Essay on 1950s Black Fashion

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With the end of the Second World War in 1945, came the revival of romanticism and haute couture within the world of fashion. After a period of rationing everything from food to fabrics and styles such as the ‘Utility Dress’ being the trend during the war, the revival of romanticism was greatly welcomed by many. Although the previous era focused on loose silhouettes and boxy fittings, fitted clothing, and the hourglass figure made a strong comeback. Designers such as Christian Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy, and the return of House Chanel were the prominent fashion leaders of this period. Although the war had ended there was still a shortage of resources around the world, one of these being fabric. Many designers had to adapt and create with as little fabric as possible due to the shortages. Although not all designers respected this, one of them being Christian Dior. The two designers that will be examined are the House of Dior and the House of Chanel.

In 1905, Christian Dior was born in Granville, Normandy. His beginning was unlike other fashion leaders. He studied political science in college and opened an art gallery at 21, selling works by artists such as Salvador Dali and Braque. He first entered the fashion world when his family lost their fortune. With this huge loss, Dior also lost his apartment after selling all his art pieces, he was forced to sleep on a friend's floor, “Christian Dior’s dark days living rough and of a pauper’s diet resulted in him contracting tuberculosis and he had to have a year in convalescence.” (Christian Dior (1905- 1957), 2020). Dior was known as one of the best fashion illustrators of the century (Christian Dior (1905-1957), 2020) and sold fashion sketches to houses such as the House of Worth and many other big names, which then led to Dior being trained by Piguet and Lelong. By 1946, Dior opens his own couture house at 30 Avenue Montaigne with the aid of a wealthy industrialist, Marcel Boussac.

In 1947, Dior released his first collections, En 8 and Corolle, which were soon known as the “New Look”. Dior wanted his collection to be an escape from a “Poverty-stricken, parsimonious era, obsessed with ration books and clothing coupons”. (Donaldson, 2020)This collection was inspired by three aspects; his childhood surrounded by luxury and seeing his mother’s dresses, “The Barretts of Wimpole” play also played a huge role with its references to femininity, softly draping fabrics, and flattering hats, however, “the true inspiration came from Berard and the sketches he made with Dior about what the collection should say.” (Christian Dior (1905-1957), 2020) Dior wanted to revive the romanticism that was so present in the 1820’s and 1830’s.

His famous “The Bar Suit” outfit from the “Corolle” line, 1947, was highly controversial when it was released. This suit consisted of a silk peplum jacket and a wool skirt. This was a very bold choice from Dior since the majority of the world was still rationing and there was a shortage of fabric. His choice of silhouette was also going against the new “norm” which was loose, draping, and almost boxy silhouettes. Dior decided to bring back the small waist which was immensely popular up until the late 19th Century. The “Bar Suit” was a clear and loud rejection of the 1920’s and 1930’s style. This created a strong divide amongst women, with feminists being outraged that he would bring back the restrictive style that they fought so much to shake. However, many women were huge fans of the style and silhouette believing that he successfully brought back romanticism and femininity after such difficult and dark years previous. The suit does not fail to impress, with its hand-stitched, pleated black crepe fabric which was very heavy and 5.5 meters long, sparing no expense with the shortage of fabric during this time. The teacup suit jacket was made using shantung silk with cotton padding on the front to give the jacket its peplum shape. (V&A · Fashion unpicked: The 'Bar' suit by Christian Dior, 2019)The suit is exactly what I would imagine as the essence of upper-class femininity. It is elegant, flowing, and subtle yet eye-catching.

Thanks to Dior and many other designers, Haute Couture, and romanticism were on the rise yet again. In 1939, just before the war, Chanel closed her salon. She reopened it in 1953 at the age of 71, challenging Dior’s “New Look”. Chanel, like other designers, was not keen to welcome back the silhouettes that Dior had revived. “Chanel felt his designs were neither modern nor suitable for the liberated women who had survived another war” (Krick, 2004). Instead, she made her come back with her famous tweed suit which was not a complete success, however, she persevered onwards adjusting the suit and eventually becoming the icon for the new generation. Her suits were exceedingly popular due to their non-restrictive and light fabrics. The suits successfully merged two worlds; femininity and comfort, which were a huge hit with the majority of females.

With her status and customers returning in large volumes, she had succeeded in her comeback and fashion revolution. Now that Chanel had returned, she released a bag, which was so popular the style is still used to this day. The iconic bag was known as 2.55, named after the month and year it was released, and it was a quilted handbag. She brought a new style to the shoulder strap bags which, like her suits, were strong yet lightweight. (Inside CHANEL, 2020). Chanel continues to be the symbol of one of the highest forms of elegance.

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Here is an image of Chanel’s famous tweed suit worn outside the Chanel Salon. This suit was the first professional suit made solely for women. The suit was originally made from tweed however with growing popularity and adjustments to fit the new generation, the suit was also made in solid fabrics too.

The suit is a very modern feminine outfit and embodies luxury and elegance associated with higher-class women, even to this day I would associate Chanel clothing with the upper classes and the very wealthy.

It was a very lightweight and practical suit, which was a breath of fresh air for women who wore the last 19th century clothes. The suit is so light it has a gold chain in the hem and around the collar to add weight and keep its shape.

Below are two evening gowns, one created by Chanel in 1958 (right) and the other created by Dior in 1949 (left). Although there are many clear differences, the two dresses embody the highest form of elegance and sophistication. Both dresses also have a form of layering, with Chanel’s being at the bottom and Dior’s cascading from the waist. Chanel continues to create lightweight clothes whilst Dior opts for heavier and much more fabric for his clothes.

Although Christian Dior and Gabrielle Coco Chanel were complete opposites, they have both paved the path for today’s fashion and have stood against the test of time. Chanel has very much remained with their style and values from the beginning, creating high-end luxury fashion and supplying practical elegance for those who can afford it. Dior has changed their style greatly over the years adapting to the changing world in which we live. I believe Dior is as popular, if not more than they were when they first began. Christian Dior has managed to keep their Haute Couture status whilst also entering the fast-growing world of street fashion. By signing Asap Rocky to be their face of the street fashion within Dior they have successfully cemented themselves as one of the many pillars of this culture. (DeLeon, Klanten and Niebius, 2018).

I believe without Christian Dior and Gabrielle Coco Chanel’s creations the fashion in the 1940s and 1950s would not have been so revolutionary in the revival of romanticism, feminism, and Haute Couture itself. Both designers succeeded tremendously with the revivals in their ways. The post-war period benefitted greatly from the two extremely different designers challenging the norms of their time.


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