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    

Beautiful 50s Handmade Gown Black Dress Lace And SequinsCeil Chapman Dress Red 50s Long Scalloped Vintage Cocktail 1950s Asymmetrical Vtg 1950's Ultra Sheer Silky Sheer Nylon Lacy Ruffled French Pantie Knickers LVintage 1950s/50s Blue Polka Dot Polished Cotton Princess Waist Party DressVintage Lot Of 14 50's New Look Fit Flare Embroidered Dress Blouse #9~ Vintage 50's Deep Coral Pink Vanity Fair Lace Trimmed Nylon Panties 6 ~Vintage 1950s/50s Pink Plaid Button Detail Drop Waist Cotton Dress RockabillyVintage Black Satin 1950s/40s Profile By Flexees Zipper Girdle Corset BurlesqueVintage 1940s/50s Floral Print & Lace Cotton Wrap Day Dress Hibiscus 1950s/40s Vintage 1950s Ultra Femme Sensual Sheer Nylon Full Bum Pantie Knickers Large Vintage 1950s/60's Tulip Print Cotton Crop Top/blouse 1960s/50s FloralStephen Chu Vintage 1950s Lambswool/angora Cardigan Sweater Size 40 (small)5172 | Suzy Perette | Vintage 1950s Dress | Wiggle Cocktail Party Lace | Medium Vtg 50s Silk Reversible Kimono Robe Full Length Mint Condition Floral Brown BlueOriginal 1950s Floral Print Cotton Dress With Full Skirts - Uk 10Vintage 50s Jeans Flannel Lined Western Flat Front Side Zip Rockabilly Pin UpVintage Antique 1950s Gathered Skirt Border Print Metal Zipper Estate Sale Find5287 | Vintage 50s Dress | Dorothy O'hara 1950s Dress | Yellow Floral Dress Xs/sOriginal 1950s Embroidered Organdy Cocktail Dress With Sash - Uk 10 / 12Vintage 1950s Novelty Border Print Butterflies Pleated Swing Skirt RockabillyElegant 1950s Sapphire Blue Velvet Dress By Harrods - Uk 12 / 14Gorgeous Original 1950s Chiffon Dress With Full Skirts And Shawl Collar - Uk 14Vtg 50s Hawaiian Sea Turtles Novelty Print Rockabilly Circle Skirt Dress +jacket4648 | Suzy Perette | Vintage 1950s Dress | Cocktail Party Halter Dress XsGlamorous 1950s Beaded Tulle Evening Dress With Large Bow - Uk 12 / 14Vintage 1950s Dalton Floral Cashmere Cardigan & Matching Delill Purse - Size SVintage 1950s/50s Hot Pink Plaid Button Detail Cotton Day Dress Rockabilly 60sLot 11 Vtg Mostly 50's Evening Party Day Dresses ~ Silk, Full Skirt, DesignerVintage 1950s Pringle Cashmere Short Sleeve Jumper, Size SVtg 50s High Waist Quilted Fuchsia Cotton Full Circle Rockabilly Swing Skirt SVintage 1950s/60s Scenic Novelty Print Cheongsam Brocade Satin Dress 50s 40sVintage 50s Bright Red White Gingham Fruit Basket Novelty Border Skirt Lucy DaySculpting Lacy Pink 1950s Vintage All-in-one Body Shaper Girdle - Sz 34 B Vtg 1950's Ultra Sheer Fine Nylon Lacy Ruffled Chiffon French Pantie Knickers MLot 11 Vtg Mostly 50's Evening Party Day Dresses ~ Silk, Full Skirt, DesignerVtg 50s High Waist Quilted Black Taffeta Rockabilly Party Full Circle Skirt SVintage 1950's L'aiglon Dress Rockabilly Roses Disney Dapper Days Size 14 CottonVintage 1950's Or 1960's Black Dress ~m~ UniqueVintage Black Flame Stitch 1950s/50s Vanity Fair Girdle Corset Burlesque GarterVintage Real 1950s Rare Halter Ethnic Cotton Bombshell Dress Sz M Metal ZipperVintage 1940s/40's Creamy Yellow Crepe Top/blouse 1950s/50s RockabillyVintage 1950's I Love Lucy Fit And Flare Circle Skirt Green DressVintage 1950s/50s Mint Green Tree Shrub Novelty Print Carole West Cotton DressVintage 50s Baby Blue Chiffon Embroidered Big Bow Party Dress Full Skirt Lucy Vintage 1950s 60s Original Navy Blue Floral Print Tea Dress W/ Full-circle SkirtVintage 1950s/50's 2 Tone Sleeveless Peck & Peck Cotton Top/blouse RockabillyLot 10 Vtg 50's 60's 70's Evening Party Dresses ~ Silk, Full Skirt, DesignerVintage 1950s Big E Levis's 501 701 Women's Denim Jeans Hidden Rivets RedlineVintage 1950's Elegant Tan Bronze Lace Bombshell Cocktail Dress 10 38Vintage 40s 50s Stockings Sheer Flat Knit Seamed Seams 3 Pr Sz 11 Swing PinupVtg 1950s Capri Pants Cropped High Waist Wiggle Rockabilly Fall Plaid Noswt S/mVintage Cotton Day Dress 1950's Light Blue With Embroidered Pink FlowersVintage 1950's Dalton 100% Virgin Cashmere Crochet Collar Shell Sweater CreamVtg 1950s Barbizon Black Satin Rayon Lace Dress Slip Plus 44 Xl XxlVintage 1950's Stunning Ruby Red Flower Taffeta Cocktail Evening Swing Dress 8 3Vintage 50's Suzy Perette Red Velvet Party Dress Size S As IsVintage Mint Green Flame Stitch 1950s/50s Vanity Fair Girdle Corset BurlesqueVintage 40s 50s Stockings Sheer Flat Knit Seamed Seams 3 Pr Sz 11 Champagne RabAdorable Vintage 1950's Polka-dot Dress With Ruffle - As Is Vintage 1950s Silky Sheer Nylon Embroidered Flouncy Slip Dress Petticoat 38"