WARdrobe: Fashion during World War II

Fashion History Museum

Life went on during the war and women still looked in the mirror. Where hope existed, so did fashion.

Fashion did not stop when war was declared. In the first Paris collections shown after the start of World War II, practical clothes were designed with an eye for beauty. Utilitarian coats and trouser suits, zipper-front jumpsuits and print cotton frocks were cut with a smart look and a sense of style. Life went on between the air raids and women still looked in the mirror. Where hope existed, so did fashion.
Making Do
'Making Do' was a motto for every country involved in World War II. Restrictions on fabric, leather, and metal for fashion required clever solutions to use what was available. This Canadian woman's blue wool suit was made from a man's business suit, left behind in the closet while he went into military service. 

A green dress repurposed from curtains

This French or German one piece dress is made of a rayon paisley print false blouse and heavy weight cotton velvet, probably repurposed from curtains. There is evidence of six different hem lengths.

Black cotton skirt and red and blue striped cardigan sweater (1944-1946)

This English red and blue cardigan is paired with a plain black cotton skirt made from blackout cloth. It was illegal to make clothes from blackout cloth in England but many women did it anyway.

Fall 1947 fashions

Wartime shortages did not end with the war. This American suit from fall 1946 or spring 1947 has been altered with the addition of a panel at the waist to lower the hem for fall 1947 fashions.

Patriotic prints and decorations were used to raise morale or defy occupiers. This French red and white embroidered net, and blue crepe dress uses appliques of blue and and white 'V' for Victory ribbons on the shoulders.

American red crepe dress
This American red crepe dress uses brass bullet shaped studs to decorate the sleeves and yoke.

Black cotton skirt and red and blue striped cardigan sweater (1944 - 1946)

This Canadian/American outfit includes a jacket decorated with a 'V' for Victory ribbon-trimmed pocket, as well as a handkerchief with a patriotic Canadian wartime service uniforms print.

Green duffle bag (1942-1945)

Wartime propaganda slogans made its way onto this English patriotic home-made burlap duffle bag with felt appliques.

Wartime priorities took precedence over most women's lives. Women's wardrobes were adapted to include slacks, warm coats, and washable frocks to suit their wartime activities. Washable cottons and separates saved dry cleaning chemicals, time, and money. These American pinafore dresses could be worn with different cotton blouses or sweaters for different looks.

Gold wool jumpsuit (1940 - 1943)

Shortly after the declaration of war, French and English designers introduced jumpsuits dubbed 'Siren Suits'. These were practical one piece garments women could don quickly in case of an air raid.

Gold trouser suit with shell buttons (1940 - 1946)

Slacks and jumpsuits were donned for factory work but dressier versions were practical choices for a number of activities.
(Left: American two tone rayon suit
Right: Canadian yellow rayon suit)

Tartan brown beige and pink tweed coat (1942 - 1945)

This coat, like many English clothes made after 1942, was long-wearing, and thriftily cut & trimmed, as required by English law under its Utility 'Controlled Commodities' (aka CC41) scheme.

Fashion did not die because even during war women still looked in the mirror. Hats were unrestricted luxuries in most wartime countries. Millinery confections like this American 'doll' hat provided a bit of cheer for a severely tailored suit or plain dress.

Brown wool suit (1942 - 1946)

Even with limited fabrics and findings, designers still managed to create beautiful clothes like this tailored wool suit by American designer Gilbert Adrian.

Black velvet evening dress (1944-1947)

Labelled 'Modesalon, Berlin' this glamorous evening gown wastes little fabric in its cut and no metal for its fastenings

Pale grey resist print silk dress (1943)

This silk couture dress by Jeanne Lanvin is dated Summer 1943. French couture often featured softer shoulders, longer hemlines, and fuller skirts than most wartime fashions in other countries.

Clothes and accessories were often inspired by elements of military uniforms, both past and present. This American hat borrows its look from mid 19th century kepi or forage caps, worn by soldiers during the U.S. Civil War.

Yellow wool suit with black accessories (1943 - 1946)

Elements of uniformity are evident in this Canadian yellow suit with its 'Eisenhower' waisted jacket - a style borrowed from U.S. servicemen's uniforms.

Red and white gingham suit (1942 - 1945)

A military-decoration inspired brooch was sewn to this home-made American suit using a bar pin with celluloid hearts to represent medals.

Brown felt hat with grosgrain ribbon trim (1944 - 1946)

Another military style, this time an 18th century cocked hat inspired this American creation.

New Looks
When Paris was liberated in the summer of 1944 the city's couturiers immediately made plans to recover their place as the fashion capital of the world. With much of Europe in ruin and American fashion being lead by their own designers, regaining the fashion dominance Paris enjoyed before the war wasn't going to be easy. A return to femininity and glamour ultimately won, best seen in the postwar collections of Pierre Balmain and especially Christian Dior who captured the world with his 'New Look' in spring 1947. The beaded satin dress at right has lost its label, but was likely designed by either Pierre Balmain, or Dior for Lucien Lelong, fall 1946.
Fashion History Museum
Credits: Story

All items are from the Fashion History Museum Collection and the FHM Founder's Collection. Photography by Jonathan Walford.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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