The New Look

Paris couture to everyday fashions in Leeds

By Leeds Museums & Galleries

Female models stood in a line drinking tea (1950/1959) by Yorkshire Post Newspapers Ltd.Leeds Museums & Galleries

1950s ‘New Look’

In 1947 the French designer Christian Dior (1905 -1957) launched his first collection, which was named by the fashion press the ‘New Look’. Dior’s ultra-feminine designs were an instant success and became the defining style of the 1950s, influencing every level of fashion from Parisian couture to the British high street.      

Female fashion models (1950/1959) by Yorkshire Post Newspapers Ltd.Leeds Museums & Galleries

After the horrors and restrictions of the Second World War, the New look perfectly captured the optimism felt by the British public. Looking to the female figure for inspiration designers created garments, which moulded to the curves of the body, with nipped in waists, rounded shoulder lines and fuller, longer skirts.

Balenciaga dress (1950/1952) by BalenciagaLeeds Museums & Galleries

Cristobel Balenciaga (1895-1972) was one of the most influential Parisian designers of the 1950s. Even before Dior presented his New Look Balenciaga was incorporating longer, fuller skirts into his designs.  The excess of material and applied beading of this dress would have seemed extravagant to many people after the utilitarian style of the Second Wold War. 

Jacques Fath dress (1950/1952) by Jacques FathLeeds Museums & Galleries

Designed by leading Paris couturier Jacques Fath (1912 -1954) the slim line shape of this dress shows the alternative to the full skirted style so associated with the New Look. The cleverly cut dress is perfectly shaped to the curves of the body to really emphasise the female figure.

Female fashion models posing in dresses (1950/1959) by Yorkshire Post Newspapers Ltd.Leeds Museums & Galleries

Ready to Wear and the New look

The rise in real wages and the popularity of the New Look saw fashion become ever more important in the 1950s. In reality few could afford the luxury of couture, so most women looked to the ready to wear industry and high street shops to get their own bit of Parisian inspired glamour.    

Day dress Day dress (1949/1954)Leeds Museums & Galleries

A popular ready to wear version of a New Look inspired dress was the shirt-waister. It combines the femininity of the New Look with the everyday practicalities needed by most 1950s women. The shoulder line is rounded and the full skirt is pulled in at the waist; yet the simple construction makes it comfortable to wear. 

Day dress - detailLeeds Museums & Galleries

Many new materials appeared in the 1950s which were specifically aimed at the busy housewife as they promised to lessen the daily burdens of housework. This dress is labelled as ‘Super Tremendo non-iron cotton’ - making it is easy to wash.

Susan Small dress Susan Small dress (1955/1962) by Susan SmallLeeds Museums & Galleries

Susan Small, founded by Leslie Carr-Jones in the late 1940s, was a top end ready to wear label in Britain. Regularly advertising in Vogue, Susan Small dresses were not cheap, but they were much more affordable than the Paris couture garments that they were so expertly copying.

Susan Small dress - detailLeeds Museums & Galleries

Susan Small, along with other leading ready to wear brands, was part of the London Model House Group, established in 1947. The group, prided itself on providing women with quality, high-class fashions and to coordinated the twice yearly London Fashion week to promote their collections. 

Jacques Heim dress (1959) by Jacques HeimLeeds Museums & Galleries

The most successful Paris couturiers embraced the ready to wear market by producing their own collections. Jacques Heim (1899-1967) was one of the first fashion houses to produce a ready to wear collection and this dress is from his ‘Juene Filles’ line, which aimed to capture a younger market. 

Rooftop view of the Headrow, Leeds (1950/1959) by Yorkshire Post Newspapers Ltd.Leeds Museums & Galleries

Shopping for the New Look

The prosperity of the postwar era saw the British nation go out and shop. Across Britain, it was the large department stores that had the greatest ability to meet the new consumer demands. Two of the most popular stores in Leeds were Lewis’ and Schofields. 

Schofields "The rebuilding of a department store" 1957-1962 (c. 1962) by SchofieldsLeeds Museums & Galleries

Schofield’s department store opened in 1901 in Leeds. The 1950s was a hugely successful period for the store and by the end of the decade, as more people were going out to shop, the store decided to build an extension.

Marshall and Snelgrove dress (1958/1961) by Marshall & SnelgroveLeeds Museums & Galleries

Shoppers had their favourite stores where they knew they could get the fashion labels they liked and could afford. The most expensive department store in Leeds was Marshall and Snelgrove. Selling top end, luxury fashions it also had a doorman welcoming you in. 

Horrockses dress Horrockses dress (1956) by HorrocksesLeeds Museums & Galleries

A popular dress label sold by Marshall and Snelgrove, in the 1950s, was Horrockses. This dress was bought by a fashionable young 20 year old, in 1956.

Horrockses dress - detailLeeds Museums & Galleries

Originally a cotton manufacturer Horrockses were best known for their bright coloured prints. In the 1940s the company successfully diversified into making clothes. 

Corset (1950/1959)Leeds Museums & Galleries

Completing the Look

Undergarments were essential in the 1950s in order to create the nipped in hourglass shape of the New Look. The boning sewn into this corset gives it structure and firmness, whilst the stretch fabric gives a bit of comfort. The strapless design makes it perfect for wearing under an evening dress      

Grosgrain fabric handbag (1950/1955) by WaldybagLeeds Museums & Galleries

Whether wearing Parisian couture or a high street dress accessories were all important in the 1950s. ‘Waldybags’ made by H Wald & Co, were very popular and this one comes with a matching lipstick, compact powder and cigarette case decorated with hand painted glass beads.

Dolcis 'Debutante' shoe (1960) by DolcisLeeds Museums & Galleries

Fashion magazines such as Vogue regularly advised their readers about ‘what to wear with what’ and colour co-ordination, from head to toe was extremely fashionable. Shoe shops offered special dying services so women could match the colour of their shoes to their dress.

Female fashion model (1950/1959) by Yorkshire Post Newspapers Ltd.Leeds Museums & Galleries

With increased wealth in post-war Britain people were choosing to spend more on their leisure time. The annual holiday was becoming the norm and fashionable beachwear became a necessity.

Swimsuit (1950/1959)Leeds Museums & Galleries

Although the bikini had arrived by the 1950s most women felt it was still too risqué and exposing to wear. For those lucky enough to go on holiday somewhere hot then a one-piece swimsuit like this was the perfect choice for sunbathing on a beach.  

The influence of the New Look can still be seen today. The ultra feminine silhouette never seems to disappear from fashion and the success of the vintage market, selling original 1950s designs shows how many people still like to wear the New Look today.

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