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The Second World War Impact on Fashion (redirected from The Second World War Impact on Fashi)

Page history last edited by macox@... 11 years, 6 months ago



Fashion has many influences and goes through many changes. However, what is rarely considered is how much effect world events have on style. One of the clearest examples of this happening was during World War II. Of course, we know the world was forever changed by the events that took place during those years. What we may be shocked to find is how severely the fashion world would be forever changed by these events as well.


  • Coming to America


Europe, but especially Paris, had always been the center for everything fashion. However, as WWII raged on, many of the fashion houses were forced to close, or in some cases, (Louis Vuitton), the companies aligned themselves with the Nazis by outfitting them.1 As Parisian fashion slowed, the door began to open for American designers. "World War II put the fashion scene into shambles," says Connie Korosec, professor and chairman of fashion merchandising and design at Ursuline College.2 America could no longer look to Paris for inspiration and novel ideas. Many of the designers, namely Claire McCardell, concentrated on sportswear, with America becoming the sportswear capital of the world.3 Her dresses were also very affordable, compared to the expensive custom-made dresses of the time.4


World War II and the Nazi occupation of Paris had another effect on the fashion industry in the U.S. With American buyers, designers, and press unable to travel to Paris, fashion in the United States took off. In 1943, in the hopes of drawing attention to trends in America, a fashion publicist by the name of Eleanor Lambert organized an event called “Press Week,” held at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.[a] Press Week was the precursor to today’s Fashion Week – a time for reporters and editors to view and evaluate American, as opposed to French, designers. [b] The inability to look to Paris, along with the war’s resulting patriotism, made “Press Week” a huge success, and it continued each year through the late 1950s, featuring designers (now household names) such as Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta. [c] Today, "Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week" takes place twice a year in New York's Bryant Park to showcase major designers' Spring and Fall collections.


Megan Spagnolo, a curator of costume at the Western Reserve Historical Society, says "though American designers couldn't completely pave their own way at this point, it really helped that they no longer had the competition from overseas," she says. "The way I look at it, this became a time when the quintessential American style was able to develop.5



  • Rationing: L-85 and Utility Clothing


The biggest change in fashion due to the war was undoubtedly the result of clothing shortages. Fewer colors were available, as the chemicals usually used for dyeing were instead being used for explosives. Therefore, colors on clothing were lighter to save on dyes. 


“The government confiscated all stock of natural fibers, forcing domestic manufacturers to concentrate on substituting other fibers…”6 Other materials, such as silk, nylon, and elastics were hard to find, as the government confiscated the stocks for the war effort.7 Silk, for example, was used to make parachutes, and wool and leather were used in the manufacturing of uniforms and shoes. Even metals for buttons and clasps were scarce.


President Roosevelt established the War Production Board in 1942. On March 8th, a new law, known as L-85, came into effect. This law regulated every aspect of clothing, and limited or prohibited the use of many materials. Many companies also had to convert their factories to wartime production needs.8 The government ordered companies such as Singers (one of the largest sewing machine manufacturers) to instead manufacture equipment needed for the war effort. Gun parts, ammunition boxes, aircraft parts, were all among the products.9


Even Hollywood’s designers had to follow. Edith Head, one of the most widely known costume designers in film, said, “Studio designers were instructed by Washington to conserve on fabric -- so, no pockets, no pleated skirts, the less material the better,” Still, trends squeezed through. "There was Dorothy Lamour's sarong, which I did in 'Aloma of the South Seas,' " Head says. She explained that because of fighting in the South Pacific, there was a South Seas Island inspiration in clothes. "We were trying to amuse the public and take their minds off war," she says in an interview. 10 


As the shortages were not only in the U.S., in the UK in 1941, the government introduced “Utility Clothing. “ The British government took control of what fabrics would be provided to clothing producers. Utility garments, like military uniforms, were simple. “To conserve fabric, utility clothing had small pockets and men's pants had no cuffs. Shirt, skirt, and dress lengths were shortened. Garments had no more than three buttons. Shoes were plain and sturdy.”11 In addition, the prices were kept low so that they were easily affordable by everyone. In 1942, the British government made it illegal to embellish clothing with extra embroidery, buttons, or pockets.


With these new restrictions in place, American designers began to design within these new limits. Skirts became shorter, with hemlines going up above the knee. Jackets as well became shorter, more square and boxy. “Cardigan matched skirts and sheath evening dresses replaced the long flowing gowns of the thirties.”12 Women’s suits and jackets were limited to set lengths, and, as nylon stockings were unavailable, women began drawing with pencil, a “seam” line up the back of their legs. 13 As this was highly impractical to do all the time, ankle socks became more popular, as well as bare legs.14 


As more and more women were needed to work in factories, women were wearing clothes that were more suited to this type of employment. Clothing was being worn that was not very glamorous, and a bit less feminine. It was just impractical to wear heels and dresses. While there, of course, existed such figures of Hollywood glamour like Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake, another figure, Rosie the Riveter, became symbolic of the new American woman. This was a working-class look, with pants, and “factory-friendly headgear.”15


The turban also became widely worn by women, and its use was two-fold. It was a practical item which acted as a safety device to prevent women’s hair getting caught in the factory’s machines, and as women were now busy working and taking care of the family and had less time to take care of themselves, the turban helped to hide messy hair.16


Shoes were also affected by rationing. There were shortages in leather and rubber, and new shoe styles, such as thick-soled platform shoes, “wedges,” became popular. Cork and wood became widely used. Fashion staple, the Ferragamo wedge shoe, whose early developments were caused by a leather shortage in Italy in the 1930’s during a war with Ethiopia, developed and found a worldwide audience in the 1940’s.17 For shoe-uppers, designers often used reptile-skin and mesh. U.S. rationing rules limited the height of shoe heels to one inch and allowed for only six color choices. 18 


When not in military wear, men's clothing became more informal. Vests were no longer being worn, and Aloha Shirts came to the states as soldiers returned from the Pacific. Wearing suits became more limited to office work, going to church, and formal occasions.19


  • Make-Do and Mend


The UK introduced the "Make-Do-and-Mend,” campaign, whose message was adopted in America as well. Citizens began reusing outdated or worn fashions into usable garments.20 Women began sewing more at home, as they needed to be able to tailor their husband’s clothes into lady’s suits and children’s clothes. Patches were sewn on elbows to make clothes last longer. By doing this, families were able to conserve fabric and save money.


As clothing was being used and reused, women were introduced to the idea of using separate outfits to create the illusion that they had more clothes than they actually did.21 By mixing and matching, they were able to increase their existing wardrobe.


  •    Japanese Silk Boycott 22


Silk was a central element in women’s fashion (especially due to its use in stockings) in the period up to the 1930s.  In the late 1930s, there was a push to boycott Japanese silk.  This started in part because of sympathy for the Chinese people after Japan invaded parts of China.  The boycotters selected silk because they said it was a cornerstone of Japanese industry.  This helped make it more successful than boycotts of Nazi goods, which were more general and did not single out a particular good to rally around.  The boycott became “one of the most popular consumer campaigns in American history”. 23


A portion of the campaign was directed specifically at the (largely) female consumers of silk.  The first major protest took place at Vassar College in December 1937 and involved participants throwing their silk clothing (men’s neckties and shirts and women’s stockings and “more intimate garments”) into a fire.  A fashion show held in Washington, D.C. entitled “Life Without Silk:  From Morning to Midnight in Cotton and Rayon”.  The League of Women Shoppers (LWS) sponsored the show, which was aimed at convincing women that it was possible to be fashionable without using silk.  These efforts were also attempts to feel women that they had power to effort the international affairs.  The LWS was just one of many groups that organized boycotts around the country.  In 1938, the nation’s six largest department stores all agreed to stop carrying Japanese goods.


The boycott was met with controversy, however.  Workers in the hosiery industry were opposed to the plan, since it would have cost them their jobs and would hurt the American workers more than the Japanese.  These opponents painted the boycott as a class issue – the upper-class women who were championing the boycott did not understand the lives of the lower-class women who worked in the hosiery factories.


All of this became moot when silk was embargoed during the war, but the allure of other fabrics continued after the war.  American nylon was considered very glamorous in 1950s West Berlin.


  • Fashion in Japan during and after the Second World War


The war changes to fashion were not isolated to Europe and America.  Japan was greatly changed in terms of the clothing people wore.    There were clothing restrictions  in Japan as elsewhere during the Second World War, but this was a change from 1930s Japan, which was economically well off after its military successes in China.24  Japanese fashions often included modern, Western images, such as a cityscape with skyscrapers.  There were also “proganda kimonos” for men which featured Japanese aircraft with the national motif of the rising sun.25  Womens’ kimonos tended to have more subtle patterns, but there was still a nationalistic theme – many of theme featured the rising sun, and some had swastikas to promote the alliance with Germany.26  However, production of new luxury clothing items was eventually halted as the war progressed.  It was after World War II that women abandoned kimonos and began wearing Western dress. 27 American soldiers in Tokyo were often quartered in the Harajuku neighborhood, which began to build a reputation as a fashion center as it rebuilt from the war.  28


  • Every Action Has A Reaction


When the Allied troops liberated Paris in 1944, they were amazed to see women wearing long dresses, as they had been outlawed in the UK and the US.29 As the war ended, fashion again underwent changes. Designers, tired of the utilitarian looks of the time, looked for more elegant and luxurious styles. In 1947, French designer Christian Dior introduced what came to be called the New Look. It was a dramatic change from the broad shoulders, boxy torsos, and short skirts of the war years. These new designs used a great deal of fabric, and proved to be a popular with the majority of women, who felt that this glamour and femininity had not been present during the past decade.30




1 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/jun/03/france.secondworldwar

2 Evelyn Theiss, “Soldiering On: American fashion takes no prisoners during World War II,” http://blog.cleveland.com/pdextra/2007/09/soldiering_on_american_fashion.html

3 Carol Nolan, “Ladies Fashions Of The 1940s,” http://murrayonhawaii.com/nolan/fashionhistory_1940ladies.html

4 http://encarta.msn.com/text_761585452___0/fashion.html

5 Id.

6 Carol Nolan, “Ladies Fashions Of The 1940s,” http://murrayonhawaii.com/nolan/fashionhistory_1940ladies.html

7 History of Fashion, http://www.vintageblues.com/history4.htm

8 http://www.yumuseum.org/APerfectFit/highlights.html

9 http://home.cfl.rr.com/featherweight/board.htm

10 Evelyn Theiss, “Soldiering On: American fashion takes no prisoners during World War II,” http://blog.cleveland.com/pdextra/2007/09/soldiering_on_american_fashion.html

11 British Utility Clothing, http://www.fashionencyclopedia.com/fashion_costume_culture/Modern-World-1930-1945/British-Utility-Clothing.html

12 Carol Nolan, “Ladies Fashions Of The 1940s,” http://murrayonhawaii.com/nolan/fashionhistory_1940ladies.html

13 The Shape of Fashion and Its Underpinnings, http://muse.museum.montana.edu/sof/ww2.html

14 http://www.vintageblues.com/history4.htm

15 War changes fashion, http://www.sptimes.com/2005/08/28/Worldwarii/War_changes_fashion.shtml

16 Clothes Rationing in World War 2, http://www.worldwar2exraf.co.uk/Online_Museum/Museum_Docs/clothing2.html

17 Irene Guenther, “Nazi Chic: Fashioning Women in the Third Reich”

18 http://www.vintageblues.com/history4.htm

19 http://www.costumes.org/classes/fashiondress/WW1toWW2.htm

20 The Shape of Fashion and Its Underpinnings, http://muse.museum.montana.edu/sof/ww2.html

21 Carol Nolan, “Ladies Fashions Of The 1940s,” http://murrayonhawaii.com/nolan/fashionhistory_1940ladies.html

22  The information in the section is condensed from Lawrence B. Glickman’s article ‘Make Lisle the Style’:  The Politics of Fashion in the Japanese Silk Boycott, 1937-1940.  38.3 Journal of Social History 573.

23 Id. at 579.

24  Faye Hirsch, "Wrapped in the State:  an exhibition of World War II-era clothing with propagandistic themes illustrates the personal dimensions of home front mobilization"  http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1248/is_4_94/ai_n26823694/pg_3/?tag=content;col1.

25  Id.

26  Id.

27 http://web-japan.org/trends96/honbun/tj970106.html

28 http://www.japaninc.com/article.php?articleID=1454

29 http://encarta.msn.com/text_761585452___0/fashion.html

30 Id.

[a] Amanda Fortini, How the Runway Took Off: A Brief History of the Fashion Show, (Feb-ruary 18, 2006), http://www.slate.com/id/2135561/.

[b] Id.

[c] Id.


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