Contrasting Fashions from the 1920s and the 1950s
Fashions in the 1920s and the 1950s were similar in one way only. They both came directly after a world war. Oddly enough, World War I and World War II affected fashion in nearly opposite ways. The First World War liberated women from the corset and brought them in to the world of men’s wear, while the Second World War ushered in the very feminine hourglass silhouette along with volumes of fabric.
During World War I women were asked to perform men’s work for the first time. As they adapted to these newfound tasks and opportunities, fashion adapted with them. Women needed practical clothing with simple designs. So Coco Chanel stepped up to the plate and started making tailored suits, known appropriately as the “Chanel Suit.” For functionality and freedom to move, the corset was eradicated, skirts were shortened about to knee length, and waistlines were dropped. After World War I ended the men returned and reclaimed their jobs, but women held onto their liberation in many ways, particularly the way they dressed. The women’s suffrage movement increased their freedom, and 1920s women’s fashion was known for its boyish and athletic qualities. Hair was cut short in “boyish bobs” and close-fitted Cloche hats were regularly worn. Designer Madeleine Vionnet became an architect of fashion during the ‘20s. Her technique of cutting garments from geometrically patterned fabric with a superb sense of construction brought about genuine innovations in dressmaking. She and Coco Chanel shaped the style of the time. Loose garments, drop-waists, and the iconic flapper dresses were the predominant clothing choices for women during this decade.
Contrary to the boyish styles of the twenties, the fifties were characterized by the very feminine hourglass silhouette. During World War II fabric was rationed so Parisian Haute Couture (high fashion) became nearly nonexistent. But when the war ended and rationing ceased, designers immediately picked up where they had left off. Christian Dior became the designer of the decade when he showed his 1947 collection, which became widely known as the “New Look.” His line ushered in the hourglass silhouette which other designers like Hubert de Givenchy, Cristobal Balenciaga, and Pierre Balmain quickly picked up. Instead of using as little fabric as possible, which had been necessary during the war, designers now used dozens of meters of fabric creating long, full skirts and luxurious, strapless “Prom Gowns.” Sweater sets and pencil skirts also became popular as women tried to create curvy figures. Cinched waists, emphasized busts, and rounded shoulders were all design details put into use for this purpose. Scarf-tied ponytails were one way women wore their hair, or they could mix it up with Pillbox hats. As opposed to the men’s wear inspired twenties, the fifties were a time for women to celebrate their femininity.
These two decades both followed devastating world wars, but even after these atrocities people were able to bounce back and start anew. In the twenties, women gained new freedoms in work and fashion, while in the fifties the feminine style was revitalized and renewed in a whole new way.