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.
Jackets 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.
As 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.
The 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 prints.
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:
Hairstyles 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.
The wartime 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 women wear:
A 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.
By 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.
The 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:
By 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.
In 1947, 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 men’s and women’s trousers featured higher waists, widely cut legs, and cuffs and came in textured tweeds and jewel tones.
The 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.