The dominant silhouette of the 1950s woman, known as the ‘New Look’, was the creation of Christian Dior’s when he launched his first collection in 1947 making him widely popular in the 1950s. The image was characterised by the rounded shoulder, nipped waists, ample busts and full skirts which progressed to a more unfitted look in the later 1950s. The end of the war saw advances in the production of synthetic fabrics like nylon, acrylic and polyester which were widely used throughout the 1950s with focus on casual sportswear or ready-to-wear aimed at teenagers.
The war had meant the Parisian fashions were unable to reach The States and American designers continued to dominate the New York fashion scene. Women who had begun to wear trousers during war service wore them now as a fashion statement. They were either Skinny and ankle length or pedal-pushers to fit with the new sportswear craze. When summer hit shorts were big business; either hot pant or Bermuda style and worn under baggy knit or print tops, swimwear came in a one or two-piece and bikinis made their first appearance in European countries.
Young adults in their teens began effectively wearing a day-to-day uniform of sweaters or shirts over a pleated skirt or blue jeans. Trends were emerging in the younger generation for the first time and Greasers and Teddy boys were prominent examples, the latter choosing skinny ties and tight trousers worn over brightly coloured socks. Alternatively, the Madison Avenue ‘beat’ look saw youths wearing dark sunglasses, black turtlenecks and berets. Women wore fitted jackets with peplums (full frills at the waist) over pencil skirts or fitted dresses with low-cut necklines or Peter Pan collars. Skirts went to either extreme of bindingly narrow or bursting with full plumped out petticoats such as the iconic poodle skirt; designed by Juli Lynne Charlot and worn by teenage girls at school dances. The transition from day to evening was simple with skirts the same length and remaining full and lighthearted, the cocktail dress was a less formal alternative to the evening gown and were worn with matching, cropped bolero jackets or shrugs.
For the more mature woman the First Lady Mamie Eisenhower was a notable influence with her hats with little veils over cropped, permed hair and knee-length dresses under long coats accessorised with pearls and leather gloves.
Parisian couture still dominated in the 1950s and notable influences included Hubert de Givenchy, Cristobal Balenciaga and Pierre Balman. However American designers who had gained recognition during the war were still apparent, Hollywood designers who were dressing stars like Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly were widely copied. Towards the middle of the decade Dior’s ‘New Look’ was replaced with a more relaxed, unfitted look. The iconic Chanel suit, featuring a loose fitting jacket over an A-line skirt, made its début in the late 1950s and signalled the comeback of the simple chic of the House of Chanel.
Gloves, hats and pearls were essential accessories after the war. Women wore wide-brimmed hats in the early 1950s but these were soon replaced with smaller hats. Hair was still worn in curls and was short in the early decade but soon changed to full bouncing curls in fashionable styles like the poodle cut, the bouffant and the beehive making hats unnecessary. Teenagers sported a smart ponytail and if you were a ‘Beat girl’ you wore your hair long and poker straight.