Photo of Wartime Men & Women marching in street with US Flag

WWII was THE dominate force in the world in the first half of the 1940’s and fashion was profoundly influenced by its impact. Every aspect of life and the resources required to support the war effort demanded sacrifices that would unite the population. The need for uniforms took precedence and shifted manufacturing away from everyday clothing for men, women, and children. Civilian clothing styles were dictated by rationing and utility which would continue even after the war had ended. America, the United Kingdom, and France were all drawn into WWII. Yet the impact of the war would prove to effect each nation differently. All three nations would come away with a different story told through the everyday lens of fashion. Wartime did not mean giving up on beauty and dressing the best you could. However, it did mean new considerations and a sense of cooperation was be needed to ultimately win WWII.

Despite the restrictions and difficulties of war, women, especially in the US and Britain, were encouraged to fulfill their patriotic duty to look attractive. The US and British governments with the help of designers would help mold the look. In America, Hollywood movie stars would model these designs enticing women to emulate and escape through the clothing on the movie screen.

Photo of 1940's wedding gown
A wartime wedding dress that could have been made from a pattern similar Folkwear 233 Glamour Girl Dress Pattern.

 

Folkwear’s 233 Glamour Girl Dress and the 247 Lindy Dress each met the parameters set by wartime restrictions, while still providing women with a touch of glamour and daily utility to their wardrobes. Dresses like the 247 Lindy Dress (and our out-of-print 235 Sporty Forties' Dress) became a unifying everyday uniform, allowing women to go about their lives with the ease of knowing they looked good without fuss. It was part of the new "utility" look. While The 233 Glamour Dress and it sensual lines provided a much-needed escape and a bit of glamorous fun. Keep reading to learn how fighting Hitler's war was fueled by fashion and weaponized by glamour.

Photo of three women in uniforms with weapons

By the start of the war in 1939, Paris had long enjoyed its status as the undisputed capital of fashion and culture, leaving the world transfixed. Fashion magazines, news publications, and going to the movies were portals to all things French. However, six months into the war on June 14, 1940, a four year German occupation would seal Paris and all of France off from the gaze of its captivated audience. French life and fashion design did not end, but many talented designers and creatives would shutter their studios, flee, or join the fight. The artists and designers that remained continued to create the best they could despite the occupation. This closed bubble resulted in fashion and art that would diverge vastly from the world outside of France.

Photo ofThe President of the Chambre Syndical de la Haute Couture, Lucien Lelong
Lucien Lelong watching a designer work on a half scale dress form.

 

Hitler coveted Paris and considered it a jewel to be taken. The Vichy government of France handed Paris over to Hitler in part to keep it from being destroyed, preserving its beauty and talents. The President of the Chambre Syndical de la Haute Couture, Lucien Lelong, convinced the Nazis that the fashion industry should be kept alive to preserve jobs and keep French talent from being relegated to dangerous work for the Germans. Implying that French talent would be part of Hitler's spoils. Paris fashion houses continued to produce two fashion collections a year, dressing mostly the wives of Nazi officers and privileged women from countries that sided with Germany. The occupation would prove to be a safety net of sorts, allowing much of French life to continue uninterrupted. However, the average French woman was left to dress in rags and make do with much resentment.

Prior to the war, American designers merely copied Paris fashion and the British followed suit. With France cut off from the world, the US and UK would have to find their own muses. Rationing of resources would steer fashion in both nations, setting the challenge of producing appealing clothing within government issued restraints. Both raw materials and labor were allocated to the war effort, leaving civilian clothing in short supply and women at the forefront of producing and organizing what was needed. Limited availability of fabric lead to tightened bodices, shortened skirts, and dispensing with extra details, such as pockets, cuffs, large pleats, and linings. Items consisting of metal, like buttons, clasps, zippers, were limited in civilian garments. Supplies of manmade fibers such as nylon were increased for civilian clothing, leaving more durable and warm fabrics like wool for uniforms, silk for making parachutes, and dyes for making explosives. Manufacturers of shoes were committed to supplying the troops with boots, resulting in a civilian shoe shortage. Church and society women's charities organized Tag and Jumble Sales to help ease the clothing and shoe shortages that continued even after the war ended. Utilitarian and uniform-like clothing became a sacrificial badge in everyone's fight for victory.

James Laver in Costume and Fashion: A Concise History writes, “The look was simple but stylish, with good proportion and line. It incorporated padded shoulders, nipped-in waist, and hems to just below the knee.” The Utility dress was born. Rations of fabric would persist even after the war and the Utility dress would be reinvented as the shirtwaist dress (similar to our 247 Lindy Dress), to lessen the reference to war.

Photo of women waiting in line for rationed goods.
Women waiting in line, most likely for rationed goods, wearing simple Utiliy clothing



Women on both sides of the Atlantic were encouraged to "Make-Do and Mend," which was a continuing trend born out of the Great Depression. Classes were held and an extensive range of how-to booklets were provided to women and children that taught useful skills on how to extend the life of the families' clothing. These classes provided not just needed skills, but a social outlet as well. Using outdated clothing to make new, more fashionable designs was encouraged. This creative outlet proved to be a much needed diversion for women and girls of all ages.

 

Photo of Make do and Mend Class
Photo of Make-Do and Mend books

 

After the experience of Europe's Great War (WWI), the importance of women’s roles in supporting the war effort had been cemented and there was no doubt of the role moral played in seeing people though the sacrifices required of every individual. The British people were still recovering from the destruction and loss suffered with WWI and the government took strong action to rally the population once again. In order to encourage women to embrace and shift away from popular feminine detailing that had reigned in the 1930's, a scheme was devised by the British government. The prestigious designers Norman Hartnell, Hardy Amies, and Edward Molyneux of The Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers or Inc. Soc., all submitted designs to help promote the cause. Their efforts changed what women would consider fashionable. Women made the most of the simple yet sophisticated look and its dignified allure.

Fashion historian Jayne Shrimpton writes in the publication Fashion in the 1940's, “The Utility Clothing initiative might never have succeeded had the government not taken the inspired decision to involve leading London couturiers in the design of Utility clothing.”

 

Photo of The Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers working

Photo of three women in popular 1940's suits.


Out of this collaborative effort came a fashionable boxy suit, with a rounded-edge collar and lapels, and a flared below the knee-length skirt. Previously popular Tweeds and plaids translated nicely into Utility clothing. Women were excited to see familiar fabrics take on a modern look. Bright colors, prints, and patterns helped elevate the simplicity of the designs. Not only were these designs economic and resourceful, but they were also easy to sew, making them accessible to everyone.

While rationing and purchasing for everyday needs with coupons was a reality for both American and UK households, rationing for clothing was not as severe in the US. As a result a new energy emerged that inspired American designers and the public to embrace a sense of optimism.

With the absence of French influences, American designers thrived in their freedom to define a new American look. This clean slate set the stage for ready-to-wear American sportswear. The clothing introduced was simple and easy to wear. The active spirit of the fashions proved trendy and popular, setting the stage for what would eventually become the iconic Sporty American look (see Folkwear's 235 Sporty Forties dress, which is coming back into print later this summer!).

Norman Norell and Claire McCardell were two American designers that filled the gap for high-quality designs that previously had come from Europe. Norell added glamour and sparkle to the bleak days of the war, by covering the simple Utility dress in sequins that were abundant and ration-free.

Photo of Norman Norell 1940 sequin dress

 

McCardell introduced an even more sporty design aesthetic that appealed to the desires and modern attitudes of women. The casual practicality, and comfort of her designs, worked around rationing restrictions with ease, producing designs that would become American classics. McCardell replaced scarce wool and silk with, denim, seersucker, and jersey to make classic dresses and separates. McCardell’s wrap dress was first introduced in denim and came with a practical oven mitt to match! The wrap dress enjoyed a longevity that lasted well into 1950’s. The classic wrap dress was born and McCardell included it in her collections for the rest of her career.

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Photo of Claire Mc Cardell Designing a dress

 

The US and British governments adopted similar strategies to encourage support for the war, while still maintaining morale. The US government and cosmetic companies partnered to propagandized beauty.

To look unattractive these days is downright morale-breaking and should be considered treason.’ So it was that a lipsticked American woman was a good American.”

Photo of wmoan applying lipstick wearing military helmet

 

Playing off Hitler's hate for "made-up women" cosmetic companies were quick to create campaigns that encourage women to wear make-up responsibly, but not neglect beauty. Lipstick was weaponized. In the US and Britain, women were encouraged to wear red lipstick as warpaint. In 1940, Elizabeth Arden created a lipstick to perfectly match the red piping on women's military uniforms. Official military kits for women included matching lipstick, cream blush, and nail polish. Besides sticking it to Hitler, wearing lipstick became a symbol of a free society worth fighting for. Wearing make-up became a coping mechanism, that helped women to maintain a sense of dignity and pride, during a time of fear and uncertainty. Lipstick is still considered a pick-me-up for everyday life.

Prior to the war any self-respecting women would have never left the house without stockings. Silk stockings were a mainstay in every woman's wardrobe, but they did not stretch, were delicate and ripped easily. Plus, the support of a garter belt was needed to hold them up.

By the 1930's the US was importing the lion's share of the world's silk supply (mostly from Japan) for the sole purpose of making hosiery. The E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company hired a scientist by the name of Wallace H. Carothers, who invented Fiber 6-6 or what would become Nylon. Dupont was quick to recognize the economic impact of making hosiery out of nylon and within three hours of the experimental debut, 4000 pairs would be sold. Dupont would gain 30 percent of the hosiery market almost overnight. Women also  recognized the economics of nylon stockings and were happy to abandon silk.

WWII redirect the use of nylon hosiery and how women would cope. Once the US was attacked by Japan, the demand for a strong material (nylon) was needed for manufacturing glider tow ropes, aircraft fuel tanks, flak jackets, shoelaces, mosquito netting, hammocks, and parachutes. Women's hosiery would have to take a back seat to the war effort.

Due to the shortening of skirt lengths, and the redistribution of nylon to the war effort, women were left with the issue of bare legs. Women had fallen in love with nylon stockings and were not keen on going back to silk. Besides, used silk stockings were being collected for making parachutes. So, women did the next best thing. They shaved their legs and drew a liquid paint line up the back of their legs to emulate the seam line of hosiery. This gave the cosmetic industry yet another product to exploit during the war. By 1942, nylon stockings hit the black market, but shaving remained.

Photo of woman using guide tool to paint hosery line down the back of her leg
Photo of two ladies painting hoisery lines down back of legs

 

As mentioned previously, Hollywood would do much to propel the fashion and cosmetic industry to thrive while inspiring women to do the same. Even if rationing limited availability, women were motivated to do the best they could with what they had. Glamorous movie stars like Katherine Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman were the epitome of women with strong yet feminine allure. Women wanted to be like them, and men were intrigued.

Photo of Katherine Hepburn in iconic pants
Note these trousers are very similar to our 250 Hollywood Pants (and to the trousers in 240 Rosie the Riveter).

 

During the war, the US and Britain had become leaders in fashion and they were eager to continue their fashion status after the war ended. However, a liberated Paris was poised to reclaim it’s standing.

Even though the war officially ended in 1945, it would take time for the world to regain a sense of normalcy. Britain would struggle to recover from the extreme devastation it suffered for a decade or more. It took years to rebuild and for supply chains to recover and innovate once again. Rationing of clothing would not end until 1949. The US recovered more quickly, simply because the war had not touched its shores and manufacturing would resume. Fabric shortages would continue in the US and the UK until demand could be met once again. With peace came the desire to put the war behind and to move forward with new possibilities. As a result women lost interest in the wartime Utility dress, uniforms were stuffed in the backs of closets, and the world impatiently waited for something new.

 

Christian Dior and his “New Look” would not only reinstate Paris to the world’s fashion pedestal. But his exaggerated feminine silhouette consisting of a tight fitted bodice, tiny cinched waist, voluminous long skirt gave women the elegant and prosperous look they longed for. It was not just a new look, it was a transformative phenomenon.