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Ladies’ Choice: American Women’s Fashions, 1950–1965

June 6, 2003–May 16, 2004

After World War II, when men in the armed forces had returned to their jobs and families, many Americans believed that women should resume their traditional role as wives, mothers, and homemakers. Fashion in the 1950s and early 1960s reflected this resurgence of idealized femininity. In an era of American history that has often been called conformist, the taste of the time extolled circumspect feminine behavior and a ladylike appearance.

Although they looked to Paris for fashion guidance during this period, American women could also choose the creations of many American designers. This installation features ensembles by two renowned masters, Norman Norell and James Galanos; the work of other talented American designers is shown by a shirtwaist dress and the evening dress worn by a debutante. Also on view are examples of the “foundation garments“ which gave women the ideal controlled yet curvaceous figure. Accessories were vital to the ideal lady, who never dreamt of appearing on city streets without a hat and gloves; the variety of handbags and other accessories on display includes sixteen hats from turbans to toques, reflecting the importance of millinery during the period.

Nevertheless, life in the post-war years was increasingly informal for many women in the United States. Two outfits by Claire McCardell exemplify the appeal of American sportswear—comfortable, practical, and democratic. By the mid-1960s, as fashion responded to the energy of youth, the ladylike ideal began to seem out of date. A 1965 knit dress by Rudi Gernreich heralds the unfettered look that soon became a fashion revolution.

The garments and accessories on view are selected from those added to the museum’s collection during the past decade. They illustrate both the strength and ideals of American fashion from 1950 to 1965, and one aspect of the museum’s growing costume and textiles collection, which currently numbers over thirty thousand objects.

Main Building


Kristina Haugland, Assistant Curator of Costume and Textiles

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