xs 31-24-42 As IsVintage 50s 60s Squaw Patio Circle Skirt Gold Metallic Black L Waist 32 Vtg 50s Rayon Crepe Hale Hawaii Sleeveless Bolero Jacket Tropical Palm Trees Vintage 1950s 60s Dress Pink Size MVintage 1950's Cotton Summer Dress, Medium, Metal Zipper, Super Full Skirt, BeltVtg 50s Blue Roses Print Full Cap Sleeve Dress W/belt-bust 34/sVintage 50's Blue & White Embroidered Fit And Flare Dress XsVtg 50s Black Cotton & Cream Heavy Lace Empire Fit Flare Cocktail Party Dress XsSize 38 Kayser Crystal Pleats Vintage 1950s Nylon Full Dress SlipVintage 50s Dress Wrap Fit Flare Willow Print Blue Novety Puff Sleeve Stripe 50s Fab Black Shelf Bust Taffeta Party Dress Xs 30-24-42 As Is1950's Mexican Hand Painted SkirtVtg 1950s 60s Juinor House Milwaukee Halter Rhinestone Corset Dress Rock A BillyTrue Vtg 50's Rockabilly Light Blue Satin Brocade Wide Skirt Dress Sz 14/16Vintage 50s Sailor Collar Polka Dot Shirtwaist Dress Full Skirt Brown Ivory LucyVintage 1950's Day Dress By Forever Yours, Large, Bust 38", Full Skirt, BeltVintage 1950's Chiffon Day Dress, Medium, Metal Zipper, Full Skirt, Orig. BeltVintage 1950's Rayon Day Dress, Large, Metal Zipper, Original Belt. Sweet!1950's Emerald Velvet Dress Sz 4Vintage 1950s Dark Blue Taffeta Dress 50s Full Skirt Shirtwaist Dress Sz 4/sVintage 1950's Cotton Day Dress, Large, Bust 38", Front Button, Gathered SkirtWomen's Vintage Clothing 40's -50's Era Grey 3/4 Length Dress Classy50s Vintage Real Fur Collar Black Wool Cardigan Sweater Lace Lined M L W381950s Continental Blue Full-slip Very Sheer Perlon, Vented With Lace & Pleats50s L'aiglon Charcoal/multi Fleck Rayon Dress W/dolman Sleeves 42-29-40 As IsVintage Laura Ashley 1950s Style Floral Tiered Boho Gypsy Skirt 6, 8, 10, 12Vintage 1950's Cotton Sheath, Medium, Bust 36", Metal Zipper, Lovely Dress!Vintage 1950's Chiffon Day Dress, Medium/large, By Lili Young, Front Button NiceD108 Vtg 50s White Linen Bow Rhinestone Pencil Cocktail Wiggle Dress SVintage Full Slip Crystal Accordian Pleat Silky Nylon 1950s Charmode Lingerie 40Rare Vintage Full Slip 1950s Dress Vanity Fair Blue Silky Nylon Lingerie 42Vintage 50s Blue White Gingham Cross Stitch Western Pin Up Full Skirt Dress Xs/sSchiaparelli 1950's Nylon Stockings In Hot Pink Tissue (never Worn)Vintage 1950's Red Tartan Patricia Ann Scott Plaid Wool School Girl Dress M50s Black Rayon Dress W/satin Neck Detail L/xl 44-32-43 As IsVintage Laura Ashley 1950s Style Morning Glory Candytufts Aqua Dress, Uk 10Vintage 1950's Rockabilly Reds Greens Plaid Cotton Party Dress Size Med.Vintage 1950's Anita Modes Dress3 Pairs Vintage 1940's/ 50's Nylon Fully Fashioned Seamed StockingsVtg 50's Curly Persian Lamb Wool & Fur Collar 3/4 Slvs Cropped Coat S