Ever wondered what women wore between the atomic and space age in France? The whole world was recovering from an era of pain and brutality.
They craved normalcy after all this uncertainty and anguish. French fashion in the 1950s is flamboyant and fun. Here are some features in looks from that period.
Table of Contents
Return of Femininity
Their acceptance and resolve for their new roles were evident in the large, emphasized shoulders in their clothes during the 1940s.
However, women wanted to celebrate the end of tough times and feel conventionally feminine again.
Beauty was in the eyes of the beholder as male designers dominated the 50s, with only Mademoiselle Chanel herself holding her own against masters like Balenciaga, Dior, Givenchy, and Cardin in the French couture world.
Although male designers could carve out beautifully shaped garments celebrating femininity, their designs were often restrictive or uncomfortable.
An Outfit for Every Occasion
Evening dresses, entertainment dresses, sundresses, nightdresses, dancing dresses, beach dresses, and so on. There was a separate type of specialized garment for each activity. A woman’s wardrobe was like a catalog for every photo background possible.
Everybody and their mother wore a girdle in the 50s. This practice was not exclusive to France but a worldwide trend. Girdles, corsets, and shaping undergarments were going through a revival.
Extensive undergarments and petticoats made one feel like they had been transported back to the seventeenth century.
When you look at old pictures and wonder how everyone looked like a designer illustration, that is because they wore incredibly restricting undergarments to pull in their waists.
Shapewear was available in different lengths, as one or two-piece sets.
Along with girdles, women would wear control pants to tighten their legs. Girdles or corsets had ribbons to connect to stockings.
People would know and judge you if you didn’t wear a complete set of shaping underwear.
Dior’s New Look
Founded in December 1946, the house of Dior led the global fashion industry and defined French fashion in the 50s. In 1947, he released his debut collection of ninety dresses.
The looks were tight at the waist while accentuating the bust and hips, creating a coveted hourglass figure. Transfixed by this bold new silhouette, the city of fashion immediately began to worship him.
This was followed soon by the rest of the world. Few designers have successfully created quintessential silhouettes, and Christian Dior’s “new look” was highly praised by Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper’s Bazar at the time.
The brand was criticized for using too much fabric for a single dress instead of the clothes made during the strict rationing period of war.
This approach was purely intentional. Dior wanted people to be reminded of the luxury and opulence that clothing was capable of and a glimpse of the future of fashion after such tough years.
Full skirts made from ten yards of fabric, jackets with peplums, and grand hats, gloves, and shoes, Dior accounted for 5% of France’s export revenue by the turn of the decade. Indeed, without the gloves, hat, and shoes, one couldn’t flaunt wearing Dior’s New look in its complete glory. Even the British Royal family were regular clients.
In 1955, Dior hired a young man named Yves Saint Laurent as his assistant. He later named him his successor before his untimely death shocked the world a second time.
Before leaving us, Dior made a mark on the world and reestablished Paris as the world’s fashion capital after being torn apart by the war. It is safe to say that Christian Dior determined French fashion in the 50s.
His twenty-one-year-old successor did justice to his name by creating more innovative and comfortable looks following the same popular A-lined shape.
He proved that beautiful clothing didn’t always need boning or harsh geometric lines for structure. His insights were gained from his time fitting clients while working at one of Dior’s Ateliers.
So the New Look continued to dominate throughout the late 50s, only becoming more comfortable for younger clients.
When Christian died, the French fashion community panicked since he single-handedly returned Paris to its former glory and brought money back into the French fashion industry.
However, after Saint Laurent’s debut collection, it was clear that France had been saved.
The Chanel Jacket
Tired of cinching the waist so much it was difficult to move. While others were still riding the success of the late forties, Gabrielle Chanel released the Chanel jacket in her collection, known as “The Comeback.”
Critics hated the collection and this jacket. They did not believe something so masculine would ever sell to women.
However, women were waiting for something new and modern.
These jackets were boxy, finishing at the waist, thus accentuating the waste without squeezing it.
The modern Chanel jacket had four functional pockets and buttons with mandatory button holes and tweed from Ireland. The jacket has been reimagined in several future shows. For the first time, women’s couture was comfortable to move around in.
The jacket would be paired with a narrow skirt. The finished look was like a suit for men, given a feminine touch. It became a classic elegant but powerful female lock to rock the world.
The Chanel jacket combination of practicality and comfort quickly became a favorite for many actresses like Brigitte Bardot and Grace Kelly.
Although it wasn’t a hit at the time, the collection was sold to more people than anyone expected. If Dior set the beginning of the-midcentury, then Chanel marked the end of it and helped us transition towards the 1960s.
This was a complete style opposite to the new look and much more practical for the wearer.
Common Fashion Misconceptions About The 1950s
Many Fashion trends from the 1950s have been mistranslated or over-romanticized over time. Here are some things you might have heard about 1950s French fashion that is as real as a three-dollar bill.
Many people will have you believe that plus-size models enjoyed a short-lived moment in the limelight during the 50s.
However, that is not true. If you look at editorials and catalogs from the time, women were even thinner than today’s models. Women were also malnourished from the war.
Marilyn Monroe, the woman people use as an example, is actually very tiny but with a beautiful figure with full rounded curves.
It is evident from the fact that Kim Kardashian, despite efforts to lose a lot of weight, barely fit into Marilyn’s famous “Happy Birthday” dress.
The source of this misconception is, in fact, the success of strategic garment construction. The 50s was the decade of the hourglass shape.
Dresses accentuated the bust and hips while cinching in at the waist. This style created the illusion of a full voluptuous figure.
Today, the Fashion industry is much more inclusive than it was back then.
Shorter Puffy Skirts
Nearly every 50s-inspired dress has a skirt above the knee. However, that couldn’t be farther from reality. People were tired of having to save fabric during the war.
They were ready for long full skirts with bodacious layers or peplums. Dresses did get shorter near the end of the decade, and authentic above-the-knee length skirts started showing up in the 60s
These mock costume dresses aren’t just short, but they are incredibly puffy. Don’t get me wrong. I know the 50s were all about the voluminous skirt. However, women didn’t wear petticoats every day.
The dresses wouldn’t be so puffy unless they were for an event or a high-class evening. Even then, many A-lined party dresses had volume because of the amount of fabric used to make them and not by relying on a petticoat.
So it had more streamlined volume, many 1950s dresses and skirts with narrower styles as well for casual wear.
All The Accessories
Gloves, hats, sunglasses, scarves, and bags surely completed the outfit but only the right one. If a woman was wearing just a blouse and a skirt, she wouldn’t wear any and not all of these accessories at once.
You would only see them wearing their accessories with a lovely cocktail dress or at a fancy lunch event.
Maybe older women would never leave the house without their gloves. However, those would be short gloves, not opera-length ones.
When going through Pinterest looks depicting French fashion in the 1950s, I’ve seen thousands of pictures of women decked out in accessories in simple outfits like a sweater and a skirt.
Surprisingly, this over-accessorizing with simple outfits is as desirable now as it would have been ridiculous back then. I am not saying it doesn’t look great, just that it isn’t accurate.
French fashion in the 1950s was a clash between two silhouettes. The first one dominated the world from the late 1940s, the hourglass shape from Dior and the straight jacket look from classic Channel.
The jacket quickly became a favorite despite what critics say because of its practicality. A few things define this period of fashion, like the strong presence of femininity, shapewear undergarments, and more fabric used in clothing.
French fashion in the 1950s was back on top of the world due to outrageous new looks by Dior and Channel. They both had completely different visions, styled and catered to a section of the elite clientele.