In 1939, the onset of World War II in Europe, which was well-established as the fashion center of the Western World, brought swift and dramatic changes to the ways in which women dressed and thought about clothes.

Most of the top Parisian fashion houses closed in 1940 after France was occupied by Germany. Chanel, for example, shuttered and didn’t reopen until 1954. England, in the meantime, had to put all its resources into fighting back Hitler’s armies. Women signed up for the armed forces, and men were shocked at the site of women in uniforms, usually a khaki jacket with a knee-length skirt. As a result, women’s civilian clothes also became more militaristic, masculine, and severe.

The emphasis, particularly in England, was on the austere, “utility” look, as embellishments, frills, and lavish accessories were traded in for more understated and responsible common-sense fashion. Clothing designers touted these spared-down designs as a matter of national pride and allegiance to the war effort.

The trademark early ’40s look was a two-piece suit, the jacket featuring square shoulders and a fitted waist, paired with a straight skirt with a pleat or two. Another popular look was the shirtwaist dress with a minimal number of buttons, or a lightly pleated or gathered skirt, the waist defined by a narrow belt.

In June 1941, the British government ordered the rationing of cloth, clothing, and footwear. A household’s clothing allowance was a very modest 66 coupons, the same amount as its margarine allowance. By the end of the war, this rationing was reduced to 36 coupons. Costly imported silk stocking were also banned in that year.

Clothes made in England in those days used sturdy fabrics because they had to last a long time. Fashion magazines gave beauty advice on how to save buttons and fasteners, how to recondition handbags and shoes, and how to make cosmetics last. Decorative pockets were out, while trimmings were often made of dull colors, as dye was not available.

With Paris couture nearly out of commission and British fashion becoming necessarily spare, for the first time the world turned to America for fashion leadership—rationing in the...

As in the previous decade, the most influential force in fashion at the time was Hollywood glamour, which offered an escape from the grim realities of war. Naturally, regular women coveted the elegant evening gowns they saw on screen, particularly Joan Crawford’s sharply tailored look. But gossip magazines also fed the obsession with the daily lives of stars like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, and Lana Turner, showing them playing golf or lounging by the pool, which led to an interest in sportswear and casual dress.

In contrast to the stark British fashion, day-to-day American shirtdresses were made in vivid cotton prints, with bold abstract designs, patriotic red-white-and-blue patterns, and black-and-white polka dots or checks. Women living alone at home and working in factories embraced a practical casual style, with jackets, blouses, skirts, and slacks that could be mixed and matched. Headscarves became acceptable to wear in public.

Other popular American looks included “Mexican” peasant blouses, polka-dot “Pioneer” dresses, and checked “Country-and-Western” skirts. Levi-Strauss and Co.’s denim dungarees, now known as jeans, were becoming more popular with the general public, whereas only workmen had worn them before. America also pioneered the concept of “chemical” clothing made of synthetic materials like rayon and nylon, which spared precious natural resources such as cotton.

Even after the war ended in 1945, its impact on fashion could still be felt, particularly in the new mass-production techniques employed to make thousands of uniforms. But in 1947, new Parisian fashion designer Christian Dior asserted his bold “New Look” on the runway, a radical change from war-era fashion.

A call for returning women to femininity, Dior’s dresses featured tiny wasp waists, often created by built-in corsets, and incredibly full ankle-length skirts. These clothes used an abundance of fabric and trimmings, which helped restore France’s textile industry. The look was wildly popular, dominating fashion right until the end of the ’50s.

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.

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.

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 at the hem. Saint Laurent had saved Dior and the French economy in one blow, but his fall 1958 collection was a critical and commercial disaster, as was the Left Bank-inspired Beat Look that followed.

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”)

MyVintageVogue

MyVintageVogue

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]

Fashion-Era

Fashion-Era

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    

Rare 1950's Style Trashy Diva Dress Sci Fi Rockets By " Candice Gwinn " Size 14Vintage 30s 40s 50s Dress Skirt Sweater Blouse Lot Clean, Curated, High Resale1930s 1940s Clothing Lot Vintage Tlc As IsLot Of Vintage 1940s 1920s 1930s Clothing Dresses Pants Caftan For StudyVintage Dress Novelty Print Fabric Cinderella Castle Full Circle Skirt 1950s Vintage 1930s 1940s Plaid Checked DressVintage 1940's 1930's Sheer Bias Cut Floral Dress Gown Small S Antique ClothingWwii 1940s Women's Pink Dress Glass? Buttons VintageVintage Cashmere 1950's "fox Hunt Sweater" Equestrian Euc Fox Hound Red Collar1950's Vanity Fair High Waist Floral Lace Panties Size 7Original Vintage 1950s Romantic Red Rose Print Cotton Full Skirt - 24 Waist Vintage Bombshell Pinup 1940s 1950s Dolman Sleeve Angora White Necktie SweaterVintage Skirt Novelty Print Greek Roman Mystical Full Circle Pleated 1950s Vintage 50s Jeans Us Navy Side Button High Waist Indigo Denim Wide Leg WorkwearVintage Hawaiian Romper Style Cotton Bathing Suit 1950s Zipper Clousre GreensVintage 20s 30s 40s 50s Dress Lot Clean. Curated. My Best Dresses Highest ResaleRare Vintage Disney 1950's Lady And The Tramp Circle Skirt Twenty Two PanelsUnique Vintage 1940s Embroidered Chinese Skirt Dress1940s 2 Pc Hawaiian Floral Rayon Dress W Bikini Ruffle Top W JewelsVintage 1950s Cerulean Mink Fur Coat Jacket Bolero Size 8 Winter WeddingVintage 1950s 50s John Wolf Western Skirt Oregon Trail Novelty Border Print UsedVintage 1940s/ 50s Pin Up Rose Marie Reid Sparkly Black Draped Sheath Swim SuitVintage 50's 1950s Floral Full Circle Cotton W/ Velvet Roses Novelty SkirtGianni Versace Versus Dress Evening Knee Long Black Size 26/40 SVintage Biba Maxi Coat Robe, Black Velveteen 40s Style Pinup Gothic GlamorAdorable 1950's Vintage Sandra Sage Dress XsVintage 1950s Alfred Shaheen Hawaiian Plumeria Romper Bathing Suit Hawaiian40s Vtg Mayfair Play-wear Red Striped Rayon Romper Jumpsuit Shorts Skorts &skirt1940s Vintage Raccoon Fur Coat - 40" BustVintage 40's Mexican Felt Jacket Embroidered Green Rare1940's Vintage Silky Slinky Day Dress Navy Fit & Flare Frock SwingArt Deco 30s 40s Original Party Cocktail Evening Dress Wedding Gown SVintage Yves Saint Laurent Frenach Stripe Peasant Top 50s 40s Style MVintage 50s Classic Mcm Striped Blue Rose Print Full Skirt Shirtwaist Belt DressEtam Sz14 Vintage 1930's 1940's Ww2 Cream Red Chic Ditsy Floral Tea Dance DressRose Pink 1950s Pin Up Dress With Full Circle SkirtVintage 50's Bedroom Lambskin Benito Slipper Heels Size 6.5 Open Toe SlippersLauhala Hawaiian Vintage 1950's Sarong Bombshell Beach Floral Dress Size 8 MintHobbs Blue White Check Wessex Dress Uk8 50s Prom Flare Full SkirtVtg 50s Structural Atomic Avant Garde 50s Designer Cocktail Wiggle Dress Xs S Vintage 1950's Strapless Satin Chiffon Pink Prom Party Dress Tulip Skirt XsGorgeous 1950's Vintage Dress Novelty Print Parrots And Flowers /sequin Xs Nice Vintage 1940's Retro Dress Brown & Rust Orange Rayon Print Deco Ruching 40s S MBettie Page Clothing 50s Wiggle Wiggle Lace Dress In Black And CreamVintage 1950's Black Cocktail Dress Silk Beaded Xs Stunning "sandra Sage !!!* Vintage 1950s 50s Embroidered Organdy Pink Tulle Bombshell Rhumba Dance Dress Vintage 1940's Wwii Era Satin Wedding Dress With Original Shoes & Veil Size X/sVtg 80s Does 50s Madras Bright Plaid Circle Skirt Button Back Sundress Dress MVintage 1930's 1940's Plaid Pants Wool Ski Chippewa Woolen Mills Pin Up Red 50's1940s 1950s Red Lace Dress Cocktail Party Lucite Vlv Rockabilly Pinup 40s 50sVintage 40's Sam Davidson Pink Crepe Lace Party Career DressVintage Whistles Emerald Green Silk Chinoisery Dress 1940s Wedding Stunning 14Vintage 50s Black Apple Green Little Squares Full Skirt Shirt Dress Lucy DayTrue Vintage 40s Lamb Curly Wool Fur Coat Jacket Women's Med / Large Amazing Lot 3 Vtg 50s Pin Up Girl Corset Girdle Garters Lingerie Full Body40s Vintage Spectators, Navy Patent Leather And Mesh Top Swing Era Very Fine CndVtg 80s Does 30s 40s Wwii Secretary Floral Button Front Garden Party Dress 12 LVintage 1950s Cotton Pinup RoseVintage Pinup 1950s Cotton Full Skirt With RisesVintage Red And White Polka Dot Sheer Dress From The 40's Or Late 30's