WWII Fashions Never Out of Style

The patriotism being displayed in these current times of turmoil has been compared to that of WWII as a public demonstration of unity not shown since that time. The fervor of 9/11 brings back memories to many who lived through those war years and remember the many sacrifices as seen through the eyes and mind of both child and adult.

There were shortages in almost every walk of life, causing rationing to be a vital part of the war effort. Gas, meat, sugar, coffee, butter, tinfoil, metals, iron, shoes, fabrics and paper products were just a few of the everyday products affected and enforced through strict government conservation controls. Fashion was no exception. I am indebted to Yvonne Williams of Perqs for providing me with War Production Board regulations concerning the textile, clothing and leather production standards mandated in 1942 and amended December 1943. Note that this latter date marked the second full year of America’s participation in WWII.

Perhaps more interesting than the restrictions in this government document are the exclusions which help to explain how Hollywood costuming in movies always looked so glamorous or how some persons we knew were able to wear stunning new clothes that were outside the boundaries of government limitations.

Those excluded were:

  • apparel for feminine wear made in the home and not for remuneration
  • sale of apparel for feminine wear by a person who acquired the same for her own general use
  • sale of second-hand apparel
  • alterations to fit a specific individual consumer
  • apparel for feminine wear for persons over 5’7, of abnormal size or with phsyical deformities
  • bridal gowns, burial gowns, religious robes, historical costumes for theatrical productions
  • U.S. military uniforms

WWII Fashions Never Out of Style

Fashion never missed a beat at war factories – safety hair net headware was designed by no less than the doyenne of millinery, Lily Daché.

– Common Threads, 1992

WWII Fashions Never Out of Style

Slack suits were a welcome relief as women gladly exchanged housedresses for this relaxed assembly- line fashion.

– New Encyclopedia of Modern Sewing, 1943 To attempt to list all the clothing production regulations and definitions would require too much space and produce an overly long column to read via computer screen.

Suffice to say that every inch, every style, every garment part, every trim and most every fabric came under strict scrutiny for redefinition and reduction. Some generalizations will be noted here. Document L85 and other historical information can be requested from the US National Archives & Records Administration. www.nara.gov Measurements -Specific maximums in fabric usage for every garment part – i.e., an evening dress could not be made of wool cloth, different fabrics were allowed different sweeps; dresses shorter than ankle or floor length had to conform in all respects to those for daytime dresses and suits except for maternity wear which could be 1″ longer; jackets could have no more than two pockets inside or out nor have bi-swing, norfolk or vent type backs nor balloon, dolman or leg-of-mutton sleeves; dresses could not have attached hoods, capes, fichus, vest pants, hankerchiefs or shawls, suspenders or attachments above the waist, french cuffs, french facings; neckwear frills and ruffles could not be more than 5″ wide on either or both sides of center front.

The WPB’s Body Basic Chart below shows curtailments for a size 14 dress. Prescribed measurements and sizes could not be altered in any way for any article of clothing. Law also required that every person who put cloth into process for the manufacture of garments had to make and retain for not less than one year a record of the number of square inches used for trimming on each style of garment manufactured.

WWII Fashions Never Out of Style

Definitions [random]-daytime dress was dress other than evening or dinner dress; French facing was a facing extending to the armhole or beyond; blouse was an outer garment for feminine wear commonly worn with a separate skirt or under a jacket and included all kinds of blouses and shirts; suit was a garment consisting of a separate jacket and skirt of either matching or contrasting material sold as one unit; playsuit was either a one-piece garment consisting of a top attached to a pair of shorts or a two-piece garment consisting of a separate top and a pair of shorts.


  • Misses 10-20
  • Jr 9-17
  • Women regular 36-52
  • Women odd [tall, handicapped, dwarf] 35-51
  • Little women [short, petit??] 14-1/2 to to 28-1/2
  • Women stout 38-1/2 to 52-1/2.

Each had specific body part measurements. There were also sizes and specifications for children’s and male apparel. Violators were considered guilty of a crime and upon conviction were punished by fine or imprisonment. They were further prohibited from making or obtaining further deliveries or from processing or using material under priority control and could be deprived of priorities assistance by the War Production Board.

All in all, there seemed to be relatively few consumer complaints about fashion restraints. For one thing, styles in the late 1930s were becoming more casual and tailored which required less fabric and trim; skirts were shorter and freeform prints and patterns replaced geometrics. The emerging style seem tailored made and already in place for government restrictions so there were no extreme changeover adjustments. And if one sewed style and creativity were not diminished by regulations.

WWII Fashions Never Out of Style

To have a collar this ornate, it would have to be sewn at home and not for commercial sale.

– New Encylopedia of Modern Sewing 1943

WWII Fashions Never Out of Style

Tailored and casual styles with shorter hemlines were already in place prior to the war. This sporty dress is from the late 1930s.

– The Mode in Fashion, 1958 Add to this that the government made every attempt to advise consumers how to be well-dressed on a rationed wardrobe with slogans such as More Care, Less Tear or More Mending, Less Spending , all contained in a booklet 800 Ways to Save and Serve or How to Beat the High Cost of Wartime Living.

I’m indebted to fabric collector Pat Roth who provided this source of information from her collection. The following shopping secrets were to help get the most out of purchases. As you read these common-sense tips, consider how many apply to today’s spending habits.

Buy best flannels, cheviots, jersey and tweeds which are closely woven; looser weaves are likely to get baggy. Judge quality of woolen clothes by squeezing in your hand. It should feel smooth, rubbery , springy upon opening your hand. If feeling is rough, then grade is inferior. Suits of worsted will hold their shape better and weave even longer than those of wool. Fabrics with light-colored dots or figures often wear out quickly because the dots have not been bleached. Think twice before selecting a dress or skirt made on the bias. Remember such clothes are more difficult and costly to later make over.

Buy dresses on which the material has been cut the long way. Crosswise cutting betrays skimping. In the long run, the most economical dress to buy is one which is made up of pieces cut with the grain of the material. If they are cut against the grain the dress will get out of shape easily. Dress youngsters in cotton as much as possible. Cotton is cheaper and it survives constant laundering. Also save yourself time by selecting children’s clothes that haven’t too many buttons and buttonholes to be replaced and repaired. There were also suggestions for caring for rayon flimsies [sic], rayon not being quite the enhanced rayon of today as they were then 40% to 60% less resistant when wet.

If label stated not washable then fabric suffered if laundered as certain weaves would shrink, mat or stretch. Specific instructions were given for washing, drying and ironing – always press while wet and on the wrong side to prevent glazing. Other categories covered food, stains, budgeting, household bills, heating thrift and money savers on car repairs, do-it-yourself and other salvaging.

Especially popular wartime cotton fabrics were crinkle crepes such as plisse, dimity, dotted swiss, gingham, glazed chintz, lawn, muslin, percale, pique, poplin, seersucker and voile and feedsacks. Except for the last one, not much different from today’s preferences.

WWII Fashions Never Out of Style

The staple housedress as featured in Sears 1941 catalog. Once they were exchanged for factory slack suits, there was no return to these percale standbys for post-war modern woman.

WAR FASHIONS The way we were 1942-45

WWII Fashions Never Out of Style

Fashion makeovers – publications were chockful of ideas to restyle wardrobes as a way to save money and conserve. In addition the sewer could exude glamour not available on the rack. These ideas from the New Encyclopedia of Modern Sewing in 1943 showed how to combine various idled garments to create a new one.

WWII Fashions Never Out of Style WWII Fashions Never Out of Style

Sewers could also make stylish costumes that were tailored or dressy but containing more frills and fabric than store-bought garments. From New Encylcopedia Modern Sewing 1943 [l] and Fabrics and Dress 1943 [r]. It was all over but the shouting as fashion frills returned. The black eyelet trimmed gingham dress [l] for $9 was a timely harbinger of fresh change when it appeared in the Cleveland Press May 8, 1945, the same day Victory in Europe was proclaimed when Nazi Germany surrendered.

WWII Fashions Never Out of Style WWII Fashions Never Out of Style   WWII Fashions Never Out of Style

In the following year publications were providing tips to revitalize clothes by adding a luxurious touches of glamour and glitter. One accessorization was to apply Italian quilting, called trapunto, on jackets, toppers [r] and robes. Coats and Clarks Trimmings, 1946, provided instructions. Other popular trims were braids, sequins and fringes. America’s involvement in World War II lasted about 3-1/2 years. While we couldn’t wait to ditch rationing coupons, it must be said that one of the most memorable achievements about the home front was its determination to bear sacrifices as bravely as those fighting overseas.

Adults worked long shifts in factories, acted as street and neighborhood air raid wardens and committeemen , helped with shore patrol, formed special sewing and quilting groups to make afghans and warm accessories for servicemen, rented out their spare rooms to those coming from rural areas to work in factories, used wagons to haul groceries, grew victory gardens and raised rabbits and chickens as a meat substitutes no matter the size of their city plot and gave of their time and hearts whenever needed. Children were no less patriotic.

They trudged neighborhood streets with wagons collecting tinfoil and old scrap iron, spent school lunch hours knitting afghan squares for adult guilds to sew together and including letters of encouragement, dutifully saved their allowance to fill their Minute Man dime banks and books which went toward war bonds, knew every war song , fought every battle with John Wayne at Saturday matinees, knew every enemy leader’s name and gathered with the family in front of the radio to listen in hushed silence to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chat broadcasts.

And nobody cheered harder then they when on May 8, 1945 newspaper banner headlines across America spelled Victory. A moment the world waited for, shared and celebrated.

WWII Fashions Never Out of Style WWII Fashions Never Out of Style

Our “boys” here and overseas were the pride of the nation. Making gifts was a favorite pastime for all ages. Above were some suggestions from The Spool Co. [Coats & Clark] Gifts You Can Sew booklet issued in 1942. The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960. To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time.

Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.

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