1947 - 1959: Consumer Boom and Conformity

At the close of World War II, United States’ industry boomed as it supplied European countries necessary supplies to rebuild their nations and economies. This newfound American prosperity ushered in an era of economic expansion and consumerism.

Following the war, the French worked to regain their preeminence in the fashion industry. A leader in this effort was Christian Dior, who in 1947 introduced the “New Look.” The lines of this “New Look” exaggerated the styles of the 1930s with an exceedingly small waist offset by wide skirts, and soft rounded shoulders and bodices. Skirts employed yards of fabric in reaction to the wartime restrictions on textiles. Highlighting women’s fertile figures and material excess, the New Look reflected society’s hopes for a prosperous future.

The New Look was seen as a distinct return to femininity after the war when so many women sacrificed and worked outside the home. Women were now encouraged to relinquish their jobs to returning GIs. Some, however, feared that this return to ultra-feminine dress lines marked another setback in women’s roles in society. These ultra feminine lines were achieved through shape enhancing bras and tight girdles.

After 1945, the fashion industry became big business. Christian Dior represented a new wave of emerging male fashion designers. Early in the century, houses of couture (high-end fashion) were small shop luxury establishments, often run by women creating individual pieces for specific clients. After the war, opening a house of couture required a major investment. Financial backers increasingly threw their resources to male-led design houses. Designers began selling their designs to businesses that reproduced the clothing for the mass market. To ensure women constantly purchased new dresses, designers introduced new lines that determined the year’s fashionable colors and the newest dress lines, H-line, A-Line, ZigZag Line, and so on.

Consumption and conformity were major themes in post-war America. The mass market in fashion helped fuel these trends. Similar to the era of western expansion a century earlier, the American middle class was remaking itself. The GI bill enabled a new class of men to attend college and purchase their own homes for the first time, providing newfound social mobility. Armed with well-paying jobs, these men fled the cities, moving their families to the rapidly developing suburbs. Leaving neighborhoods and previous social contexts behind, these families were often insecure in their class standing and used material goods such as clothing to communicate their middle class status.