World War II impacted virtually every aspect of American life and fashion was no exception. In 1942, the United States imposed a rationing system similar to the one Great Britain had implemented the previous year, limiting, among other things, the amount of fabric that could be used in a single garment. Materials including wool, silk, leather and a fledgling DuPont Corp. invention called nylon were diverted for use in uniforms, parachutes, shoelaces and even bomber noses.
could be no more than 25 inches in length, pants no more than 19 inches
in circumference at the hem, belts no more than two inches wide and
heels no more than an inch in height. Hemlines rose to the knee in an
effort to conserve fabric. Buttons, cuffs, pockets and decorative
details like ruffles and lace were used sparingly. Women wore shorter,
boxy jackets for a V-shaped silhouette reminiscent of military uniforms.
Even Hollywood traded elaborate costumes for simplified designs, a move
many claimed lent movies a new air of realism.
soon as it was introduced in 1938, women embraced synthetic nylon as a
replacement for silk stockings. In the early 1940s, however, with silk
already diverted to the war effort, the government recognized similar
uses for nylon and commandeered it as well. Women responded by coating
their legs in tan makeup and drawing lines up the backs of their calves
to mimic seams. By the time the war ended and stockings returned to
store shelves, nylon had become a generic term for hosiery.
swing skirt had a round cut designed to look best in full jitterbug
twirl. Swing skirts were a common sight on USO dance floors as young
women danced with uniformed men to the jazzy horns that characterized
the Big Band Era. Housewives were known to wear a more conservative
version of the swing dress, sometimes in polka-dot or tiny floral
Hats became one of the few ways to
express individual style with minimal resources. They were worn in a
wide range of styles and personalized with scraps of foil, sequins,
netting, paper and string.
Hair and makeup:
became more elaborate as women sought ways to contrast their dull
wardrobes. Shoulder length or longer hair was rolled into complex shapes
and secured with bobby pins. Screen sirens like Lauren Bacall, Veronica
Lake and Rita Hayworth popularized side parts and finger waves. Makeup
was dramatic, characterized by matte foundation, powder, heavy brows and
bright scarlet lips.
shortage of leather and steel forced shoe designers to get more creative
and, as a result, shoes were cobbled from materials ranging from
crocodile hide to cork. Shoes were more utilitarian than stylish, with
low heels and limited color choices. By the mid to late 1940s, platform
pumps with high heels in T-straps, ankle straps or open toes had
replaced the dowdy wedgie with its flat shape and thick cork soles.
Menswear as womens wear:
number of men may have spent the first half of the 1940s in uniform,
but their civilian clothes came in handy for the women who filled their
home-front jobs. Women raided the closets of absent men and tailored the
suits to fit themselves. McCalls even introduced a pattern aimed
specifically at modifying a masculine suit to fit feminine curves.
Suddenly, the sexually ambivalent look pioneered in the late 1930s by
Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich was radical no more. The
emergence of the dress pattern and electric sewing machine led women to
make their own suits from scratch, opting for gabardine due to the
scarcity of wool. Many with physically demanding factory jobs soon began
wearing practical pants and Rosie the Riveter jeans.
the mid-1940s, many women had abandoned the single-piece corset in
favor of panties and structured bras that lifted and accentuated the
bust line. In 1946, a well-endowed Jane Russell appeared onscreen in a
cantilever bra designed by Howard Hughes, prefiguring the bullet-bra
1950s and the reign of the sweater girl. Loose-fitting cardigans were
also popular, particularly on college campuses.
virtual disappearance of French fashion houses during the war led
American designers to explore their own creativity. Designers like
Bonnie Cashin and Claire McCardell were instrumental in the creation of
sportswear, that singularly American look featuring coordinated
separates that could be worn in layers or in various combinations. The
trend not only gave women increased options and made it appear as if
they had more clothes than they actually did, but also blurred the line
between couture and ready-to-wear by showing women they could be both
chic and comfortable without spending a fortune.
The New Look:
the late 1940s, women craved a return to glamor and designers obliged
with swirling skirts and shimmering evening gowns inspired by film stars
like Ingrid Bergman, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford.
French couturier Christian Dior almost single-handedly brought an end
to wartime austerity with a fashion line observers christened the New
Look. Severe angles were replaced with curves, hemlines dropped back
below the knee and skirts were generously draped. Structured
undergarments were key to the New Look, which featured broad shoulders,
cinched waists, emphasized bust lines and padded hips. The pencil skirt
was a figure-hugging alternative to bouffant skirts. Men, too, longed
for freedom from conservative tailoring in khaki and olive drab. They
found relief in wide-legged trousers, full-length coats and suits in an
array of colors. Both mens and womens trousers featured higher waists,
widely cut legs and cuffs and came in textured tweeds and jewel tones.
New Look met with protest from women who had grown accustomed to baring
their legs and were disinclined to cover them back up. Moreover, the
opulent, fabric-rich designs seemed wasteful in contrast to wartime
fabric restrictions. The desire for change prevailed, however, and the
look flourished throughout much of the 1950s.