1940s Fashion & History
1940s Fashion & History
“Fashion is not an island; it is a response.”
Can you imagine a world where fashion trends are directly influenced by government regulations?
This might sound like something out of a dystopian novel, but that was reality for anyone who lived in the 1940s.
Fashion trends of the 1940s were strongly influenced by WWII via government regulations & rationing.
This was true for both The Allies (France, America, Britain, & The Soviet Union) & The Axis Powers (Japan, Italy, & Germany).
Resources from both sides that were generally used to produce consumer goods were redirected to assist the war effort.
The effect this had on fashion resulted from the “make do and mend” mantra adopted by the general population.
Fashions of the era resulted in a series of timeless silhouettes that closely followed government regulations.
These silhouettes were often paired with various novelty jewelry, fabric prints, and vibrant colors.
As stated so eloquently by Amanda Hallay, “Fashion is a response.”
In the 1940s, the world responded by making the most of what was allotted.
The main goal was to see an end to WWII.
American fashion designers responded accordingly and created some of our most treasured pieces – does anyone have a fondness for bikinis?
They stem from innovative designers from this era. (*Fashions of A Decade – The 1940s by Patricia Baker, 1992)
At the time, as it is today, Paris was the center of the fashion world.
In June of 1940, Germany occupied Paris.
Fortunately, Paris Fashion houses were permitted to continue working throughout the war with the assistance of his leader, Lucien Lelong. (*Fashions of A Decade – The 1940s by Patricia Baker, 1992)
Germany’s occupation of Paris prompted a dramatic change in the fashion industry, given Germany’s stronghold.
For the first time in history, American designers became the trendsetters.
American journalists, in search of talent, quickly realized that there were several talented American designers whose work was innovative and worthy of coverage.
1940s American Designer: Clair McCardell
Claire McCardell is just one example of the most successful American designers of the time.
Her designs naturally placed utility and practicality at the forefront; hence, government regulations on clothing played to her advantage.
Claire McCardell’s signature piece was her pullover dress.
Pictured below is a practical resort-wear ensemble with an interchangeable halter top and skirt designed by Claire McCardell.
1940s Fashion Brief
Fashions of the 1940s weren’t only made up of strong utility pieces. It also consisted of bold and lively ensembles.
Their dichotomy is representative of the sentiments of the time – winning the war and the hope of a better tomorrow.
Visually, these styles may seem to clash, but each represents interconnecting world views.
Men were being summoned for duty, and, for the first time in history, women were catapulted into the workforce with great enthusiasm.
These changes meant that lavish, delicately adorned garments could no longer be readily produced or purchased.
Instead, ”mend to make do”– a widespread marketing campaign originally made popular during The Great War—was reintroduced to the fashion industry in Britain, and slowly it made it around the world.
There was much to lose.
Making due at home and redistributing resources to the war effort, while many sacrificed everything, was necessary.
Life As We Know It today - August 18,2020
In my lifetime, while I’ve lived through various serious events, I have never had to sacrifice so much of myself.
I have not had to fear for the safety of my family due to bombing raids.
Until this year, I never worried about forgoing creature comforts.
It is the first year in my life that I’ve ever personally experienced a lack of grocery products – especially eggs, bread, water, paper towels, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper.
These shortages triggered something in me, and in many around the world, we hadn’t experienced before—panic that there may not be enough to go around.
Thankfully, and this is me trying to see the silver lining in an otherwise bleak period, The United States is not at war.
Our collective panic is a byproduct of the unknown.
It is a response to COVID-19, a pandemic we’re learning about more every day.
Slowly, it’s becoming less of a mystery.
The Year Of The Rat - Chinese Zodiac
On a side note – did you know that 2020 is the year of The Rat according to The Chinese Calendar?
The Rat is known for its ingenuity and resilience.
I love that as a mantra for this year.
Facemasks - Our Newest Accessory
While we continue to experience dramatic changes to our way of life due to this most serious issue, our fashion industry hasn’t really been affected – unless you count the addition of face masks.
Many now treat them as fashion accessories.
I’ve seen everything from glittery facemasks, to scary facemasks.
Some choose to show their political views on their mask.
Others try to match their mask with their outfit.
While I appreciate everyone’s attempt at making the mask look more fashionable, I’m so excited to return to seeing everyone’s face and smile.
We have yet to see where this journey ends (today is August 18th, 2020).
I am hopeful that soon enough the world will return to a less aggravated state and that hand sanitizer and paper towels will be readily available once again.
9/11 & The Rise Of Social Media
Beyond COVID-19, I have witnessed the horrifying events of 9/11 and all the good – a unified sense of patriotism, and the bad—war—that came in its aftermath.
I am a part of a generation that embraced the beauty of social media.
Social media, especially in moments of isolation, has given us a way of staying in touch and not feeling so alone. It’s beautiful.
Of course, there is a lot of negativity that comes with social media – cyberbullying, cancel culture, and a group mindset that is devoid of individuality.
Still, I am so happy to be a part of this imperfect world.
Could I've kept up with The Greatest Generation in 1940s America?
With everything I’ve lived through, would I have thrived during the WWII era?
Prior to WWII they lived through The Great Depression (1929-1939).
They know all too well how to make do, buckle up, and fight for a better tomorrow.
It wouldn’t have been easy, but yes, I would have done my part in that era.
I don’t know about thriving, but I would have certainly buckled down with the best of them.
There truly wouldn’t have been another option.
Still, it would’ve been anxiety-inducing.
Living under constant fear of losing everything is a lot.
Yet, many endured and did so while fighting for the freedom of their country, as well as for the safety of those around the world.
The strength and ingenuity of The Greatest Generation is what draws me to this era & to write this blog.
1940s Fashion Timeline
As briefly noted earlier, fashion in the 1940s was greatly influenced by regulations implemented by governments.
Governments all over the world sought to direct all essential resources to provide tools for the war effort instead of creating consumer goods.
For example, silk.
In the 1940s, women’s silk stockings were considered nonessential, given that silk was already in short supply and this material was used to create parachutes, maps, and other wartime tools.
As noted by The Vintage News, manufacturers then turned to nylon and later to cotton and rayon to produce stockings.
To better understand how and why that government got so involved in the fashion industry during the 1940s, I wanted to go through a brief timeline.
A Snapshot of 1940s History
- Adolf Hitler’s army invaded Poland on September 1, 1939
- 2 days later, the British and French governments declared war on the German Third Reich
- June, Paris is occupied by the German Army and essentially cut off from outside influences
- Parisian fashion houses continued to operate under Nazi occupation
- Men’s ties become wider & showcase bold patterns
- December 7 – Attack on Pearl Harbor – The U.S. immediately declares war on Japan and enters the war on December 11
- Clothes rationing was introduced in Great Britain
- The U.S. government establishes clothing restrictions under the L-85 Order
The goals of this order were as follows:
- to save 15% of domestic fabric production
- to save 40-50 million pounds of wool
- to freeze fashion
- Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (ISLFD) produced the first Utility fashions in London – these went into production in 1943
- Rosie the Riveter rises to fame as a representation of American women working in factories
- British media begins the campaign – Make Do and Mend
- Claire McCardell’s denim “popover” dress soars in popularity
- June 3- 8, Zoot Suit Riots, where Mexican Americans wearing zoot suits were violently attacked by Marines and sailors in California
Paris Fashion Show is a huge flop
In response, the British & American governments banned wide-scale media coverage of the Paris designs due to their disregard for government regulations
- Rationing escalates
- May 8th – Germany surrenders to the Allies, marking the end of WWII in Europe
- Balenciaga drops the hemline to 15 inches off the ground
- The bikini swimsuit is shown in the Paris Britain Can Make It exhibition shown in London
- The House of Dior opens with the New Look – which takes the world by storm
- The Marshall Plan, otherwise known as The European Recovery Program, was enacted in The United States
- March 15 – clothing restrictions are lifted in Europe
1940s Fashion Trends
The Ultimate Fashion History On 1940s Fashion Trends
Amanda Hallay (Mastermind Of The Ultimate Fashion History/Fashion PHD Expert/Ultimate Fashion Bada$$) has created a wonderful collection of videos on the topic of 1940s fashion I think you’d very much enjoy.
History In Color: 1940s (VIDEO)
The Ultimate Fashion History: The 1940s (VIDEO)
Speaking of Fashion: The 1930s vs. The 1940s (VIDEO)
1940s Jewelry & Accessories
In response to restrictions set forth by governments worldwide, accessories from the early 1940s were generally bold and affordable.
In the spirit of make-do and mend, many were made from recycled materials.
For example, military insignia from loved ones was transformed into delicate brooches, bracelets, or necklaces.
This type of jewelry is known as Sweetheart Jewelry.
Precious stones were inaccessible. Hence, novelty jewelry was made to look like precious stones.
Such pieces were made from plastic, glass, or Bakelite – a mixture of phenol and formaldehyde. (Vintage Jewelry design, classics to collect and wear by Caroline Cox, page 86)
Presently, many of us have an inordinate amount of shoes that aren’t exactly practical but rather incredibly beautiful and impractical.
This is, of course, is a commodity we enjoy, given that we do not have any restrictions on the materials used to create our shoes.
For those who lived in the 1940s, shoes were primarily treated as a necessity.
With women being asked to go to work, sensible shoes they could wear all day long were a must.
Yet, because of rationing and a rubber shortage, shoes were often made with alternative materials, many of which were uncomfortable -i.e., wooden soles.
“In both Germany & France cobblers had a backlog of shoes in need of resoling…Many cobblers salvaged tires to make rubber soles, and a brisk business was made of adding metal tops lifts and plates to heels and toes of walking shoes still in good condition, in an attempt to preserve their leather soles. “
1940s Clothing Rationing
Rationing began almost as soon as the war began; however, initially, it didn’t include clothing rationing.
Before the fall of France in June 1940, rationing of British civilian supplies had been minimal.
However, imports did not meet civilian demand, and supplies for everyday citizens were scarce.
In response, national resources were thriftily managed to ensure a secure supply of food, fuel, and clothing for every citizen.
On 1 June 1941, a rationing plan was introduced that had been developed by the Board of Trade earlier that year. A coupon system meant that both cash and coupons were required for the purchase of each item of clothing.
This rationing plan meant that working class women had to make do with less, given that merchants had to increase their prices to stay in business. According to Forties Fashion from Siren Suites to New Look by Jonathan Walford, between September 1939 and May 1941, the price of clothing more than doubled.
Given these restrictions, many turned to sewing, creating their own clothing – making due & mending.
This practice also saved on ration coupons given that a number of sewing tools were not rationed.
The United States declared war on Japan on December 8th, 1942 and officially entered the war on December 11th, 1942.
In the spring of 1942, the War Production Board (WPB) and its subsidiary, the Civilian Production Administration (CPA), issued a series of rules for the garment industry that were identified by a number preceded by the letter L, for Limitation Order. Women’s clothing was covered by L-85. (Forties Fashion From Siren Suits to the New Look by Jonathan Walford, Page 67)
These restrictions brought about:
Utility Fashion – military style ensembles designed by well-known designers of the time that closely followed regulations set forth by governments.
The Bikini Swimsuit – clothing limitations provided designers with an opportunity to play with different cuts and silhouettes. The invention of the bikini was a product of such ingenuity. It was shown in the Paris Britain Can Make It exhibition in London in 1946.
The rise of Rosie The Riveter—a representation of a strong woman at work who is both feminine with her bold red lip and practical, with her hair pulled up with a scarf and dressed in work-wear which she had to create with what little clothes she had in her closet.
The popover dress – was specifically designed to accommodate the needs of domestic work – from gardening to baking (it even included an attached oven mitt). It was an affordable utility-style dress designed by the ever-fashionable and practical American fashion designer Claire McCardell. At the time, it sold for only $6.95 (LoveToKnow, Claire McCardel By Kohle Yohannan).
On May 8th, 1945, Germany formally surrendered its armed forces to the Allies in Europe.
To celebrate this incredible feat, restrictions on red, white, and blue bunting – festive decorations made of fabric – were lifted for one month.
However, clothing rationing in Europe would remain in effect until March 15, 1949, while in the United States, clothing restrictions were lifted almost immediately following the end of the war. (Forties Fashion From Siren Suits to the New Look by Jonathan Walford, Page 42)
Living in the 1940s was clearly one of the hardest eras to live through and one of the most remarkable in terms of fashion history.
There are so many beautiful designs and innovations that speak to my soul - most notably, Utility Fashion.
What inspires me most is the selflessness and dedication of that generation. They truly gave it their all with what technology they had and the restrictions imposed on them – they made it work.
Their sense of duty is something I will forever admire and attempt to emulate.
Hopefully, in the near future, I’ll learn to sew and recreate one of those stunning utility pieces for myself.
When that day comes you can be sure that I’ll document the process on my YouTube Channel.
I hope you enjoyed this post.
If you did, please share your thoughts with us in the Facebook Group!
What do you love most or find most interesting about 1940s fashion?