Lift and Separate to Achieve that Desirable ‘New Look’

There is a great deal of literature – popular and academic – on what women wore in the US during World War II and how styles were influenced by goods rationing, no European fashion imports, and women’s increased entry into the workforce.  There has also been a great deal written about what happened after the war ended and how Paris positioned itself once again as a fashion center.  The Parisian couturier, Christian Dior, took the world by storm in spring 1947 when he introduced for autumn what came to be called the ‘New Look.’  Skirts were made fuller, hemlines dropped, waists were corseted again, and back and shoulders got sloped and rounded.  While a hem length may seem like a trivial matter, the impact of Dior’s new silhouette cannot be overstated.  One expects that fashion magazines such as US Vogue would report on such matters but in truth the New Look became an issue for heated debate in the mainstream press.  Men lamented the new concealment of women’s ‘gams’ and women protested a return to corsetry and unflattering padded hips.  Some called it a ‘return to femininity’ while others considered it a return to barbarism in women’s dress. 

Among those to join the debate was Hollywood.  The motion picture industry had a great deal at stake with a clothing revolution that threatened to have women tossing out their entire wardrobes in favor of Dior’s New Look.  Films were typically made up to a year in advance, which meant stars could potentially appear horribly out of date by fall 1947.  After the Dior collection debut, there was a very real possibility that a star might appear onscreen in October 1947 wearing a severe mannish suit with a short, narrow skirt.  She would look ridiculous.  Many in the motion picture industry, especially costume designers such as Edith Head, insisted at the onset of such debates that American women would never wear such silly clothes.  Famed MGM designer, Adrian, insisted that he would not allow himself to be cowed by Paris designers.  He had earned his fame and established a signature silhouette when he put the naturally broad shouldered Joan Crawford in shoulder pads.  Joan Crawford, for one, was rumored in the gossip columns as being unlikely ever to part with her oh-so-becoming shoulder pads (Photoplay May 1947).  Other designers, including Irene, said that she had anticipated a return to longer, fuller skirts after the war.  As such, she had already begun designing costumes for MGM with longer fuller skirts since before the war’s end.  Yet no matter which side of the debate one fell on it seemed clear that Paris, not Hollywood, was likely to dictate what women wore post-WWII.

The shift back to Paris as a fashion center was surely a disappointing turn of events for Hollywood.  Throughout the thirties, Hollywood and its associated consumer industries such as cosmetics companies and manufacturers of film costume knock-offs, had enjoyed making a great deal of money off the targeted young female moviegoers who emulated their favorite stars.  In the forties, European creative confections ceased to reach the US and so domestic motion pictures continued to hold their sway on what women wore and how they styled themselves.  One wonders how many Veronica Lakes strolled the streets with one eye peeking from behind a long flowing blonde lock of hair or how many Carmen Mirandas wrapped their heads in a turban before entering the factory workplace.  Yet that was soon to change with Dior’s New Look.

While the average American woman was certainly in no position to throw out her entire wardrobe that spring 1947 and replace it with something altogether new – and in fact many women publicly protested the long full skirts and hated Dior’s padded hips – changes did come.  Though padded hips never truly caught on, the overall silhouette that Dior introduced powerfully and dramatically changed the way women dressed in a short period of time.  By the end of the year even shoulder pad stalwart Joan Crawford appeared in public wearing a full ballerina length strapless gown (Photoplay December 1947). 

What Hollywood stars wore both on and off the screen continued to hold some sway but after the war costume designers were largely obliged to acknowledge that the new trend was here to stay.  One Hollywood fan magazine reporter wrote in September 1947: “Couple of months ago we warned you that pleading fashion arbiters were determined that padded hips, smaller shoulder lines and much longer daytime skirts be accepted by American femininity—and it really looks as if their edict is in full sway” (Photoplay September 1947: 57). 

The month that article appeared in Photoplay was the same month that the magazine debuted its Pattern of the Month.  The Pattern of the Month was advertised as an ensemble designed by a Hollywood costume designer for a specific star, either for her daily wear or for a particular film.  Usually the star was featured in a photograph wearing the costume on the same page as a mail-in coupon that instructed consumers to send .35 cents along with their dress size. Paramount designer Edith Head was among those to participate in the emergent do-it-yourself culture that was to become some popular in the 1950s.  Photoplay ran its Pattern of the Month feature from September 1947 to January 1954, precisely during those crucial years when women were adapting to the new silhouettes.  Edith Head was one of the more frequent contributors to the feature.  While her designs were often rather conservative, they allowed for a great deal of flexibility.  That is to say, she offered suggestions on ways that her designs could be re-configured to better flatter different body types such as tall or round. 

Throughout the early 1950s, home sewing increased in popularity.  It became a means for personal expression for some women and also a creative and relatively inexpensive way to interpret Hollywood-inspired and couture garments (Laboissonniere 1999).  Surveys about why women engaged in home sewing were conducted by textiles and pattern manufacturers so their results should be taken with a spoonful of salt.  This was, after all, the era Betty Friedan objected to in Feminine Mystique (1963)—an era in which many middle-class, white women were unhappy and unfulfilled in their roles as housewives and mothers.  Yet it seems unlikely that manufacturers would produce patterns and sell sewing machines if there were not a market for such goods so certainly at least some women were sewing clothes for themselves and their families.  Whether they found fulfillment through creative expression is difficult to know without proper evidence. 

What we do know is that Hollywood quickly adapted to the New Look.  Studio costume stock blouses, jackets, and dresses had their shoulder pads removed.  Waists were nipped in, skirts were lengthened and made fuller, and actress began wearing their hair in shorter styles by the winter, as Lana Turner was reported to have done (Photoplay December 1947).  By 1948, magazine advertisements promoted foundation garments to accommodate the New Look: panty girdles to pull in the waist and bras that suited the new tighter fitting bodices – bras that would ‘lift’ and ‘separate’ the breasts for a ‘more youthful look’ (see Photoplay April 1948 advertisements). 

The fans who emulated their favorite stars and wrote in to fan magazines such as Photoplay suggested to the publication which stars they would like to see more of in the magazine’s pages.  According to film scholar Tamar Jeffers McDonald, no star was featured for fashion more in the fifties than girl-next-door Doris Day who became known for her wholesome and tasteful style (November exhibition at Margaret Herrick Library in special collections).  Her personal and professional clothes aligned with the basic fifties silhouettes – the slim sheath look and the poufy skirt – without going to extremes such as seen on some stars including Marilyn Monroe, who was known for her clinging, revealing attire.  Says McDonald, Doris Day enjoyed an ‘everywoman’ status that made casual, natural beauty seem achievable.    

It was the New Look that would come to define the cocktail dress in its heyday between 1947 and the mid-1960s.  A cinched waist, breasts that were lifted and separated, and longer skirts—these were among the key aspects of the popular cocktail dress silhouette.  What did this so-called return to femininity mean and how was it portrayed in Hollywood film? 

Check back soon for more notes from the field.    


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