© 2006 Alyson Harrod
World War II was the dominant influence on the women’s fashion industry
of the 1940’s. In many ways it determined not only the materials
used in manufacturing women’s clothing, but also the clothing styles desired
by American women and the way in which those clothes were marketed to the consumer.
THE EFFECT OF GOVERNMENT RATIONING
In support of America’s war effort, the U.S. government commandeered a vast array
of raw materials and products, including meat, sugar, metals, fabrics, rubber,
nylon, paper goods, certain chemicals and many more processed and unprocessed
supplies. In general, anything that was needed to arm, feed, clothe or
house America’s military
was diverted to its use. As a result, World War II brought unprecedented
shortages in almost every aspect of civilian life.
Propaganda poster promoting rationing, buying bonds, and more
In order to
assure the fair distribution of the items that would continue to be made available
to the civilian population, the government instituted a strict system of rationing. Each
adult received a prescribed number of coupons that could be used to buy certain
products during the year. After the supply of coupons ran out, no more
goods could be purchased.
Nylon and rubber were only available for civilian use in very restricted quantities. Thus,
nylon stockings disappeared from women’s legs (See Nylon Wars).
Metal zippers, which had been prevalent in civilian clothing before the war,
were replaced by the old style buttons of days gone by. Shelves that had
once overflowed with fine wool sweaters and rubber products were now bare.
EXCEPTIONS TO THE RESTRICTIONS
- apparel for feminine wear made in the home and not for resale
- sale of apparel for feminine wear by a person who acquired the same for her
own general use
- sale of second-hand apparel
- alterations to fit a specific individual consumer
- apparel for feminine wear for persons over 5’7, or of abnormal size
or with physical deformities
- religious robes, historical costumes for theatrical productions
- bridal gowns, burial gowns
- U.S. military uniforms
two exceptions are important to note because they were considered critical to
maintaining morale. The government recognized that while most Americans
would be willing to sacrifice glamorous clothes for the good of their country,
no bride on her wedding day wants to wear hand-me-down rags and no family wants
to bury their loved one in scraggly clothes. Similarly, the military wanted
its service men and women to look sharp and represent it well at home and abroad.
Wanda Witkos models the "Safety Cap"
In the First World War people voluntarily rationed their goods to be patriotic. In
the Second World War people rationed their goods not only to be patriotic, but
because they did not have a choice. America’s consumption themes
switched from “support the troops and conserve” to “how to
make do with all these government restrictions.”
In conjunction with the rationing of clothing, the government introduced its “Make
do and Mend” campaign to encourage people to get as much wear as possible
out of their existing clothes. The government handed out posters and information
leaflets that gave advice on how to take care of and reuse old clothing. Evening
classes were also set up to teach women how to mend and brighten their old clothing.
The government also advised consumers on how to maintain a well-dressed appearance
while abiding by the new clothing restrictions with slogans such as “More Care,
Less Tear “and “More Mending, Less Spending.”
A NEW WAY OF MARKETING: BY CELEBRITY
Magazines overflowed with images of Hollywood glamour and style during the 1940’s. Articles
written about the lives of famous people covered the pages of popular publications
and advertisers relentlessly tried to tie in celebrities with the types of clothes
they wore. Women, whether factory workers or a stay-at-home moms, aspired
to look like the celebrities splashed across magazine pages and theater screens. Posters
of well-known, gorgeous movie stars, such as Katharine Hepburn and Rita
Hayworth, could be seen in homes across America. The emergence of
celebrity news and style in magazines provided an unobtainable fantasy for women
in America. Many clothes and products sold simply because a famous person
reportedly used them. Much like today, advertisements led many to believe
that, if they wore the same clothes or used the same products as stars, they
too could look like stars.
CIVILIAN CLOTHING STYLES MIMICKED MILITARY UNIFORMS OF THE DAY
Women Ordnance Workers at Watershops picnic table
Whereas only a relatively small group of Americans served in the military during the
First World War, over 21 million Americans served in America’s armed forces
during the Second World War. Of the approximately 66 million American males
of all ages living at that time, 1 out of every 3 was in the military. Men
and women in uniform could be seen on every street and road.
As more and
more American women entered the military or took civilian jobs in industry to
carry on the work of men who had gone off to war, women wanted fashions that
were less frilly and more suitable for work. They also wanted clothing
styles similar to the uniforms worn by their men. In general, women’s
clothing became uninteresting, practical, and restrained, but above all, functional.
There was little adornment on the original items, because adornments required
additional fabric and materials. But women frequently applied their accessories,
like bows and fringe, in order to stand out in a crowd. Women’s blouses
and jackets adopted the boxy, square shouldered look of the military uniform
by stitching cheap shoulder pads into the fabric and women’s skirts maintained
a uniformly short and straight look. Natural materials
and fabrics, like wool and leather, were in short supply because the military
had numerous uses for them. Hot items of the day included hats styled like
U.S. Army uniform hats and berets.
War Production in 1942, Issued by the Division of Information. War Production