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    

Genuine Blonde Sable 1960s Canadian Vintage Champagne Fur Swing Coat JacketLot Of 32 Vintage 50s 60s 70s Cotton Dresses Fit Flare Shift Floral West SquawVintage 1950's Blue Cotton Summer Dress, Small, Metal Zipper, Full Skirt, Nice!50s 15 Den Ult Sheer Full Fashioned Cuban Heel Blackfoot Stockings 10x32 Blk/tanRare Vintage Cub Scout Den Mother Dress Uniform W Brass Buttons & Original BeltGenuine Blonde Sable 1960s Clip On Long Honey Champagne Fur Shawl Sweater CollarVintage Sheer High Waist Dbl Nylon Mushroom Gusset Frilly Lace Insert Panties L Vintage 1960s Colorblock Wool Navy & Marigold Sweater Dress Sz Xs 1960s Pink High Waisted Lace Underwear Vtg 1950s 60’s L'aiglon Floral Cutout Eyelet Embroidered Vixen Wiggle Dress SVtg 50s Lilli Ann Plaid Mohair Swing Coat Rockabilly Mod Blue Dress Coat M-lVintage 40s 50s Dress Rust Woven Print Pleated Full Skirt Vintage Jenelle Of Ca Double Nylon Chiffon Pink Peignoir Gown Nightgown SetVtg 50s Blue Floral Classic Cotton Day Tea Draped Crystal Pleats Dress M/lUltra Sheer 15 Denier Tall Girls Rht Nylon Stockings 41"!!! Size 11xxl BeigeVintage New Seamless Nylon Size 10 Go Black Stockings 12 Pair In LotL Firm Control Vintage Vanity Fair Open Bottom Girdle 6 Garters G105Vintage 1950's Pale Yellow Swiss Dot Dress Sheer Handmade Costume Or Prom Original 1950s Japan Embroidered Tiger & Map Reversible Satin Jacket Adult SmallUnique Mink Leather Cross Vtg Coat Knee Length Blond Cream Tan "the Broadway"Vintage 1940's 50's Sheer Chiffon Button Down Navy Blue With White Trim Dress1950s 50s Polka Dot Printed Rayon Dress W/jacket Bolero Rockabilly Volup 40sVintage Lot Of 3 1940's Dresses Being Sold All As Is Study PiecesVtg Seamed Nylon Stockings 4 Pr Cuban 10 ~ 35 Lovelace 60 Gauge 15 Den Vintage 50s 60s House Day Dress Xl Xxl Bust 46 Waist 36 Rose Print Semi SheerWwii Vtg Cotton Novelty Print Carmen Miranda Peasant Blouse Ruffled Skirt Dress3 Pair Vintage Apex & Berkshire Nylon Stockings 1 Seamed 2 SeamlessVintage 50s Hawaiian Tiki Sun Dress Xl Bust 43, Waist 33 Cotton Full SkirtVan Raalte Myth Semi Sheer White Nylon Panties Lace Inserts High Waist Sz 5 EucSaks Fifth Avenue Vintage Dress S Corset Full Skirt Shelf Bust Oktoberfest Fall Lot Of 22 Vintage 50s 60s Dresses Fit Flare Casual Formal Tulle Novelty CottonVintage Lowenthal Mink Coat-stroller Length Dark Fur Size Large Estate FindSlimming Glossy Black Satin Vintage 60s Long Leg Girdle Shaper Panties -sz LrgVintage 1960s Pendleton Plaid Wool Shift Schoolgirl Dress Sz L Vintage 1950s Antelope Leather Walking Coat Sz L Vintage 60s Ruffled Trim Colorblock Chiffon Party Dress Sz S Vintage 1960's Lilly Pulitzer (the Lilly) Shift, Size 12 Medium, Metal ZipperVintage 60s White & Navy Plaid Preppy Mod Dress & Jacket Sz L Vintage Sweatshirt Jacket Zip Front Thick Lined Gripper Zipper Vtg 40s 50s Small3 Pair Vintage Albert's Nylon Stockings In Box Size 11 Seamless Full FashionVanity Fair Vintage 60s Lacy Sheer Bust Milk Chocolate Nylon Full Slip -sz 42Vintage 1960s Green Wool Kitten Bow Dress Suit Sz M Vtg 50s Bombshell Hawaiian Aloha Pinup Dress Sm Xs Paradise HonoluluVtg Nylon Stockings 4 Pairs - 6 Sexy Vtg Girdles & 1 Black Nylon Lacy Slip LotVintage 1950's Sexy Royal Blue Wiggle Dress Genuine Mink Fur Trim Cocktail WoolVintage 50s Red Black Novelty Print Dress Full Skirt Unique Collar Lucy Day Vintage Dress 1960s Mod Novelty Print Ruffles Owl Juvenile Retro Fun Teacher Vintage Dress 1960s Mod Novelty Print Ruffles Dog Juvenile Retro Fun Frog Mod 1 Pair Albert's Black Seamed Barefoot Coffee Bean Vintage Sheer Nylon Stockings Vtg Seamed Nylon Stockings 4 Pr Cuban 10 ~ 32 Estralita 60 Gauge 15 Den Vintage 1950s Lil Alice Graduated Red Polka Dot White Dress, Cotton Crinkle Sz MVintage 1950s Asian Edge Wool Emerald Green Floral Sheath Dress Sz LVintage White And Blue Petticoat Dress Under Skirt Costumes Kid's Dress-up PlayVintage 60's Pique' Cotton Party Dress Color Block Ric Rac By Bonwit Teller Vintage Intime Blue Double Nylon Chiffon Sissy Mega Sweep Gown Nightgown 2xl Vtg 50s Shadow Blond Mink Fur Bolero Coat Cape Dress Jacket Bridal Stole Wrap Ml2 Boxes Vintage Alsace Black Seamed Nylons - Size 10 1/2Vintage 1950s Possibly Mexican Dress Shawl Sundress Set 34 Bust/ 26 WaistTrue Vtg 1950's Lilli Ann Paris Mohair Wool Coat L Genuine Fur Collar Swing OpenVintage Prom Dress 1950's Xs