World War II impacted virtually every aspect of American life, and fashion was no exception. In 1942, the United States imposed a rationing system similar to the one Great Britain had implemented the previous year, limiting, among other things, the amount of fabric that could be used in a single garment. Materials including wool, silk, leather and a fledgling DuPont Corp. invention called nylon were diverted for use in uniforms, parachutes, shoelaces and even bomber noses.

Jackets may not be more than 25 inches in length, pants no more than 19 inches in circumference at the hem, belts no more than two inches wide, and heels no more than one inch high. The hems went up to the knee in an effort to conserve fabric. Buttons, cuffs, pockets, and decorative details such as ruffles and lace were used sparingly. Women wore shorter, boxier jackets for a V-shaped silhouette reminiscent of military uniforms. Even Hollywood traded in elaborate costumes for stripped-down designs, a move many claimed slow-moving movies gave a new air of realism.


As soon as it was introduced in 1938, synthetic nylon was embraced by women as a replacement for silk stockings. However, in the early 1940s, with silk already diverted to the war effort, the government recognized similar uses for nylon and seized it as well. The women responded by coating their legs in tan makeup and drawing lines down the back of their calves to mimic seams. By the time the war ended and hosiery returned to store shelves, nylon had become a generic term for hosiery.

Swinging skirts.

The swing skirt had a round cut designed to look best in full jitterbug twist. Swinging skirts were a common sight on USO dance floors when young women danced with uniformed men to the blast of jazz horns that characterized the Big Band Era. Housewives were known to wear a more conservative version of the swing dress, sometimes with polka dot prints or tiny flowers.


Hats became one of the few ways to express individual style with minimal resources. They were used in a wide range of styles and were customized with bits of foil, sequins, netting, paper, and string.

Hair and makeup:

Hairstyles became more elaborate as women searched for ways to contrast their boring wardrobes. Shoulder-length or longer hair was coiled into intricate shapes and secured with bobby pins. Screen sirens like Lauren Bacall, Veronica Lake, and Rita Hayworth popularized side parts and finger waves. The makeup was dramatic, characterized by matte foundation, powder, bushy brows, and bright scarlet lips.

Platform pumps:

Wartime shortages of leather and steel forced shoe designers to be more creative, and as a result, shoes were made from materials ranging from crocodile skin to cork. The shoes were more utilitarian than dressy, with low heels and limited color options. By the mid-to-late 1940s, high-heeled platform shoes with T-straps, ankle straps, or peep-toes had replaced the scruffy wedge shoes with their flat shape and thick cork soles.

Male and female fashion:

Several men may have spent the first half of the 1940s in uniform, but their civilian clothes came in handy for women who filled their jobs at home. The women raided the closets of the absent men and made the suits to their measure. McCalls even introduced a pattern specifically intended to modify a male suit to fit female curves. Suddenly, the sexually ambivalent look pioneered in the late 1930s by Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich was no longer radical. The advent of pattern making and the electric sewing machine led women to make their own suits from scratch, opting for the raincoat due to the scarcity of wool. Many with physically demanding factory jobs soon began wearing practical pants and Rosie the Riveter jeans.


By the mid-1940s, many women had abandoned the one-piece corset in favor of panties and structured bras that lifted and accentuated the bust line. In 1946, a well-endowed Jane Russell appeared on screen in a Howard Hughes-designed cantilever bra, heralding the bullet-bra 1950s and the reign of the sweater girl. Baggy cardigans were also popular, especially on college campuses.


The virtual disappearance of French fashion houses during the war led American designers to explore their own creativity. Designers like Bonnie Cashin and Claire McCardell were instrumental in creating sportswear, that uniquely American look that features coordinating separates that can be layered or mixed together. The trend not only gave women more choice and made it seem like they had more clothes than they really did, it also blurred the line between haute couture and ready-to-wear by showing women that they could be stylish and comfortable without spending a fortune.

The new look:

In the late 1940s, women craved a return to glamour, and designers committed to swirling skirts and shimmering evening gowns inspired by movie stars like Ingrid Bergman, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford.

In 1947, French couturier Christian Dior, almost single-handedly, ended the austerity of war with a fashion line that observers dubbed New Look. Harsh angles were replaced by curves, hems dipped below the knee, and skirts draped generously. Structured underwear was key to the New Look, which featured broad shoulders, a cinched waist, emphasized bust lines, and padded hips. The pencil skirt was a figure-hugging alternative to voluminous skirts. Men, too, yearned to break free from conservative khaki and olive green tailoring. They found relief in baggy pants, long coats, and suits in a variety of colors. Both the men’s and women’s trousers featured higher waists, wide-cut legs and cuffs and came in textured tweed and jewel tones.

The New Look received protests from women who had grown accustomed to showing their legs and were unwilling to cover them up again. Also, opulent, rich designs in fabrics seemed wasteful in contrast to the wartime restrictions on fabrics. However, the desire for change prevailed, and the look flourished through much of the 1950s.

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