The 1940s Lifestyles and Social Trends: Overview

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The 1940s Lifestyles and Social Trends: Overview

The United States did not enter World War II (1939–45) until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But even before that, the war had made an impact on American life. Manufacturers began to put more effort into supplying the wartime needs of Europe, creating shortages at home. By 1941, raw materials such as steel, rubber, nylon, silk, oil, and fabrics were in short supply. Automobile manufacturers gradually converted their factories to build airplanes, tanks, and other military vehicles. Clothing manufacturers made uniforms for the military. Shortages also changed the way civilian goods were designed. In order to use less fabric, clothes became tighter and more versatile. Buildings were simpler and more efficient, while furniture became less elaborate and more functional.

After 1941, American life began to change in many important ways. Rural dwellers moved to the cities to work in factories. They included millions of women, ethnic minorities, and teenagers. These groups had never worked together before, so there was often tension between them. Wartime jobs paid well, so many Americans found themselves better off than ever before. Yet wartime shortages meant that Americans at home had very little on which to spend their money. Instead, they bought war bonds or saved in other ways. After the war, these savings fueled a period of consumerism more intense than any other in history.

Postwar consumerism was even stronger because of the shortages that had occurred earlier. In fashion, the war years forced designers to find ways of using every inch of cloth. The U.S. government put limits on the amount of fabric available for civilian clothes. Women's clothing was tailored and elegant, but dresses and suits in wartime were kept simple. Pockets, frills, and unnecessary buttons disappeared. To make up for a lack of adornments, women wore hats and high heels, and carried long, flat leather handbags. Shortages affected men's fashion even more dramatically. Suits were simple, two-piece garments, with squared-off shoulders. But because most producers of clothes for men were making military uniforms, it was almost impossible to buy a new suit after 1942. After the war ended, clothes became more luxurious. Men wore gray and brown suits with white shirts and slim ties. Fabrics were heavy and expensive. After work, American men relaxed in comfortable slacks, sweaters, and sportswear. For American women, a style called the New Look brought full skirts and soft, feminine curves to fashion.

After the war, manufacturers applied new skills and ideas to making goods for the civilian market. Cars were large, powerful, and streamlined. New materials, such as nylon, went into making carpets, furniture, and even ornaments. Everywhere, designs reflected the confidence of a wealthy nation building its new identity as a world leader. Glittering skyscrapers expressed the confident mood of corporate America, while sprawling new suburbs offered home ownership to the expanding middle class.

More than anything else, Americans wanted to put the war behind them and enjoy the benefits of victory. Many women stayed in the workforce when the war ended, but the emphasis was on home, family, and traditional values. The United States was the only nation that had fought in the war to see church attendance increase sharply when the fighting ended. Though prosperity brought new moral challenges, all the major U.S. religious groups gained strength in the 1940s. There was a huge increase in financial contributions, and church building expanded rapidly. The affluence of the 1950s resulted in large part from technological advances made during the war. But it was also a result of Americans' desire to rebuild a stable, more secure society for themselves and their children.

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The 1940s Lifestyles and Social Trends: Overview

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The 1940s Lifestyles and Social Trends: Overview