This is a short essay that I wrote as part of my application to study MA History and Culture of Fashion at London College of Fashion. It references books by Craik, Dyhouse, Fields, Kunzle and Wilcox. The brief was: ‘Identify one significant moment in contemporary fashion and locate it in a historical context.’
Christian Dior is well known for creating an important collection which became a significant moment in contemporary fashion. Ask anyone with even a passing interest in fashion about womenswear trends of the 1950s and they will probably talk of tiny waists, big skirts and hourglass figures. Recent revivals of retro looks and vintage fashions from the mid 20th century have ensured that people who did not live through the postwar period, and even those with no knowledge of fashion history, are extremely aware of the effect that Dior’s first collection – officially titled the ‘Corolle’ line – had on how women looked and were treated at the time. This very ladylike collection ‘was rechristened on the spot by Carmel Snow, editor of American Harper’s Bazaar, as The New Look’ (Wilcox, 2007, p.60), a name by which it is now almost universally referred.
During the Second World War, women’s clothing was extremely practical due to the jobs many now found themselves in. Many women wore uniforms out of necessity but, because of the rationing of fabric and clothing, even those who were not employed wore more utilitarian garments than before. The fashion of the time was for shoulder pads and sturdy practical footwear, leaning towards a more traditionally masculine silhouette. In the post war years, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be a desire to move away from this in a big way. The zeitgeist of the era appeared to be a backlash against what had come before – a longing for fun and frivolity. Carol Dyhouse describes this in Glamour:
After the Second World War ended, and as the need for rationing receded, the spirit of liberation triggered an appetite, – in part nostalgic – for half-forgotten forms of femininity, for luxury and for cheap glitter. Manifestations included a buoyant demand for costume jewellery, and the impact of Dior’s New Look. Fashion – like material culture generally – reflected and embodied the contrary social position of British women in the 1950s. (Dyhouse, 2011, p.99)
Dior’s collection looked back at what he perceived to be a lost femininity. He designed clothing which used firm underpinnings around the waist, in order to reduce it, alongside swathes of sturdy fabric to emphasise the bust and hips. These heavy garments were often sturdy enough to stand on their own but gave the illusion of graceful freedom of movement and a lack of structure. Although the narrow waist was achieved using a waspie alongside further corseting built in to the clothing itself, the demeanour and graceful movements of the models who wore the New Look made it appear far less restrictive than it actually was.
The New Look was couture clothing and, as such, was wholly unattainable to the vast majority of women. However, it became as successful as it did because it was an extremely commercial look which was relatively easily to copy. Working class women had been used to the ‘make do and mend’ ethos and so applied this to their existing clothing in order to replicate the high fashion of the day. Boxy 1940s jackets were ‘nipped in’ at the waist and their shoulder pads were removed. Old fashioned skirts were lengthened and any available fabrics reappropriated for the making of the new full skirts.
Although corsets were somewhat hard to come by whilst rationing was still in place in the UK, there were affordable ways of mimicking the full ballerina style skirts of Dior’s couture pieces. For example, nylon petticoats would give the fullness around and below the hips which was required to make a woman’s waist appear smaller. However, not everyone approved of the New Look and there was much ’cause for complaint against a fashion flaunting the privileges of the rich, when most of Europe still suffered under wartime rationing’ (Kunzle, 2006, p.223).
As Dyhouse discusses in Glamour, the New Look style reflected the social position of women in the years immediately following the end of World War II. Having spent time working in jobs which used to be done by the country’s absent men, many women then found themselves back in the home wearing garments which prevented them from performing all but the most feminine of tasks. This was a return to a somewhat old fashioned oppressed feminine role, subjected to the male gaze and reliant on men for most things. Practical and capable women were considered to be very much out of fashion at this time.
This fits very well with the idea of society putting women back in their place once the war had ended. After all, why on earth would a lady need to keep working now that the men are back in the country to do all that for her? In addition, there was a class distinction being revived, which had been all but abandoned due to practicality during the war. The fashionable elite were now easily identifiable alongside their working class counterparts due to their highly feminine and impractical clothing. They would spend hours preparing their appearance and, in the case of those wearing couture garments, sometimes needed assistance to dress themselves once more.
Pent-up desire for fashion changes has served to explain women’s acceptance of Dior’s new silhouette. Yet distinctions between New Look and World War II-era styles also provoked arguments against its adoption, and a short pointed debate ensued. For many, the New Look marked a welcome return of peacetime femininity for women, but some viewed it as a step backward in women’s comfort, convenience and beauty in dress (Fields, 2007, p.256).
The widespread adoption of the silhouette presented by the New Look in the 1950s showed a longing by some to return to old fashioned values and restore some stability after the war. Although it was suggested that women were not in fact returning to a submissive Victorian mode of dress because they voluntarily adopted the new style and chose to wear the restrictive undergarments, garment manufacturers and advertisers did much to convince women that the slender new figure was not only desirable but also essential. With men returning from war and regaining the best jobs, marriage once again became the best option financially for many women. In addition, fewer men were returning and so the chances of securing a a husband had drastically reduced. It was only once women began to return to the workplace in greater numbers in the 1960s that the appeal of this style finally dwindled.