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Professor examines development of 1940s fashion

| Thursday, April 6, 2017

On Wednesday evening associate professor of history Linda Przybyszewski presented a comprehensive history of the dramatic changes in American fashion during the 1940s and entering the 1950s in her lecture titled “Forties Fashion: Devil in a Blue Dress and Pink Overalls.” With World War II efforts in full force in 1943, both men and women’s dress shifted, adapting to complement both the war’s nationalistic message as well as complying with the necessity to reduce fabric, she said.

Men’s fashion in particular focused intently on uniforms, Przybyszewski said, showing an appreciation for and dedication to military dress and therefore the U.S. wartime spirit.

“The military tried to recruit people and having the American flag, or the colors of the flag, in clothing became extremely important,” she said.

According to Pryzbyszewski, contrasting with this militaristic state of mind, the “zoot suit” also became popularized as an impractical, yet fun fashion statement for many men during the 1940s.

“The zoot suit takes up an enormous amount of fabric, comprising of a big oversized jacket that reaches the thighs, trousers wide at the knees, and an oversized hat,” she said.

According to L85, the clothing fabric restrictions law passed during World War II, however, much of what comprised of the zoot suit was banned, Przybyszewski said. Many young Mexican Americans continued to sport this trend in California, however, creating a great deal of tension between the “zoot suiters” and servicemen.

“There were a series of riots in 1943 called the Zoot Suit Riots, where servicemen attacked ‘zoot suiters,’” she said.

The servicemen arrested Mexican Americans and questioned them as potential Nazis, transforming the zoot suits into a disreputable target for discriminatory harassment.

The Women Army Corps, known as the WACs, came to a forefront in 1943, participating in the war effort in every way possible, except as armed combatants.

The WACs “did everything from office work to driving to various training programs, but women, more than anything else, worked in various factories” Przybyszewski said.

Pryzbyszewski said women’s uniforms, therefore, also became a focus of fashion trends, highlighting either khaki trousers or skirts. Turbans and hair clothes began to grow in popularity as well, as women could not wear their hair loose while working in factories.

“Factory work did not make pants more popular with women,” she said.“Retailers discovered that in areas where women typically worked in factories, wearing more overalls and trousers, stores sold more dresses.”

Evening gowns and beautiful dresses reminded women of a better time, before the war began and wearing fine clothing allowed many women to escape from thoughts of war, Pryzbyszewski said.

As an incentive to save fabric with L85, women were asked to sew and conserve fabric simultaneously. With the motto “make do and mend,” many booklets were published in order to teach women how to use spare materials to create new outfits, Pryzbyszewski said.

“Women learned how to make skirts out of old pairs of trousers, use three old dresses to make two new ones, and booklets such as ‘200 Ways to Alter a Dress’ were sold,” she said.

According to Pryzbyszewski, many different types of skirts and suits emerged as approved wartime outfits for women, including the “tailored day dress,” the “summer suit,” and the “bow-trimmed dress.” Each outfit consisted of traditional styles with simplified details.

“The tailored day dress snapped, rather than zipped, along the sides, and consisted of a shirt waist, rather than full body buttons,” she said.  “Only the fronts of the dresses were pleated.”

In 1947, however, women’s fashion dramatically shifted when Chirstian Dior’s “Ladies Home Journal” showcased women sporting longer dresses with ornate details, Pryzbyszewski said. After the war, “Dior claimed that he wanted to ‘turn women back into flowers,’” she said.

Pryzbyszewski said women embraced this postwar style, adding ruffles, flairs, and inches to their short skirts in order to conform to seemingly backwards fashion trends.

Ultimately, World War II and postwar era fashion focused on novelty and dreams. “A need to escape the all-encompassing world wars served as the driving force behind popular fashion in the 1940’s,” she said.

 

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  • As someone who write vintage swing dance fiction set mostly in the 1940s, I wish I could attend. Will there be transcripts or somewhere I can read about this later? I’ll keep these factoids in my back pocket as perhaps a jumping off place for a short story. Thank you.