American Look

In fashion history the late 1940s are best known for the introduction of the New Look, a return to luxurious feminine clothes that was begun by French designer Christian Dior (1905—1957). Across the ocean, however, American designer Claire McCardell (1905—1958) was creating a revolution in fashion of her own. During World War II (1939-45), when French designers were inactive, McCardell began to design clothes that could be worn every day by busy women. In Fashion: The Mirror of History McCardell is quoted as saying: "I belong to a mass production country where any of us, all of us, deserve the right to good fashion." Among her first designs was a bias-cut dress. A bias-cut meant that the fabric was cut diagonally across the weave, allowing the dress to have a soft and flowing shape. McCardell also invented the popover dress, which was meant for comfortable wear around the house. Women could move easily in these dresses, and in McCardell's other designs. Observers soon hailed McCardell's designs as the American Look.

Above all else American Look clothes were simple and practical. McCardell's bias-cut dresses had adjustable waistlines and side pockets. Her dirndl skirts were slim at the waist and flared outward and could be paired with her clingy tops and light sweaters. Her

ballerina leotards were stretchy and fit a variety of shapes, and she eliminated the girdle, a restrictive undergarment. McCardell was fond of simple fabrics like denim and wool jersey, a soft, stretchy woven fabric. Others soon followed McCardell's example and developed an entire range of clothing that became associated with the American Look.

The American Look had a tremendous influence on style in the United States and Europe throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Many other designers sought to make simple, comfortable women's clothes that didn't restrict movement. McCardell and others developed American Look mix-and-match sportswear, bathing suits, winter wear, coats, and other items. Interestingly, accessories like gloves and umbrellas, so important to the New Look of designer Christian Dior, were not required for a well-dressed American Look woman. The influence of the American Look's casual comfort was felt through the end of the century.


Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.

Mulvagh, Jane. Vogue History of 20th Century Fashion. New York: Viking, 1988.

Claire McCardell designed simple, comfortable everyday clothes for the busy American woman.

Reproduced by permission of © Bettmann/CORBIS.

Claire McCardell designed simple, comfortable everyday clothes for the busy American woman.

Reproduced by permission of © Bettmann/CORBIS.

[See also Volume 5, 1946-60: New Look]

Du uring World War II (1939-45) the United States government directed that the amount of cloth in women's beachwear be

Bikini Woman 1960
The bikini was an aftereffect of fabric rationing during World War II, when cloth used in women's swimwear had to be reduced by 10 percent. Reproduced by permission of © Bettmann/CORBIS.

reduced by 10 percent to conserve fabric which was needed in the war effort. As a result swimsuit manufacturers produced suits featuring bare midriffs. Such garments, however, were downright conventional when compared to what was to come right after the war, with the invention of the bikini: a skimpy, two-piece bathing suit consisting of a bra top and two reversed cloth triangles attached by a string.

The bikini was devised separately but simultaneously in 1946 by two Frenchmen, Louis Réard (1897-1984) and Jacques Heim (1900-1967). Réard, an engineer, named his creation after Bikini, a Pacific Ocean atoll, a string of coral islands, where the United States government was testing nuclear bombs. Heim, a clothing designer, named his version atome, the French word for atom, and announced that it was the world's smallest bathing suit. Réard countered his competitor by calling the bikini smaller than the world's smallest bathing suit. Both parts of his suit consisted of only thirty inches of fabric. It was in fact so tiny that no French model would wear it in public. A nude dancer finally agreed to be photographed wearing one. After a picture of her in Réard's bikini was published, she received close to fifty thousand fan letters.

At first the bikini was considered risqué and was even banned in beauty pageants and on many European beaches. Its rise in popularity was directly linked to its being worn by attractive young movie actresses. British actress Diana Dors (1931-1984) wore a mink bikini at the 1955 Venice Film Festival, and American stars Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) and Jayne Mansfield (1932-1967) were photographed in them in the 1950s. The 1950s screen icon who most famously put on the bikini was Brigitte Bardot (1934-), a French movie star. Bardot wore it on the French Riviera and in the film Et Dieu . . . céa la femme (1956), also known as ... And God Created Woman.

The bikini was not worn on American beaches until the 1960s, when its rise as an acceptable mode of swimwear was linked to pop

ular culture. First, pop singer Brian Hyland (1943-) celebrated the bikini with his hit song, "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" (1960). The lyrics depicted a woman, wearing a bikini for the first time, who was "afraid to come out of the water" because she was embarrassed by her scanty attire. A couple of years later, it was boldly worn by Ursula Andress (1936-) in Dr. No (1962), the first James Bond movie. Bikinis then became the favored attire in a cycle of popular, teen-oriented sun-and-surf movies, beginning with Beach Party (1963). The word even was worked into the titles of a number of these films: Bikini Beach (1964); How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965); Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965); The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966); and It's a Bikini World (1967). Raquel Welch (1942-) wore a fur bikini playing a cavewoman in One Million Years B.C. (1966). By then the bikini was fast becoming a basic beach outfit.

Women favored bikinis because of their stylishness and the liberating nature of their design; wearing them provided women the opportunity to publicly display their bodies. Men liked bikinis because they showed off more of the female body.


Alac, Patrick. The Bikini: A Cultural History. London, England: Parkstone Press, 2002.

Baker, Patricia. Fashions of a Decade: The 1940s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

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