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Cold War Experience:  Culture

The Fashion Front

Gregory Peck

By Lourdes M. Font, Ph.D.
Coordinator, Masters Program in Costume Studies
New York University

As a form of cultural expression, fashion always reflects the deepest concerns of society. But unlike literature, music or art, fashion communicates indirectly -- employing a language and a logic of its own. Fashion's power, to capture the present and even to predict the future, is only revealed with the passage of time.

What does fashion reveal about the Cold War, now that it is over? With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes clear that like World War II, the Cold War was fought by men and women in uniform: the grey flannel suit of corporate America, the blue cotton suit of Maoist China, the trenchcoat of spies on both sides of the conflict, and the blue jeans of the young people everywhere who protested against it.

At the end of World War II, returning veterans traded in their military uniforms for civilian clothes, but the flamboyance and swagger of the wartime "Zoot Suit" gradually drained out of men's fashion. By the mid-1950s, the fashion "look" sported by Gregory Peck in "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit" was a perfect example of the new civilian uniform -- a utilitarian tailored envelope that guaranteed social respectability. But it is in women's dress that the meaning of Cold War fashion is most clear.

Theatre of Fashion

Theatre of Fashion

In the spring of 1945, the world of high fashion lay in ruins. World War II had cut the Parisian haute couture off from Britain and from the source of its most devoted clientele -- America. During the early '40s, the American fashion press had turned its attention to native designers, who perfected styles suited to the American way of life -- from the sharply tailored suits of Gilbert Adrian to the inventive and comfortable sportswear of Claire McCardell.

The Theatre of Fashion exhibition, which opened in Paris in 1945 and toured Europe and America the following year, was organized by the Parisian couturiers' association to benefit French relief efforts, but it was also intended to revive the fortunes of the couture.

Evening gowns

Against backdrops provided by French theatrical designers, miniature mannequins displayed the work of couturiers who had been unable to mount full-scale collections in the face of wartime shortages. Heightened by the miniature scale, the unrivalled workmanship of the couture and its contributing crafts was undeniable. Visitors to the exhibition could also witness the co-existence of two distinct silhouettes: the padded shoulders and short straight skirts that had prevailed during the war, and the softer, longer, fuller clothes that had already surfaced on both sides of the Atlantic. It was this second silhouette that would become the famous "New Look" of 1947.

Dior suit

'New,' but improved?

Indelibly associated with the debut collection of Christian Dior, the New Look was enthusiastically promoted by the American fashion press as signalling the return of luxury after the privations of war. But some American women, who protested against it during Dior's triumphal tour of American department stores, sensed its true nature.

A look inside the New Look, provided by Harper's Bazaar in 1947, reveals layers of interfacing, horsehair, padding and built-in corsetry -- a hidden, inner armor. The New Look was actually an old look, recalling the corsets and crinolines of Victorian women. Although it indulged a longing for luxurious fabrics, it denied women comfort. But it also armed them to wage a new, covert war -- one which would be waged with every weapon in the arsenal of traditional femininity.

Sears girdles

Throughout the 1950s, the armor that was built into women's clothing and the underwear beneath it transformed their bodies into virtual weaponry. Girdles smoothed the hips and thighs into the sleek shapes of rocket missiles; bras with pointed cups aimed the breasts squarely at the world.

The hard curves of the fashionable ideal implied a sexuality that was rigidly contained, but potentially explosive. In the persona of the Blonde Bombshell, epitomized by the cultural icon of sexuality -- Marilyn Monroe -- in such classic movies as "The Seven Year Itch," it did explode.

Marilyn Monroe

Totalitarian fashion, tovarich

The launch of the New Look also created the orderly fashion universe of the 1950s, in which the dictates of Paris were reported in the press and translated at every level of the industry, from ready-to-wear to the neighborhood dressmaker. Paris fashion celebrated luxury for its own sake, as the natural consequence of an idealist love of beauty. The mere existence of such luxury seemed to certify the superiority of the capitalist system.

In the consumer economies of the West, women were encouraged to aspire to high fashion. Implicitly, those behind the Iron Curtain were deprived of it, but so strong was its power to seduce, that in the popular imagination any red-blooded Russian female would melt at the sight of a Paris dress, as in the Hollywood film "Silk Stockings."

In this ironically totalitarian fashion state, the press played a vital role. In the hands of legendary fashion editors Carmel Snow and Diana Vreeland, it too could be dictatorial, and it helped perpetuate public perception of the fashion industry as a world of secrecy and intrigue, in which designers jealously guarded their new collections from spies, saboteurs and knock-off artists.

The real threat, however, would come from a different quarter. There was another side to the fashions of the '50s, related to the wartime development of American sportswear, the postwar spread of the suburban lifestyle, and the beginning of the Americanization of Europe.

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