In 1939, the onset of World War II in Europe, which was well-established as the fashion leader of the Western World, brought swift and dramatic changes to the ways women dressed and thought about clothes.
Most of the top Parisian fashion houses closed in 1940 after France was occupied by Germany. Chanel, for example, shuttered and didn’t reopen until 1954. England, in the meantime, had to put all its resources into fighting back Hitler’s armies. Women signed up for the armed forces, and men were shocked at the site of women in uniforms, usually a khaki jacket with a knee-length skirt. As a result, women’s civilian clothes also became more militaristic, masculine, and severe.
The emphasis, particularly in England, was on the austere, “utility” look, as embellishments, frills, and lavish accessories were traded in for more understated and responsible common-sense fashion. Clothing designers touted these spared-down designs as a matter of national pride and allegiance to the war effort.
The trademark early ’40s look was a two-piece suit, the jacket featuring square shoulders and a fitted waist, paired with a straight skirt with a pleat or two. Another popular look was the shirtwaist dress with a minimal number of buttons, or a lightly pleated or gathered skirt, the waist defined by a narrow belt.
In June 1941, the British government ordered the rationing of cloth, clothing, and footwear. A household’s clothing allowance was a very modest 66 coupons, the same amount as its margarine allowance. By the end of the war, this rationing was reduced to 36 coupons. Costly imported silk stocking were also banned in that year.
Clothes made in England in those days used sturdy fabrics because they had to last a long time. Fashion magazines gave beauty advice on how to save buttons and fasteners, how to recondition handbags and shoes, and how to make cosmetics last. Decorative pockets were out, while trimmings were often made of dull colors, as dye was not available.
With Paris couture nearly out of commission and British fashion becoming necessarily spare, for the first time the world turned to America for fashion leadership—rationing in the...
As in the previous decade, the most influential force in fashion at the time was Hollywood glamour, which offered an escape from the grim realities of war. Naturally, regular women coveted the elegant evening gowns they saw on screen, particularly Joan Crawford’s sharply tailored look. But gossip magazines also fed the obsession with the daily lives of stars like Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, and Lana Turner, showing them playing golf or lounging by the pool, which led to an interest in sports wear and casual dress.
In contrast to the stark British fashion, day-to-day American shirtdresses were made in vivid cotton prints, with bold abstract designs, patriotic red-white-and-blue patterns, and black-and-white polka dots or checks. Women living alone at home and working in factories embraced a practical casual style, with jackets, blouses, skirts, and slacks that could be mixed and matched. Headscarves became acceptable to wear in public.
Other popular American looks included “Mexican” peasant blouses, polka-dot “Pioneer” dresses, and checked “Country-and-Western” skirts. Levi-Strauss and Co.’s denim dungarees, now known as jeans, were becoming more popular with the general public, whereas only workmen had worn them before. America also pioneered the concept of “chemical” clothing made of synthetic materials like rayon and nylon, which spared precious natural resources such as cotton.
Even after the war ended in 1945, its impact on fashion could still be felt, particularly in the new mass-producing techniques employed to make thousands of uniforms. But in 1947, new Parisian fashion designer Christian Dior asserted his bold “New Look” on the runway, a radical change from war-era fashion.
A call for returning women to femininity, Dior’s dresses featured tiny wasp waists, often created by built-in corsets, and incredibly full ankle-length skirts. These clothes used an abundance of fabric and trimmings, which helped restore France’s textile industry. This look was wildly popular, dominating fashion right until the end of the ’50s.