In 1941, upon the United States's entry into World War II (1939–45), the commercial manufacture of many types of clothing ceased for the war's duration. The materials from which clothing was made, including nylon, silk, leather, and rubber, were required for the manufacture of products that were essential to winning the war. In January 1942 the War Production Board was established by order of President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945). The board was charged with changing and expanding the nation's economy to assist in the war effort. Before its abolishment in November 1945, the board administered the production of $185 billion in supplies and weapons. As a result of the war effort, civilians had to make do with unstylish, everyday items of clothing. Women in particular were challenged to work around these restrictions while still making their clothing a reflection of their femininity.
For women, the plight of the nylon stocking was a typical wartime dilemma. The first nylon stockings were introduced into the marketplace in 1939 and proved an immediate success. Once the United States went to war, nylon was needed to produce parachutes and tires, and nylon stockings disappeared from stores. Women who wished to at least maintain the illusion of style went so far as to paint black seams up the backs of their legs, to create the impression that they were wearing stockings.
Other popular clothing items disappeared, including dresses, blouses, ties, and underwear made of silk, rubber-soled shoes, and leather shoes and handbags. Leather shoes were replaced by those made of canvas, mesh, and reptile skin; elevated wood and cork soles substituted for leather and rubber soles. Even the more common materials, including wool and cotton, had to be set aside for military uniforms. The War Production Board established guidelines that lessened by 15 percent the amount of fabric that manufacturers could use in the production of civilian clothing. Any clothing style that depended upon an excess of fabric was now un-patriotic. Double-breasted (two rows of buttons down the front) suits, double cuffs on shirts, cuffs on trousers, extra pockets on suits, and patch pockets (pockets created by attaching an extra piece of material to a garment) became socially unacceptable. So did full skirts, flowing evening gowns, and wide hems on dresses and skirts.
Civilian clothing became less frequently replaced, and more often was mended when the individual item otherwise might have been discarded. Old items of clothing were reshaped and sewn into new ones. Even wedding gowns were re-used by sisters and friends of the bride and finally were remade into nightgowns or underwear. Fashion magazines published patterns, or clothing designs, that illustrated how men's suits could be altered into women's suits and women's dresses could be transformed into clothing for girls. The government even issued a directive that no more than five thousand dollars could be spent on costumes for each Hollywood movie. To conform to this restriction, moviemakers began recycling costumes from previous films.
Increasing numbers of women took industrial jobs, replacing the men who had gone off to war. Because such feminine apparel as skirts and dresses were impractical on-the-job attire, women began wearing overalls and pants, leading to more women dressing in pants away from work. In fact, pants came to signify the contribution of women to the war effort.
Because of the restrictions of war, people became more imaginative in the ways they used clothing to express their sense of style. Simple black dresses became popular because they easily could be re-worn with different colored scarves, bows, and pins. Hairstyles became more ornate and imaginative. Men's clothing even became more casual and vibrant. While not in uniform, a man might sport a brightly patterned tie. Soldiers arriving home from fighting in the Pacific brought with them colorful aloha shirts.
It took nearly two years after war's end for supplies of fabric and materials to return to normal. In 1947 the legendary fashion designer Christian Dior (1905–1957) introduced his New Look, which spotlighted women's clothing featuring fuller skirts and longer lengths.
Baker, Patricia. Fashions of a Decade: The 1940s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.
Laboissonniere, Wade. Blueprints of Fashion: Home Sewing Patterns of the 1940s. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1997.
Peacock, John. The 1940s. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998.
Sladen, Christopher. The Conscription of Fashion: Utility Cloth, Clothing and Footwear, 1941–1952. Brookfield, CT: Ashgate Publishing, 1995.