Mid-20th Century Women’s Fashion Design: 1940s to 1960s
By the beginning of the 1930s, fashion design and haute couture clothing stepped down a few marks to become more compromising. The times called for a balance between preserving the feminine look and re-discovering simple elegance.
Fashion designers of the mid-20th century created clothes that felt more romantic with their soft feminine looks. Waistlines returned once again, a deviation from the flapper style dresses of the 20s, and while the hemlines became longer and the slim-fitting backless evening gowns were once again appreciated, the bust-line re-appeared, accentuating woman's silhouette.
This decade soon moved into war times, and as fashion was regarded as frivolity and therefore became the least of a woman’s problem, the utility range of clothing evolved.
Clothes of the 1940s
These were austere times. It was a time when it was trendy to appear in smart uniforms because uniformed men and women were a common sight on the streets, at home, and at work.
Uniforms and similar design clothing rose to become the majority of everyday wear and were worn to special events, occasions, and ceremonies. This ‘fashion trend’ continued after the end of the 2nd World War in 1945.
Because the war called for austerity measures, being flippant was frowned upon. Women had to make do with whatever apparel they had and often recycled the once glamorous clothing of their heydays to create simple but nice clothes.
The strictness of rationing made women ‘make-do and mend’ because not a strip of fabric went to waste. They even had to unravel old and worn socks to knit cardigans and neck scarves. Whatever textiles they could lay their hands on to make their clothes was utilised, including materials such as parachute silk.
The style changed drastically, and women’s wardrobes included only simple and practical clothes like:
- Trousers for practicability and convenience
- Boxy jackets or tops with nipped in waists
- Skirts and simple blouses
- Turbans and head-scarves
Fashion design was not promoted but clothing manufacturers were encouraged by the government to produce a utility range of clothing subject to austerity regulations which restricted the yardage of cloth used for any garment's design. Pockets were discouraged, men's turn up trousers banned, and limits were imposed on shirt lengths.
Fashion Design of the 1950s Women
The 50s represent different things to different people, but it certainly was a time of growth, capitalism, conservatism, and anti-communism, and a return to fashionably designed clothes and fresh new styles.
Along with changes in the rest of life, fashion design was undergoing many of its own changes too. The 50s fashion was greatly influenced by things like music, idols, the movies, etc.., and clothing styles quite often meant taking luxury to the extreme.
It was like new femininity was discovered and this reflected greatly in couture fashion. Clothes styles became more conventional, and women wore scarlet lipstick and bright red fingernails.
Christian Dior's new look influenced softer shoulders, corseted waists, and fuller long skirts held in place by flared stiff petticoats. A corset was essential in a woman's wardrobe because the ideal body shape for the era was the hour-glass (figure eight) shape. Provocative and sexy strapless gowns demanded the use of strapless brassieres and every woman of style had them.
Daytime styles were very feminine, designed to remind every woman that she's a woman and because she had "gone without" during the preceding decade, she deserves the luxury. It was "death to utility clothing", and the years of deprivation.
Apparel designs were often ultra-glamorous and stylish, and most young girls were influenced by Marilyn Monroe and guys by James Dean. High fashion for women were luxuriously feminine low-necked evening dresses and boned strapless dresses in taffetas, lace, nets, tulle, and chiffon, satin and sometimes nylon.
The artsy community preferred baggy clothes like raincoats and over-sized sweaters and pressed or wrinkled suits. Fashion design of the fifties include:
- Pencil skirts, sweaters, and full circle skirts.
- Cocktail dresses with corolla bosoms.
- Suits with cropped jackets in shocking pink colours.
- Double apron day dresses.
- Huge blousy tops like an artist's smock.
- Body-hugging skirts.
- Blouses with Peter Pan collars.
Balenciaga and Balmain were popular Parisian haute couture designers whose styles were modified for the average woman. Other fashionable styles include:
- Pinafore dresses and polo neck jumpers.
- Crisp white blouses and some sensible but elegant shoes for secretaries.
- Leotards with long circular skirts and stoles.
- Corduroy smocks and knicker-bucker suits.
1960s Clothing Styles
Fashion designers of the 1960s encountered a subtle revolt from the youths; hippies and mods who felt Parisian haute couture need not have the "exclusive rights" to fashion and style. Thereafter evolved an internationalization of the fashion scene with the rich and trendy shopping happily in London and Paris, as they also did in New York and Rome.
The French no longer enjoyed the exclusive rights to couture fashion in the 60s and though some of the fashion is still reckoned with today in the 21st century, the sixties youth demanded a deviation from their high-end styles.
Fashion was initially carried over from the 50s, but they only seemed to look great on older and mature women, a style that meant ‘drab’ to the young and upcoming "fashionistas". Soon, little shops called boutiques promoting fashion design clothes started to spring up, and suddenly, haute couture took on a different perspective.
Designers introduced bold and loud colours into their creations; the skirts became shorter, thus culminating in the mini clothes and the quintessential girlie look of the 1960s and designer clothes of a decade earlier that were slim-line and tubular gave way to flared skirts and tentative beginnings of the A-line skirts.
Skirts and dresses also came in varying lengths, midi and maxi, and remained popular for about fifteen years, until the late 70s.
Because skirts and dresses were shorter, stockings became outdated and tights became an essential clothing accessory, creating a neat, uncluttered, and long-legged look. By the end of the sixties, fashion design started to change as hems began to drop again and bright bold coloured fabrics with psychedelic patterns were used for both men and women’s wear, an influence heightened by the hippie movement.
Famous fashion designers and boutiques of the sixties include:
- Mary Quant
- Miss Mouse
Celebrities like Twiggy played major roles in promoting the new, more relaxed, and more colourful way of dressing that reverberated around the fashion world.
In April 1966, Time Magazine famously labelled London as the world centre of fashion design and style. Being fashionable related to the rapidly changing social, economic and aesthetic context of the times, and the central role it played out, not just on Carnaby Street, (which holds a vast history of fashion design), but the 60s pop culture as well.
By the end of the 1960s to the beginning of the 70s, the disco scene emerged and fashion, now less colourful than the clothes of the sixties, came majorly in more neutral tones. Clothes like pantsuits, corduroy skirts, and maxi dresses, and fashion accessories like leg warmers and platform heels became the rave.
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