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
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
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
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.
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.
'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.
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.
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
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
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.