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.

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