Fashion History of America from the Post–World War II: 1946–60
Lecturer, KCC Womens College,
Clothing Fashion, 1946–60:
During World War II (1939–45) Clothing fashion had taken a backseat to the war effort, and dress designers had been severely limited in what they could make as governments placed severe restrictions on the kinds and amounts of cloth designers could use. fashions across Europe and the United States highlighted women’s femininity and Paris, France, reclaimed its spot as the fashion capital of the world.
- Following World War II, there was an emphasis in American society on conforming to standards of dress and behavior.
In fashion history the late 1940s are best known for the introduction of the New Look, a return to luxurious feminine clothes that was begun by French designer Christian Dior (1905–1957). Across the ocean, however, American designer Claire McCardell (1905–1958) was creating a revolution in fashion of her own. During World War II (1939–45), when French designers were inactive, McCardell began to design clothes that could be worn every day by busy women. Among her first designs was a bias-cut dress. A bias-cut meant that the fabric was cut diagonally across the weave, allowing the dress to have a soft and flowing shape. McCardell also invented the popover dress,which was meant for comfortable wear around the house. Women could move easily in these dresses, and in McCardell’s other designs.
- Claire McCardell designed simple, comfortable everyday clothes for the busy American woman.
Observers soon hailed McCardell’s designs as the American Look. Above all else American Look clothes were simple and practical.
McCardell and others developed American Look mix-and-match sportswear, bathing suits, winter wear, coats, and other items. Interestingly, accessories like gloves and umbrellas, so important to the New Look of designer Christian Dior, were not required for a well-dressed American Look woman. The influence of the American Look’s casual comfort was felt through the end of the century.
What they Wore?
During World War II (1939–45) the United States government directed that the amount of cloth in women’s beachwear be reduced by 10 percent to conserve fabric which was needed in the war effort. bikini: a skimpy, two-piece bathing suit consisting of a bra top and two reversed cloth triangles attached by a string. The bikini was devised separately but simultaneously in 1946 by two Frenchmen, Louis Réard (1897–1984) and Jacques Heim (1900–1967). Réard countered his competitor by calling the bikini smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit. Both parts of his suit consisted of only thirty inches of fabric. It was in fact so tiny that no French model would wear it in public. A nude dancer finally agreed to be photographed wearing one. After a picture of her in Réard’s bikini was published, she received close to fifty thousand fan letters.
- The bikini was an aftereffect of fabric rationing during World War II, when cloth used in women’s swimwear had to be reduced by 10 percent.
The Bold Look was a style in men’s clothing and accessories that sought to answer the conservatism, or reserved nature, that had characterized men’s dress during the Great Depression (1929–41) and World War II (1939–45). It was created by the editors of Esquire magazine.
The Bold Look encouraged men to make bold choices in the hats, shirts, shoes, and accessories that they wore with their suits.
For example, Esquire urged men to wear shirts with the “command collar,” which had a wider spread than normal collars. The magazine urged men to wear boldly striped neckties tied in a Windsor knot, a wider knot, heavy gold cuff links and wide tie clasps, and snap-brim hats, felt hats that tipped up in back and down in front, with a dented crown. They even urged men to be more daring in their choice of color for their suit.
People have worn animal furs since the dawn of time. The earliest known hunters and trappers captured and killed animals not only to provide themselves and their families with food, but to stitch together the fur—the thick, smooth, hairy coat of animal skin—to make warm clothing. People soon developed other fabrics that provided warmth, yet at certain times in human history fur became a fashion statement, indicating great wealth and luxury. A fur coat, wrap, hat, or stole might be made of the soft and luxurious furs from mink, sable, ermine, fox, or muskrat. During World War II (1939–45), women wore furs to show off their wealth and status.
- Worn for warmth since prehistoric times, fur also makes a fashion statement about the wearer’s wealth and status.
Gray Flannel Suit:
The 1950s were a time of conformity in the United States and in American fashion. Middle- and upper-class families by the thousands moved out of the nation’s cities and resettled in suburban, or residential, communities.
- Gregory Peck in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. In the 1950s, the gray flannel suit was the standard uniform of office workers.
Office workers at all levels were required to dress formally. The outfit of preference for the up-and-coming corporate executive of the 1950s was the gray flannel suit: a single-breasted, three-buttoned outfit featuring narrow lapels and shoulders and tapered trousers that lacked pleats. Rounding out the look was a pale blue or white button down collar shirt, cuff links, a conservative striped tie, and shiny black or brown leather wing-tipped shoes. A single-breasted tweed overcoat and a brimmed hat were added during colder weather and a drip-dry raincoat was worn during stormy weather.
The trend during the 1950s to wear matching clothing ensembles was followed by women from every social class. After the rationing, or limiting, of fabrics during World War II (1939–45), women embraced the availability of luxuries once again. Women of the 1950s began obsessively matching the various pieces of their outfits, buying bags, belts, hats, gloves, shoes, costume jewelry, and even nail polish in matching colors. Designers also began creating mix-and-match outfits, enabling women to wear specially designed looks. Mix-and-match clothing styles allowed women to wear completely coordinated ensembles.
In the 1960s women began to foster their own individualized styles and shunned mix-and-match clothing.
The New Look clothing designs for women that emerged from the studio of French designer Christian Dior (1905–1957) in 1947 put an end to the wartime styles that had dominated fashion ever since 1939. During World War II (1939-1945) designers and clothes makers had been forced to adjust their styles to wartime cloth restrictions and rationing due to lack of materials; women’s clothes were close fitting, with square shoulders and short skirts.
- Designer Christian Dior, creator of the New Look, showing off the raised hemline of one of his designer skirts.
The dresses were lined with expensive and luxurious fabrics such as cambric or taffeta and were beautifully detailed. Outfits were accessorized with a hat, often worn to one side, long gloves, and simple jewelry.
One of the most enduring styles in modern American dress is the preppy style. The term preppy derives from the expensive precollege preparatory or prep schools that upper-middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestant children on the United States’s East Coast sometimes attend. Standard items of clothing for an authentic 1960s-era male preppy included blue blazers, button-down shirts,striped ties, khaki pants, cotton Izod polo shirts with turned-up collars, tasseled loafers, crew neck sweaters worn over neat turtlenecks, and the casual sweater slung over the shoulders with the sleeve ends cuffed over one another. Many of these styles had their origins in the 1950s.
- Though some of its elements are considered classic, the preppy look has gone in and out of style since its introduction in the 1950s.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Style:
In the 1950s a new kind of music jolted the American mainstream: rock ’n’ roll, a loud, fast, liberating sound that primarily appealed to teenagers. Rock ’n’ roll was an offshoot of the rural blues and urban rhythm and blues music that for years had entertained and stirred the spirits of African Americans. Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, blues was classified as “race music” and was marketed only to African Americans. Rock ’n’ roll incorporated these soulful sounds to entertain audiences of white teenagers.
- The greaser/rock ‘n’ roll look, as captured in the film The Outsiders.
Teenage boys wore tight-fitting blue jeans and white T-shirts and wore wide-shouldered jackets and loose, a type of jean, along with black leather jackets, lightweight slacks that moved with him. He radiated rock ’n’ roll style and attitude with his ducktail, a favorite hairstyle of the time that he made popular, sideburns, and mocksurliness. Their hair was grown long, greased with Vaseline, and combed on both sides to extend beyond the back of the head: a style known as the ducktail, or D.A.
During the decade, the types of parentally approved and appropriate dress for teen boys consisted of loose-fitting slacks, an ironed shirt and tie, a sports jacket, and polished black or brown loafers. Haircuts were short and neat. Clean-cut preppy boys donned tan chinos, a type of pants, that ended just below the ankles, V-neck sweaters, and white buck shoes or Top-Siders, deck shoes. Their female equivalents wore saddle shoes, bobby socks, blouses with pleated skirts, or dirndl dresses, which featured lots of petticoats, and came sleeveless or with puffed sleeves. Favored hairstyles included the ponytail and bouffant, hair that was teased and combed up to stand high on a woman’s head.
They wear felt poodle skirts, which often featured such images as record players and musical notes attached to their fronts, or they wore short, tight skirts, stockings, tight blouses and sweaters, and an overabundance of eye shadow and lipstick. While a preppy couple who was “going steady,” or seriously dating, exchanged class rings or identification bracelets, a greaser girl instead put on her boyfriend’s leather jacket.
Men’s shoes did not go through a great deal of change in the fifteen years following the end of World War II (1939–45).
- During the late 1940s, while Bold Look, or showy, fashions were in style, there was a brief preference for thicker-soled, heavier shoes to accompany the bolder cuts and colors in men’s suits.
- By the 1950s, however, as suit styles became more conservative, men turned to lighter soled. shoe styles such as moccasins, wing tips, or bluchers, heavy, blunt-toed oxfords.
- For casual wear, men could turn to the newly popular Top-Sider, a comfortable moccasin-style shoe with a no-slip sole.
- Late in the 1950s Italian shoe styles became popular. These were longer and lighter in weight, with a low-cut upper.
- Finally, for children, young adults, and active adults, the tennis shoe or athletic shoe remained the shoe of choice.
Women’s shoe styles, like women’s fashion in general, were much more vibrant.
- In the late 1940s The shoes that were chosen with New Look outfits had pointed toes and revealed more of the foot than earlier shoes.
- Over the years the heel in women’s dress shoes grew slimmer and slimmer.
- In the early 1950s the stiletto heel, which came to a nearly needle-like point, saw this trend reach its peak.
- As hemlines in women’s dresses rose late in the 1950s, heels actually became shorter and less pointed.
- Finally, the emergence of new technologies during this period allowed for the invention of plastic shoes in 1947. Within a few years plastic shoes were made in a variety of colors and styles.
Body Decorations, 1946–60:
Proper accessories, makeup, and undergarments were an extremely important part of women’s fashion in the late 1940s through the 1950s.
- The major fashion trends of the late 1940s, inspired by the New Look fashions of designer Christian Dior (1905–1957), called for a carefully assembled outfit that included such accessories as white gloves and umbrellas to accompany carefully chosen shoes, hat, and dress.
- The New Look called for tasteful but understated jewelry.
- One of the most important accessories was the handbag, or purse.
- Man could choose from a range of cuff links, tie bars, and collar pins, made in gold, silver, or a new metal called palladium.
- Wristwatches continued to be popular among men.
Charm bracelets actually date from ancient times. They were worn by men as well as women or reflect one’s profession, religious or political affiliation, or status within the community. They came in a range of styles. Chinese bracelets, for example, included jade carvings, metal objects, and glass beads, all of which were attached to a black string and fastened to the wrist.
More expensive charm bracelets were made of silver or gold, while less costly ones were stainless steel, copper, or brass. Their charms often came in a variety of materials.
During World War II (1939–45) so many chemicals and other resources were used for the war effort that cosmetics had become scarce and expensive. The look for women of the late 1940s and early 1950s was very showy and decorative, and it required makeup. Lipstick, liquid or cream makeup base, powder, rouge, eye shadow, eyeliner, mascara, and fingernail polish became a part of most women’s daily routine. From this point on cosmetics were a major industry in the West.
- Actress Grace Kelly wearing 1950s-style makeup. The new beauty products of the 1950s ushered in an era in which the well-dressed woman was expected to wear makeup.