Simple lines and ready-to-wear clothing dominated women’s fashion in the 1940s, heavily influenced by clothing rationing and Utility attire during World War II. By the end of the war, women desired more extravagant and stylish things. A “New Look” created by Dior in the late 1940s led to a focus on femininity, elegance, and formality that defined women’s fashion throughout the 1950s. This is part 3 of a 3-part series that spans fashion history from 1900 to 1960. Click here to read part 1 of the series and click here to read part 2.
1941 to 1950
Fashion stalled during the first half of the 1940s due to World War II. France had long been established as the center of women’s fashion design, but in June 1940, German forces occupied Paris, an occupation that would last until 1944. Some designers left Paris at the start of the occupation, while many stayed and continued to design. Because France was cut off from the rest of the world, these designs were dramatically different from what other countries were wearing.
During the war, both men and women often wore their uniforms or their clothing styles were subjected to clothing rationing and Utility clothing. Utility clothing generally adopted similar design elements as uniforms–simple but stylish proportion and lines, with padded shoulders, nipped-in waist, and hemlines just below the knee. By 1943, these same lines were being used for non-Utility clothing. Women’s suits were boxy and had rounded collars. Tweeds and plaids, which were popular in the 1930s, continued to be used, as well as bright colors and patterns to help offset utilitarian pieces.
Clothing rationing was never as extreme in the United States as it was in Britain and this, coupled with the lack of French design, allowed American design to thrive during the war, especially with ready-to-wear. Norman Norell and Claire McCardell were two designers who emerged on the American scene developing simple, casual styles that became trendy and popular. Norell’s high-end designs filled the void created by the lack of Paris designs. Starting in 1942, he used unrationed sequins on sheath dresses, adding sparkle to the otherwise dreary atmosphere during the war. McCardell’s dress designs were sporty, casual, and practical. She skillfully navigated rationing restrictions and produced designs that went on to be classics. In 1942, when silk and wool were limited, she worked with denim, seersucker, and jersey to create timeless dresses and separates.
In 1940, McCardell introduced the “Popover” dress, which was a denim wrap-front dress. Though the wrap dress originated as a Utility garment, she made her Popover version simple and chic. Her fun and comfortable clothing continued to be successful into the 1950s. With the wide appeal of Norell and McCardell, the U.S. hoped to continue leading fashion after the war, but after Paris was liberated in August 1944, French designers like Christian Dior, were eager to reclaim its status as the fashion capital.
Although the war ended in 1945, life did not immediately go back to normal and that was the same for fashion. Clothes rationing stayed in Great Britain until 1949 and there were still shortages of material in both the UK and the U.S. However, the smart simplicity of Utility clothing quickly lost its appeal with the 1947 launch of Dior’s defining post-war style, dubbed “The New Look” by fashion editor Carmel Snow.
Officially named the “Corolle” line, the “New Look” was defined by rounded shoulders, a cinched-in waist, and a long, full skirt. The line’s most iconic style, the “Bar Suit,” featured a tailored white jacket and full, pleated black skirt. Although it was referred to as “new,” the designs really evolved from the pre-war styles of the late 1930s and French Occupation styles, yet it was the opposite of the clothing produced in both the UK and the U.S. during the war.
For those who had grown accustomed to the simple lines of Utility clothing and using every scrap of material available, the full skirt of the New Look was shocking. Some styles used up to fifteen yards of fabric and it was viewed by some as wasteful. Other women feared its brazen femininity would set back the progress women had made working outside the home during the war. Despite these controversies, the New Look silhouette remained the popular and predominant silhouette in women’s fashion well into the 1950s.
Click on the timeline below to see how fashion changed year to year, from 1941 to 1950:
Here is a side-by-side view of women’s fashion over the course of the decade, 1940 to 1950:1940. Carbon County News (Red Lodge, MT), July 12, 1940.
1942. The Tacoma Times (Tacoma, WA), March 5, 1942.
1944. Marion Progress (Marion, NC), March 23, 1944.
1946. Detroit Evening Times (Detroit, MI), January 13, 1946.
1948. Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 26, 1948.
1950. Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 10, 1950.
1951 to 1960
Fashion in the 1950s had a clear gender divide. While men’s fashion turned more everyday casual, women’s fashion focused on elegance, formality, and matching accessories. Couture womenswear rapidly changed with new designers, such as Cristobal Balenciaga and Hubert de Givenchy, who fractured the overtly feminine silhouette popularized by Dior while novel prints and colors marked a playfulness in fashion.
Dior’s “New Look” remained the leading style in both women’s daywear and eveningwear until the mid-1950s. Dior himself continued to produce designs that followed the feminine line even while incorporating new elements, like the structured collar. While the look was ubiquitous, it was not the only look that was popular in the 1950s.
As the decade progressed, the silhouette progressively became straighter and slimmer, and as fashion began to look to the new “teenager” for inspiration, the elegance and formality of the early part of the decade began to dwindle. Introduced by Chanel, Dior, and Balenciaga around the same time, the straight-cut suit, in contrast to the New Look, emphasized a woman’s natural shape with the jacket hanging at the widest point of the hips. In the latter half of the decade, sheaths and high-waisted chemise dresses, introduced by Balenciaga in 1957, became popular.
The idea of choice rather than following one specific style was relatively new in the 1950s. As the decade continued, these choices became varied as new designers like Balenciaga, de Givenchy, and Charles James introduced different silhouettes. While designers such as Dior, Balenciaga, and James created beautiful couture pieces, the craze for sportswear continued. American designer Claire McCardell, continued to produce her popular wrap-over dresses and also introduced pedal-pushers with matching tops. Young women turned to McCardell and other sportswear and less formal designs, like the sundress and swimsuit. Perhaps one of the most enduring images of everyday fashion in the fifties is the “poodle skirt.” These simple felt skirts were cut in a circle and could have any sort of embellishment, not just a poodle, and were paired with tight-knitted twinsets.
Though it became increasingly acceptable for women to wear pants for some occasions, the overall fashion mood of the decade leaned towards femininity and formality. This was especially true in eveningwear as the cocktail dress was introduced to the public. Worn to the new “cocktail party,” these dresses were a mix of daywear and evening gowns, falling at the length of a day dress but embellished like eveningwear. For formal eveningwear, even as sheaths and form-fitting dresses became popular, the full-skirted dress remained the mode throughout the decade. The relatively new strapless bodice was especially popular as the pared-down bodice balanced out the wide skirts.
Throughout the decade, regardless of the time of day, there was an importance that women be impeccably put together through her accessories and overall styling. This meant perfectly groomed hair, spotless makeup, and sets of matching accessories. Following WWII, there was a yearning for luxury and fashionable things, and women made a special effort to dress appropriately for every occasion. The skirt suits and coordinating accessories would be the continuing fashion leading into the early part of the next decade.
Click on the timeline below to see how fashion changed year to year, from 1951 to 1960:
Here is a side-by-side view of women’s fashion over the course of the decade, 1950 to 1960:1950. Evening Star (Washington, DC), October 18, 1950.
1952. Evening Star (Washington, DC), April 27, 1952.
1954. Evening Star (Washington, DC), January 31, 1954.
1956. Evening Star (Washington, DC), June 10, 1956.
1958. Evening Star (Washington, DC), March 23, 1958.
1960. Evening Star (Washington, DC), July 24, 1960.
- Search Chronicling America* to find more historical newspaper coverage of women’s fashion and more!
- Read part 1 and 2 of the 3-part blog series:
“Women’s Fashion History Through Newspapers: 1900-1920″
“Women’s Fashion History Through Newspapers: 1921-1940”
- Fashion History Timeline, Fashion Institute of Technology
* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.