If you're a historian and a designer, why not combine your two loves?! I am excited to kick off a new series entitled "Fashion Ph.D." with this piece I wrote.
1940s American fashion is a huge source of admiration and inspiration for me. I love all it embodies: simplicity, sustainability, creativity, balance, and a modern ideal of femininity.
Fashion in the 1940s
At the onset of WWII in 1939, Paris lost its influence as the center of fashion, which gave the American fashion industry the opportunity to develop a “distinct ideal of American fashion and femininity.” What came to be known as the American Look reflected the new reality of life for a growing number of women as well as the constraints of the war economy and of the Great Depression before it.
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The American Look
By the 1940s, American women represented 25% of the work force; they practiced sports, and were generally not restricted to the domestic sphere. The American Look, anchored in sportswear, was touted as the embodiment of modernity associated with the urban lifestyle and “contemporary ideals of femininity.” With its simple lines and practicality, it was “adaptable to a whole range of occasions” including work, home, and sports and leisure activities.
The American Look silhouette was characterized by a “lack of artifice”: straight lines, casual and simple clothes, which were not constricting and moved with the body. The skirt suit was one of the centerpieces of this American style, which also integrated masculine elements such as padded shoulders. In addition, as people got used to seeing women wearing pants at work in the war industries, trousers became part of mainstream women’s fashion.
American designers such as Claire McCardell also looked away from Paris for new sources of inspiration: the American woman; museums; and far away places like South America and China.
Restrictions and Creativity
In 1942, as materials and supplies were reserved for the war economy, the government issued Limitation Order L-85 which imposed specific guidelines for manufactured garments and home sewing patterns in order to limit the amount of fabric and notions used. These rules applied to style, measurements, hem length, and seam allowances, and restricted design details such as pleating, pockets, and collars. The Order was extremely detailed and included dozens of specific restrictions. Colors also became more limited as the chemicals normally used in dyes were requisitioned for the war industry. In order to foster thrift, the government also encouraged continuity in design styles so that women would not feel compelled to discard their older clothes to be fashionable.
These constraints nevertheless did not contravene the design ideals of sportswear or the conception of the wardrobe that had emerged since the Great Depression. Women, encouraged by fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, would buy a smaller number of garments, but these were separates that could be mixed and matched to create a variety of outfits. Styling also became a way to change things up at little cost. Magazines gave tips on how to personalize garments by dying, decorating or accessorizing.
The scarcity of fabric also fostered creativity and designers came up with new styles. Claire McCardell stands out as an unparalleled innovator. She originated the crop top, the open-back sundress, and used utilitarian denim to create feminine looks.
The New Look
By the end of the war, many designers were itching to create unrestricted. Two main silhouettes coexisted in the late 1940s fashion landscape: the streamlined look that had dominated the early years of the decade and the war years, and a new, fuller style which would be known as “The New Look.”
Ironically, the “New Look” reprised the older principles of women’s fashion and embodied a more traditional conception of femininity. It also reflected the return to an unrestrained use of materials. Hems were let down and waists were nipped. Skirts were gathered and had a wider sweep, creating a curvier shape, with a narrow waist and fuller hips. And the shoulder became softer and more natural: sloping or dropped. While American designers had started going in that direction, it was French couturier Christian Dior who put the new silhouette on the map with his 1947 “Corolle” collection. With it, Paris regained its preeminence as the center of world’s fashion but the American Look would reemerge in the 1970s. It remains one of the most influential styles of the contemporary era -and a personal favorite!
Emblematic 1940s looks: skirt suit (center and right) and dress (left). Accessories were used as a way to personalize outfits and create variety in wardrobe limited by wartime restrictions.
Separates became a staple of the 1940s wardrobe. Mixing and matching was a way to create many looks out of fewer pieces.
Women first started wearing pants at work as they entered the war industries.
Actress Rita Hayworth rocking the American Look in a menswear inspired blouse and pants.
The American Look was inspired by women's new lifestyle, including physical activities such as bicycling.
Designer Claire McCardell is the emblematic figure of American mid-century fashion. During WWII, she created many innovative looks such as the backless sundress and the crop top -clever ways to use less fabric.
Christian Dior ushered in a new era with the "New Look," which reflected a return to a more traditional conception of femininity. He put Paris back on the map with his 1947 "Corolle" collection.