Clothing, World War I and World War II

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World War I and World War II required mobilizing the entire nation not only ideologically, but also in every aspect of life, including the clothing people wore. The wartime economy, the change in population demographics, the expanding domestic economy (with more people working), and the shift to women in the workforce all had a tremendous impact on fashion. Styles are always influenced by the function clothes must serve, economic factors, the availability of goods, social expression and social aspiration, Hollywood, and by what is worn by the armed forces. These influences affect fashion and fashion affects, and reflects, culture and society.

fashion prior to world war i

Before World War I, France was fashion's center. American women looked to French designers for direction and guidance. By following high fashions and staying current with the designers' most recent collections, people were able to distinguish between the social classes and set themselves apart, displaying their wealth and position.

Fashion for women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries featured bustles and cinched waists. Women wore corsets that emphasized small waists and rounded behinds. In 1911, the stylish silhouette changed to a high-waisted, more tailored one that followed more closely the natural curves of a women's body. This style was very popular despite the fact that it was soon nicknamed the hobble skirt—skirts were so tight at the ankle that women who wore them could not take full steps.

While women's fashion were slowly becoming less confining and artificial, men's fashions were already comfortable and eminently wearable. For men, suits were the uniform of the day. A well-dressed man's wardrobe consisted of a morning suit with a cutaway jacket worn with a top hat, walking stick and a flower in the lapel; a frock coat (also worn with a top hat, walking stick and flower); and a lounge suit. The lounge suit of that era is recognizable today as a man's single-breasted, three-piece suit worn with a tie.

effect of world war i and world war ii on fashion

American fashion saw few influences directly related to World War I. France was only temporarily usurped as the world's fashion capital during the shipping blockade; after the war's end, it once again became the center of fashion. Within a few years, because of social changes due in part to the war and its aftermath, shorter skirts for women came into style for the first time.

World War II, however, strongly influenced American fashion. For example, with thanks to government issued (GI) underwear and with a little help from Marlon Brando and James Dean in the post war years, the ubiquitous T-shirt became fashionable. As in World War I, fashion imports from France were banned. And to limit fashion's appeal even more, in 1942 the U.S. Production Board issued Limitation Order 85 (L-85). This order's goal was to save 15 percent of domestic fabric production, as well as more than forty million pounds of wool cloth. Another goal was to freeze fashion, making older clothes more appealing.

L-85 dictated many of fashions' designs. No longer were details such as patch pockets, cuffs, and double pleats allowed. Rationing was the new key word. Women's clothes were less full and used less fabric. The shirtwaist, reflecting the new austere aesthetic, became popular. Hats were less showy. Shoes also had to comply with the new rules and no shoe could have a heel over 1½ inches. Because of these restrictions, styles did not change much during the war years. L-85 restrictions were lifted on V-E Day, May 8, 1945.

The L-85 restrictions were also applied to women's bathing suits; manufacturers could use a limited amount of fabric. This led to the introduction of the two piece swimsuit. Initially, these were styled with skirts and modest designs. As the restrictions were tightened, swimsuits became less modest. In 1946, the first bikini, named after the atomic bomb tests off of the Bikini Islands in the Pacific, was introduced.

Not only were women restricted to the amount of fabric available for clothes during the war, leaving many of them to make do with older clothing, but their new work roles changed their clothing needs. The newest item worn by women was not a froufrou French-influenced style, but men's coveralls and overalls.

It is impossible to discuss practical clothes without discussing hats and hairstyles for women. When working in factories, women were discouraged from wearing long hair loose like a favorite of the silver screen, Veronica Lake. They put away their fancy, feathered hats and donned a popular alternative—the turban wrap. Many women managed their dangerously loose, flowing hair by wearing snoods and tied-on kerchiefs. At the end of the Second World War, there was a return of extravagance with "Liberation" hats coming out of France, although hats were worn on fewer occasions, and by fewer women, than in the prewar era. The popularity of hats truly declined during the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

Military styles also had an impact on civilian clothing. The popular domestic silhouette, a strong padded shoulder, natural waist, and straight skirt, strongly resembled that of military uniforms. Clothes for both men and women were more severe, practical, and simple during World War II than in the past. Men's clothes were more masculine, and civilian men borrowed from the uniform both the Chesterfield and the officer's coat.

While civilian men's attire became more severe and serious, soldiers' uniforms became more casual. Dress uniforms were less common and bomber jackets were introduced. These jackets had more pockets than traditional coats, which enabled soldiers to carry more equipment. Another influential style was the reefer coat, also known as the Eisenhower. These short wool over-coats, worn by General Eisenhower, were made popular by the stories of the Atlantic escort ships called corvettes. They were seen as heroic and were bought by civilians in great numbers at Army surplus stores after the war's end.

Wartime restrictions on clothing also spawned rebellious styles. Popular with young men in the Hispanic communities of California, as well as among musicians,

was the extravagant zoot suit. With its exaggerated shoulders, knee length jackets, baggy, cuffed pants, the zoot suit flouted the L-85 restrictions. Such styles gave these marginalized communities an outlet for social rage. Unfortunately, in Los Angeles men wearing zoot suits became targets of aggression from military personnel. Zoot-suiters were stopped, humiliated, beaten up and stripped. Los Angeles police did nothing to enforce the laws protecting the zoot-suiters. Instead, they arrested the beaten, naked men for disturbing the peace. In June of 1943 the situation escalated and Los Angeles experienced serious riots, stopped only when the War Department made Los Angeles out-of-bounds for all military personnel.

World War II brought lasting changes to fashion. Women's skirts became shorter, the bikini was introduced, and it became more common and acceptable for women to wear slacks. For men, formality and variety also changed. Prewar men had a larger wardrobe and were expected to dress differently for work, worship and for social occasions. With the long shortage of supplies during and after the war, men no longer dressed up routinely and the casual suit became acceptable for most occasions. Though France regained its dominance in fashion design with its introduction of the "New Look" in 1947, American and British designers became more influential in fashion. Utility has by now become de rigueur in both civilian and military clothing. The fashions adopted by Americans at war helped to shape the fashions of Americans at peace.


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Escobar, Edward J. "Zoot-Suiters and Cops: Chicanos Youth and the Los Angeles Police Department during World War II." In The War in American Culture, Society and Consciousness During World War II, edited by Lewis A. Erenberg and Susan E. Hirsch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Kellog, Ann T.; Peterson, Amy T.; Bay, Stefani; et al. In an Influential Fashion. Westport, CT: Greenwod Press, 2002.

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Susan G. Contente

See also:Labor, World War I; Labor, World War II; Economy, World War I; Economy, World War II.

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Clothing, World War I and World War II

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