It is worthless to discuss fashion of the forties without first understanding the tremendous impact World War II had on everyday life during the early part of the decade. Social trends dictate fashion. World War II changed the world of fashion forever.
On September 3, 1939 England and France declared war on Germany. On June 14, 1940 Paris fell to Germany. German occupation began controlling haute couture. During the war, the Germans seriously considered moving the French couture houses to Berlin and re-establishing the seat of haute couture in Berlin. Berlin would then be known as the fashion capital of the world. On September 3, 1940, the United States transferred destroyers to Great Britain. The United States officially entered World War II on December 8, 1941.
Prior to World War II, New York fashion designers made the trek across the Atlantic Ocean to attend the flamboyant and opulent French fashion shows each year. They then returned to the United States and copied the latest Parisian haute couture designs. Once the Germans occupied Paris and the United States stationed battleships in the Atlantic Ocean, the New York designers were cut off from Paris haute couture. In their attempts to design new fashions for the United States market, they concentrated on sportswear. This led to the United States emerging as the sportswear capital of the world.
In 1941, war goods manufacturing took center stage. The government confiscated all stock of natural fabrics, forcing domestic manufacturers to concentrate on substituting other fibers for domestic garments. The industry geared up rayon production. Nylon stockings disappeared in 1943.
In an effort to comply with the restrictions imposed on them, American designers created a new style of suits for women. Skirts were short and straight topped by short jackets of twenty-five inches or less in length. Cardigans matched skirts and sheath evening dresses replaced the long flowing gowns of the thirties. McCall’s produced patterns for transforming men’s suits into ladies’ suits and women’s dresses into children’s clothing. The women of America were once again sewing their own family’s garments.
The true hallmarks of fashion in the early 1940s included an austere silhouette with narrow hips, padded shoulders, and all manner of hats. The working-class look of icons such as Rosie the Riveter became chic, as women of all social standings joined the war effort. They kept things going at home, taking over the jobs – and the closets – of husbands and other male relatives. Class barriers fell and people dressed down. It was considered gauche to be showy during a time of shortage. Designers flexed their creative muscle – even creating beautifully decorated gas masks for evening wear!
American designers introduced the concept of separates and coordinating components in order to create the illusion of more outfits than one actually had. Classic sportswear styles took hold on college campuses and were soon adopted by all levels of society and all age groups.
Many varieties of peplums were in vogue: butterfly, bustle and gathered peplums were a few. Ruffles found their way to skirt hems, necklines and waists. Gored, gathered and A-line skirts were topped with soft, feminine blouses. Blouses donned bows at the center-front neckline and might sport full or puffy sleeves. Collars were cut generously full, in peter pan and traditional pointed shirt-collar designs. Lace also accentuated blouses around the neckline.
Overseas, leather was now restricted to military use, so shoe designers were forced to be increasingly clever. Every imaginable material was incorporated into shoes, but reptile skins and mesh were the most successful substitutes. Cork or wood-soled “Wedgies” were another staple. Trims and embellishments were, by necessity, kept to a minimum. Women everywhere used household items, including cellophane and pipe cleaners, to create festive shoe decorations. Everything was recycled, giving rise to such clever advertising as Vogue’s “Make Do & Mend” campaign. Factories were converted from consumer goods production to military production. U.S. rationing rules limited the height of shoe heels to one inch and allowed for only six color choices; stockings were also unavailable. Magazines and beauty salons helped out by offering tips on how to paint legs with back seams and tan using makeup. This being impractical as an ongoing ritual, ankle socks became increasingly popular.
In 1947, Dior introduced the “New Look”, featuring longer lengths and fuller skirts; a return to classic femininity with a nipped waist. The use of many yards of fabric in garments was now seen as lavish and opulent. Women’s fashion changed to a soft, feminine and romantic image. The accompanying shoe designs would set the stage for the next decade…
A Reverse Pump in Brown or Blue Linen with White Toe and Heel, North Carolina, May, 1942. Price $7.95.