The 1940s

During World War II (1939-1945) and the first years following, fashion was dictated by the need for practical, simple clothes and the rationing of resources and materials. In England the government encouraged "utility clothing." In Paris, during the German occupation, only very few haute couture houses remained open. In all countries, special magazines and brochures dispensed advice on re-modeling old clothes or how to make new clothes from combining pieces of old ones. Skirts and coats became shorter, suits took on the character of uniforms, and wide shoulders dominated more than ever. Hats and shoes were often hand-made and wool stockings and socks replaced silk. In the United States, Claire McCardell created a furor with her "pop-over" dresses, leotards, and sea-side "diaper suits."

A new epoch in fashion was marked on February 12, 1947, with the opening of Christian Dior's house. He called his first haute couture collection "Ligne Corolle" (calyx line), but the fashion press called it the "New Look," because almost everything about it was new. The simple suit jacket, the small lapels, the narrow wasp waist, which emphasized the hips, and, above all, the narrow shoulders. For the first time in over a decade, there were no shoulder pads. Just as new were the extremely wide calf-length skirt, flat broad-rimmed hats (wagon wheels), high-heeled pumps and long gloves, which lent this daytime wear an impressively elegant flair.

At first, due to the lack of necessary materials, the new style could only be produced slowly, but soon countless private seamstresses were busy fulfilling the dream of the "New Look." In the spring of 1948, Dior's "Ligne Envol" (pencil line) followed, introducing narrow skirts with the famous Dior slit, underlayed with material for walking ease. Nylon stockings were in high demand, leaving shiny rayon and woolen stockings forever in the past.

After the war, a new fashion invention created a lasting impression. On July 5th, in Paris, the French mechanical engineer Louis Reard presented his two-piece bathing suit which he called the bikini. Although there had already been two-piece bathing suits since 1928, Reard's bikini stood out because of its extremely skimpy cut. The bikini, however, was not generally accepted until the late 1960s.

Men's clothing played a rather limited role; uniforms dominated. Trench coats and duffle coats (montys) were all-around coats. The American jazz scene's zoot suit, with its long frock coat and wide trousers, was considered modern.

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