WARdrobe: Fashion and World War II

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

By Fashion History Museum

Fashion History Museum

Grey wool hat trimmed with chenille pussy willows, feather bird and nest (1941) by Benjamin Greenfield (aka Bes Ben)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/


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.

Blue pinstripe wool suit (1940/1945)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/

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. 

Green velvet dress with paisley blouse (1941/1945)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/

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)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/

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.

Grey, green, and black tweed suit (1947/1948)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/

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.

Red and blue embroidered net dress (1941/1945)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/


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.

Red crepe dress with brass bullet embroidery (1941/1945)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/

American red crepe dress (1942 - 1944)
This American red crepe dress uses brass bullet shaped studs to decorate the sleeves and yoke.

Ensemble consisting of red wool jacket, blue denim culotte dress, red socks and saddle shoes (1942/1945)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/

Blue dress with skort and red wool jacket (1943-1944)

Canadian dress with American 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 with embroidery and felt appliques (1942/1945)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/

Green duffle bag (1942-1945)

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

Red and white striped pinafore dress (1940/1948)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/


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 with gold yarn fringe collar (1940/1943)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/

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)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/

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)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/

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.

Pink straw 'doll' hat trimmed with flowers (1941/1945)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/


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) by Gilbert AdrianOriginal Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/

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 with broad shoulders and short sleeves (1944/1947)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/

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 (1943/1943) by Jeanne LanvinOriginal Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/

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.

Brown felt hat with feather cockade (1941/1943)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/


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)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/

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)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/

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)Original Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/

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

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

Black and white satin dress with beaded bodice (1946/1946) by Attributed to Christian Dior for Lucien Lelong, or BalmainOriginal Source: http://fashionhistorymuseum.com/

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.

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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