By the time the United States emerged from the Depression, Europe and much of Asia were already at war. Paris under Nazi occupation was a disaster for Haute Couture and one that gave great opportunity to the growing fashion industry in the United States.
Women who were deprived of the latest fashions from Paris began to look to homegrown talent. Designers such as Norman Norell and Claire McCardell soon built a following. Mainbocher and Molyneux fled Europe and set up shop in the United States. This development profoundly changed America’s fashion profile and the market continued to gain momentum after the war ended.
Wartime regulations such as L-85, which regulated how much fabric and what garment types could be manufactured, were applied to both men’s and women’s clothing. Materials that were needed for military purposes were restricted for civilian use. Though the restrictions were not difficult to heed, manufacturers over-complied in support of the war effort. Utility and practicality became more fashionable and “Rosie the Riveter” was created as a role model. Frivolity and extravagance were put on hold. The emblematic wide-shouldered, slim-waisted, narrow-hipped silhouette of the 1940s was established.
The war also brought social and cultural change as greater numbers of women entered the workplace. Slacks, once considered scandalous and fit only for the boudoir, gained popularity. For many years however, even into the 1960s, it was to be a subject of debate as to whether they were appropriate in the workplace or not!
February 1947 brought one of fashion history’s most dramatic events – Christian Dior’s explosive first collection hit the runway. He called it the Corolle line but the American press, which referred to the collection as “New Look”, ignored this. The media’s chosen name stuck and so did the fashion.
The New Look called for rounded shoulders, exaggerated bust lines, wasp waists and padded hips and long, often extravagantly full skirts that required an exorbitant amount of fabric. This was a strident comment on the end of wartime asceticism.
While fashion writers loved the New Look, initially it met with public resistance. Many viewed it as frivolous and wasteful after the rationing and deprivation of World War II – especially when the economic hardships of war were still very much a reality in Europe. But ultimately, the New Look became a symbol of the return of prosperity, femininity, and glamour. Women who had for years worn the more austere fashions of the 1940s (and were fatigued at reading endless articles on how to extend the life of old garments) began to see a distinct appeal in the swish of long skirts and the allure of curvaceous shapes. The “New Look” was essential in restoring the French couture industry and was the cornerstone of the following decade’s predominant fashion aesthetic.
Written by The Vintage Fashion Guild