World War II and Fashion

Most people may not think about it, but World War II affected nearly every industry in the entire world - entire production styles were invented to make-do with limited resources, edicts were imposed on populations to control how products were made, and what many people may not realize is that communications between people and industries in different countries were cut off for a significant periods of time.

The fashion industry is one of those industries that changed dramatically because of World War II. When the United States joined the war in 1941, Stanley Marcus, son of Neiman-Marcus co-founder Herbert Marcus, was brought into the Oval Office by Franklin Roosevelt and was asked to devise a plan to get civilians to buy less fabric in order to supply the military.


Here’s Marcus looking like a Bond villain:

In order to supply the military, Marcus & Roosevelt devised a plan to “freeze the fashion silhouette” industry in place, to prevent the urge from consumers to buy new clothing. This meant that Marcus would convince designers to reuse previous designs, so men and women would not feel pressure to buy new clothes.

We settled on certain prohibitions, such as lengths, sleeve fullness, patch pockets, ensembles, sweeps of skirts, widths of belts and depth of hems. … The restrictions we put into effect froze the fashion silhouette. It effectively prevented any change of skirt length downward and it blocked any extreme new sleeve or collar development, which might have encouraged women to discard existing clothes. - Stanley Marcus

To aid in the goal of conserving material, the War Productions Board was created and from 1942-1945, the WPB came up with a list came up with specific lists and edicts that were imposed on companies of every industry on how to build their products and what materials could be used. In the world of fashion, it consisted of how much fabric could be used for specific garments and what types of garments could be sold.

In March of 1942, the WPB passed regulation L-85, which banned the use of natural fibers and controlled nearly every aspect of clothing manufacture, even down to the number of buttons that could be on a jacket.

As a result, we saw hemlines come up in women, and in mens suits, what is known as a Victory Suit – a suit using limited fabric – was promoted. The main feature of this suit was the single-breasted closure, along with a narrow lapel, no pleats, no cuffs, and no waistcoat. Before the war, it was typical to receive a waistcoat and a second pair of trousers with the purchase of a suit, but war-time restriction eliminated this tradition.

The Victory Suit was widely unpopular, and there was a strong reaction by youth-culture to the Suit with the continuing popularity of the zoot suit, which featured excessive amounts of fabric, big shoulders, wide lapels, baggy pants with cuffs, and often times a large hat. Wearing a zoot suit during the sanctions of the War Productions board was considered to be nearly-criminal, and in some places it was. More on zoot suits here.

The fountainhead of style, Paris, was also greatly affected by the war, which resulted in the rise of the American designer influence. In 1940, Germany invaded France, forcing many fashion designers to flee Paris and set up shop in New York. But not all designers made it out of France, and because of the war, and many simply closed up shop – one such famous shop being Coco Chanel. No longer were American designers, editors, and buyers traveling to Paris fashion shows.

Correspondingly, American designers stepped up with their own designs and increased their influence on men and women fashion in the US. American designers were now being credited by name in magazines like Vogue and they relocated the capital of fashion to New York.

The American style, heavily influenced by the zoot suit, really took form after the war ended and the WPB was disbanded. A toned-down zoot suit became popular when the fabric limitations were lifted; double breasted suits became popular with large lapels, big buttons, wide ties, and ostentatious gold chains.

With the spread of American soldiers all over the world as a result of the war and post-war military bases, the entire world was now seeing American soldiers wearing American-designed clothing, and with the brief exit of Paris from the world of fashion, New York became the powerhouse of fashion it is today.