For lovers of vintage fashion, the decades of the 1940’s and 50’s are rich with inspiration. Rarely in fashion history have we seen such a wide range of styles, from austerity to excess. From 40’s motto of “Make Do and Mend,” men’s and women’s clothing traipsed boldly into the realm of rockabilly, the beginnings of teen fashion, and the return to indulgence exemplified by Christian Dior’s “New Look.”
In the early and mid-1940’s, the fashion world had to contend with the constraints of rationing and the general public’s limited purchasing power. Men’s military uniforms were made without any necessary embellishments, because more fabric meant greater expense. A man in the 40’s looked sharp in a tailored suit and stylish hat. Vests disappeared. Men’s suits transitioned from elaborate double-breasted jackets to single-breasted suits with tailored, pleated trousers.
Women followed the trend toward minimalism and austerity, to the extent of getting married in white or ivory-colored suits that today would be considered basic office attire. Plain, solid colors dominated the fashion landscape. Natural fibers such as wool and silk were in short supply, as these products, along with nylon and leather were used in the manufacture of uniforms, shoelaces, parachutes and other wartime necessities. As a result, designers got creative with the use of man-made fabrics. Overall, less fabric was used in the creation of clothing, so hemlines crept upward, the tailored look came into vogue, and clean lines with a feminine fit were the order of the day for fashionable 1940’s women. Women who had to forego silk stockings, made do by shaving their legs, applying leg makeup, and even drawing “seams” down the backs of their legs with eyeliner pencil! The rationing of leather also led to the rise of shoes made from such materials as canvas and cork.
Interestingly, at the same time, a subversive subculture sprang up with the adoption of “zoot suits”. Originally popularized by African Americans and Mexican Americans and worn in nightclubs, zoot suits were long coats with wide lapels and broad shoulders. They were accompanied by wide-legged and high-waisted trousers with low crotches. In an era of fabric rationing and governmental constraints, zoot suits were a rebellion.
By the late 1940’s and the end of World War II, women’s hemlines descended, the Esquire jacket came into vogue, and wider skirts and shoulders characterized the shift toward more extravagant, indulgent clothing. Waistlines were neatly tucked in and emphasized by belts and fuller skirts. For the first time in mainstream fashion history, two divergent silhouettes existed side by side: The narrow pencil skirt on the one hand, and the wide and swirly skirt that we typically associate with the 1950’s on the other.
Once the war ended, a new consumer-driven society took hold in the early 1950’s . Feminine and romantic styles dominated, and the sirens of the silver screen exuded elegance. Clothing designs took on what is commonly referred to as “The New Look,” popularized by Christian Dior in the form of a tight-fitting pencil skirt and a fitted suit jacket. Although much of the world was still living in poverty, American mainstream consumers were eager to move forward from the austere parameters of 40’s fashion, and they embraced clothing that utilized more yards of fabric and more embellishments. Poodle skirts and “sloppy-Joe” sweaters became the rage at that time, particularly with young women. Petticoats made a comeback, and lacy patterns with full skirts and frills abounded. Teenagers became an emerging market, and designers increasingly sought to incorporate styles that appealed to them. Jeans, boots, and a leather jacket were the typical teen ensemble for the cool boys. Girls wore cardigans with skirts and beaded necklaces, pinafore dresses, or tight pants with ballet shoes. Sophistication and indulgence were back with a vengeance, and American consumers everywhere embraced the trend towards frivolity, fabric and fun.