From WWII American fashion, lessons in patriotism and practicality

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During the first half of the 1940s, all aspects of American culture focused on aiding the war effort and bringing the Allies closer to victory. Civilians did their part by growing victory gardens, buying war bonds, counting ration points, and collecting scrap metal and rubber. Did you know that American men and women also dressed – or did not dress – a certain way to help the war effort?

Viewed casually, WWII fashions seem to embody the same chic style seen in other mid-20th century eras. However, there is a meaning, a spirit and a culture behind every era of fashion. There is perhaps no better example of this than WWII styles.

Industry Guidelines

While the United States government never imposed official cloth rations, as the United Kingdom did, World War II undeniably had an impact on American fashion for the duration of the emergency and beyond.

On March 8, 1942, the United States War Production Board (WPB), which was formed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 to conserve resources needed for the war effort, issued Limitation Order 85 (L-85). This was never an official ration order issued to the public. It was simply a list of guidelines given to the fashion industry, with the aim of reducing domestic fabric production by 15% and saving more than 40 million pounds of wool annually. President Roosevelt was not a designer, so he enlisted the help of Stanley Marcus, the son of one of the founders of Neiman-Marcus.

The L-85 performed two functions, both intended to save fabric as much as possible. After all, millions of American servicemen needed uniforms, and materials like silk and nylon were used for necessary equipment, like parachutes. The order outlined simple fashion designs that avoided excessive materials and established certain basic styles that were to be maintained for the duration of the war. If fashion were frozen in simple, streamlined fashions, consumers wouldn’t have to buy new clothes every season to keep up with the latest trends.

According to Stanley Marcus, “We settled on certain prohibitions, such as lengths, sleeve width, patch pockets, ensembles, skirt sweeps, waistband widths and hem depths. … The restrictions we put in place froze the fashion silhouette. This effectively prevented any downward changes in skirt length and blocked any extreme development of new sleeves or collars, which might have encouraged women to discard existing garments.

styles for women

The basic tenet of wartime fashion was “less is more”. It had to be decent and feminine, but any superfluous fabric added simply for looks was considered un-American. Wide belts, decorative aprons, tunics and flap pockets were strictly taboo. At medium sizes, blouse sleeves could not be wider than 14 inches; unnecessary styles such as dolman, balloon, lamb and bias-cut sleeves were prohibited. Also, blouses could not measure more than 22 inches from neck to hem. Only one patch pocket was allowed.

Length restrictions also applied to other garments, including jackets and coats. The most notable wartime style change to fabric conservation was the length of the skirt. Instead of the mid-calf length styles that were popular in the 1930s, skirts reached the knee during the war. Pleated skirts all around were discouraged, so straight skirts remained the look of the war. The extra fullness and fabric of petticoats would not become popular until after the war.

Americans have also been encouraged to avoid buying new clothes unless absolutely necessary. Mending and mending clothes was the patriotic alternative. Clothing design sales exploded around the world as women creatively combined several old dresses into new ones and even tailored curtains and blankets into fashionable styles. After years of the Great Depression, which led to many women making and wearing dresses from bags of chicken feed, Americans got to be resourceful.

(US National Archives and Archives Administration via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the biggest drawbacks of women’s fashion during World War II was the shortage of stockings. While nylon was introduced in 1939 as an alternative to silk produced in Japan, it was soon needed for parachutes as well. Thus, most women went bare-legged, favoring patriotism over elegance and modesty. Bobbysocks became popular with young women, but many women used leg makeup and drew lines on the back of their legs to create the illusion of sewn stockings.

While most World War II films made in the late 1940s and early 1950s ignore the aesthetic drawbacks, some films actually made during the war show its challenges. In David O. Selznick’s “Since You Went Away” (1944), two young women look disdainfully at a woman wearing stockings. Another 1944 film, Columbia’s musical “Cover Girl,” shed light on clothing rations in a nightclub routine, with entertainer Phil Silvers singing “I’m Not Complaining” while examining the unrealistic short skirts of four women!

Styles for men

Although most young men spent the majority of the time in uniform, styles of warfare for male civilians were also needed. Back then, gentlemen would only think of forgoing a suit on the most casual of occasions. Thus, the Victory Suit, called Union Suit in Britain, was born. Before the war, suits were always sold with a coat, trousers, waistcoat and additional trousers, all of the same fabric and pattern. However, the Victory Suit eliminated unnecessary items, including the extra vest and pants.

Although it was absurd not to match your coat and trousers before the war, mismatched suits became stylish during the war, as it allowed suits to be separated after their companions were worn out or out of shape. Of course, that didn’t mean the gentlemen were going to put any coat and pant together; good taste and color coordination have always been exercised, even in times of national emergency!

The costumes themselves followed fabric-saving techniques. Double-breasted jackets gave way to sleek single-breasted styles. Pleats have been removed from pants and extra pockets from coats. The jackets and coats themselves were cut thinner. Like women’s fashion, men’s styles became more austere and militaristic, reflecting the uniforms of the time. Red, white and blue were popular colors due to the “Victory” theme of the time.

No discussion of men’s wartime fashion would be complete without mentioning the infamous Zoot costume. As all branches of American society banded together to support the war effort and encourage civilians to “do their part”, some citizens used fashion to rebel. Zoot costumes had a very specific and extreme look, characterized by a knee-length coat with broad shoulders, huge lapels and long sleeves. The pants were very loose at the knees but were pulled up by “ankle collars” at the cuffs. Paired with a tall feathered hat, long chain and double-soled shoes, the Zoot costume was part of a definitive look, born in the jazz clubs of Harlem in the mid-1930s. Musicians like Cab Calloway popularized the style, which was quickly adopted by minority groups across the country.

When L-85 restricted the excess fabric that characterized Zoot suits, many young Mexican Americans in Los Angeles wore old Zoot suits and even bought new ones on the black market to express themselves and their rebellion. This led to the Zoot Suit Riots in June 1943, when off-duty white sailors attacked Mexican Zoot-Suiters they found in the city, resulting in numerous hospitalizations. After that, the Zoot Suit was banned for the duration. This is just a small example of how clothing was and is a statement of a person’s identity, status and beliefs.

More than clothes

American styles worn during the war were much more than just clothing. The biggest ideas they embodied were practicality and patriotism.

These concepts appealed more to freedom-minded Americans than mandatory restrictions and sacrifices. Recent studies show that Americans in the 1940s did not feel obligated to follow “rules” about acceptable dress; in fact, most people weren’t even familiar with the L-85. They naturally followed fashion industry guidelines for styles using minimal fabric and purposely “did their part” by wearing socks instead of stockings, for example, or choosing to create their own clothes in first place.

Modern Americans could learn a lot from the Greatest Generation, including in the style department. True, some people have turned to the black market for contraband like silk stockings, and a handful of young people have rebelled in their Zoot suits. However, the average American willingly, even proudly, gave up everyday comforts in the cause of freedom while the United States fought for victory. If they could do all this without sacrificing elegance, maybe we could try a little harder to be fashionable, even in difficult circumstances.

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