The foundations of 1950s fashion were laid in 1940s Paris. This blog explores the influence of the couture designers who made their mark on the golden age of fashion.
Fabrics were hard to come by during the Second World War and practicality was understandably favoured over frills. So when Christian Dior (pictured above) unveiled what was to become known as the ‘New Look’ at his debut show in 1947, he caused quite a stir in the fashion world. The full-skirt designs and fitted jackets were in sharp contrast to the functional clothing of the day, as was his abundant use of material. He offered glamour and extravagance after the hardships of the war and his evening wear borrowed from the skirts and boned tops of the 19th century.
Dior wanted to bring back femininity to women’s clothing and he certainly succeeded! The New Look emphasised the hourglass figure synonymous with 1950s fashion and the female stars of the movie industry. Advances in textile manufacturing and factory production meant that clothes could be mass produced at affordable prices, and women across the globe were able to buy Dior-inspired clothes.
Christian Dior’s impact on 1950s fashion was monumental, but his contemporaries shouldn’t be ignored. One man in particular was referred to by Dior as the “master of us all” and his influence also endures.
Dior claimed that Cristóbal Balenciaga was the “master of us all” and for good reason – he is widely believed to be a design genius. Like Dior he was interested in creating a silhouette shape for women, but Balenciaga achieved this through designs that created volume. He trained as a tailor in his native Basque Country and this gave him an important advantage – his skills were second to none and revered by designers and customers alike. Balenciaga was nicknamed the King of Fashion and this says it all really!
By the latter half of the 1950s there was a backlash against the New Look which could often be uncomfortable and impractical. Balenciaga responded with the creation of the ‘sack dress’ which lacked a waist and is pretty self-explanatory! The sack dress was a huge departure from the design consensus of the time and attracted a great deal of criticism. Undeterred, Balenciaga’s next creation was another waist-less design that received a lukewarm reception - the baby doll dress. Of course the baby doll and sack dress were huge hits in the 1960s and proof that Balenciaga was a true innovator who was ahead of his time.
Hubert de Givenchy
Hubert de Givenchy started his career at the legendary house of Lucien Leong where he trained with Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain (we’ll come to him next) but his chic creations are poles apart from the New Look that his contemporaries championed.
Givenchy found fame as the dresser of Audrey Hepburn, his muse and close friend until she died in 1993. They first met in 1954 when Hepburn was seeking costumes for the film Sabrina, and she was so enamoured with him that no other designers got a look in after that! She later explained how she felt: “His are the only clothes in which I am myself.” They collaborated throughout the 1950s and Givenchy is the mastermind behind Hepburn’s iconic little black dress in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
As previously mentioned, Balmain was a colleague of Dior and Givenchy at the house of Leong. He launched his own house in 1945 and his full-skirt designs were similar to what would become known as the New Look just two years later. Maybe Dior shouldn’t take all of the credit for this style?
Balmain’s slim suits, stoles, strapless evening gowns and New Look-style skirts became wildly successful when he entered the American market in the early 1950s, and being the favourite designer of Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman didn’t do his sales any harm either!
Another designer who is said to have had an influence on the New Look is Jacques Fath. He favoured plunging necklines, small waists and full skirts that would emphasise the bust and hips (sound familiar?). Along with Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain, Fath is said to be one of the “big three” Paris designers of the early 1950s. However, his early death in 1954 at the age of forty-two means that his name fell into obscurity whereas Dior and Balmain are still popular today.
In the 1950s women were expected to look their best at all times including in the home. After the Second World War they gave their jobs back to the men and returned to household duties. A husband’s dinner had to be on the table when he got home and wives served it dressed to the nines (I’m glad I wasn’t around then!). The New Look was part of this ideology and began to be seen as constrictive and oppressive in some circles.
Coco Chanel despised the New Look so much that she came out of retirement in 1954 to launch her signature slim suits that were made of wool and tweed. The suits had straight skirts and boxy collarless jackets which were basically the opposite of the New Look. Quilted handbags and costume jewellery complemented these practical outfits which were also popular in the 1990s when they made a big comeback. The straight silhouette pre-dated Balenciaga’s sack dress by three years and, like Balenciaga, Chanel’s designs had a big impact on 1960s fashion.