Dior’s 1947 New Look had symbolized a new hope and by the 1950s both the hope and the style were fully embraced.
Hems fell and hems rose but the hourglass silhouette remained. In addition to the full skirt, slender pencil skirts were worn too. The emphasis on silhouette and form created a dependency on foundation garments – bullet bras, corselets, waist-cinchers and girdles pulled in, pushed out and persuaded while crinolines lifted and shaped full-circle skirts.
The 1950s saw the birth of pret-a-porter (ready-to-wear), at first seen as a necessary evil but eventually gaining respect. The US War Production Board sponsored a measurements survey of 100,000 women, using the data to standardize sizing for the garment industry.
Led by Dior, Paris couture retained its popularity but the private couturier was being supplanted by pret-a-porter and mass production. Design houses such as the USA’s Suzy Perette and Lilli Ann and Horrockses in the UK, as well as American designers such as Ceil Chapman and Tina Leser, were proving that off-the-rack garments of quality could be made. America led the way with ready-to-wear, and high fashion, once restricted to the wealthy, was available to the general population.
1950s fashion was regulated by three C’s – code, conformity and consumerism. Women’s focus was on rearing children and keeping house as they had largely left the war years’ workplace. Both men’s and women’s activities centered around family and home and clothing changed as a result. Emphasis was on practical but attractive housedresses, not only for household chores but suitable for quick errands or the school run. Women dressed for ‘wifely’ roles!
A female function was to entertain or attend social gatherings – all to promote and further their spouse’s career. Cocktail dresses – short versions of ball gowns – were essential. A woman was expected to wear a hat outside of the house (except for the most formal evening occasions) and gloves at all times – short for day, long for evening. Men tended almost to universally wear suits. The practice of dressing young people like their elders was still common, with the ‘mother/daughter’ look particularly in vogue.
The second half of the 1950s still emphasized women dressing for ‘their man.’ Structural garments (such as stiletto heels, girdles and bullet bras) were designed to highlight the natural appeal of a woman’s figure, instead it virtually characterized it. American designer Anne Fogarty even wrote a book called “Wife-Dressing”, where she emphasized that a woman is never properly attired without her girdle.
The economy boomed and travel became affordable, encouraging worldwide ethnic influences on fashion. Hawaiian textiles were popular for summer wear and Asian brocades for formal wear. A correlation was seen between fashion and other consumer goods (such as cars) and popular annual colors were mirrored in both. Strong design elements echoed across the board, an example being the aggressive fin-tailed, streamlined car designs that echoed women’s bullet bras.
In the latter 1950s two new looks arrived on the scene. Dior was not the sole practitioner of the fashionable silhouette. Balenciaga was also influential and in the mid-1950s he created flawlessly cut clothing with loose, stand-away backs with fitted fronts and shorter sleeves. He also introduced the sack dress, a shapeless shift, which was far removed from the hourglass silhouette that had endured for a decade. In 1958, Yves Saint Laurent successfully presented the Trapeze Dress for the house of Dior. More structured than the sack dress, but still offering comfort and freedom, its look eventually evolved into the mid-1960s babydoll style.
Written by The Vintage Fashion Guild