by Xin Wen
Recently the death of Bin Laden brought my thoughts back to WWII. Though lasting for over ten years, the war on terrorism has not caused as much trouble as WWII did for ordinary people in America. Even if you include the ‘taking-off your shoes’ inconvenience happening at every American airport, the trouble nowadays can not compare with that of seventy* years ago. For countries that were involved in the war, since all the goods and materials had to be used preferentially by frontline people, there were severe shortages in home front. As a result, rationing system was established in both Britain and America. People were giving coupons to buy daily necessaries. According to Lauren Olds’ Constructing the Past:
‘First the British and later the American governments passed bills limiting fabric usage and rationing clothing items. In 1941, each British adult received 66 clothing coupons, but this number quickly dropped to 48. In 1945, each person received only 36 coupons.’ If you think you can buy 48 pieces of new clothes with 48 coupons, then you are completely mistaken: because ‘a woman’s tweed suit alone cost 18 coupons, half of the yearly ration.’
In 1942, the War Production Board in America set several rules concerning textile and clothing: such as-- ‘jackets could not have more than two pockets; an evening dress could not be made of wool cloth; or people can barely add any attachments on a dress.’ The impact of these regulations on fashion was dramatic: for example, the two-piece bathing suit for women came into being because U.S. government said the fabric used in women’s swimwear had to be reduced.
Faced with shortages, designers and consumers accommodated their aesthetic tastes to tough circumstances. On the designer’s side, (in Lauren Olds’s words): ‘because rubber was necessary for the war effort, designers promoted styles that did not require girdles.’ On consumers’ side: since nylon stockings were unavailable at the market, ladies painted their legs to pretend they were wearing stockings—some even used black eye pencil to draw “seams”. Governments also tried very hard to persuade civilians to make full use of their current wardrobes. A booklet called <800 Ways to Save and Serve or How to Beat the High Cost of Wartime living> contained many handy tips: such as buy more cotton clothes since cotton is cheaper and hard to wear out; or buy fabrics that are tightly woven.
During the WWII, austerity was the key word. Women clothes during war time were indeed simple and practical, after all Rosie the Riveter can not wear feminine gowns to work. However, new designs emerged during war time. According to the research of Lauren Olds, ‘keyhole neckline’ as a new design first appeared in 1941. Apart from this, ‘the variety of ladies hats during the war is also evident…there are hats with wide brims, small caps that rest on the back of the head, and many other unique, fanciful designs.’
In 1945, the war ended. However the haze hovering fashion world did not disappear until the year 1947—when Christian Dior introduced his ‘New Look’. With plenty of fabrics and cloth, women rebuilt their elegant images with long gloves, wasp-waisted silhouette, full-length skirts and high heels. The skirts alone used as much fabric as 10 or even 15 wartime skirts, some using as much as 30 yards of fabric! (Lauren Olds.) Within ten years, rationing, coupons and scarce nylon stockings seemed forgotten by the same generation. Some people said the drabness and uniformity of womens’ clothes during wartime manifested the patriotism of women. However, comparing with the actual sacrifices female soldiers made during WWII, obsolete or stale clothes were only pieces of cake.
Dior----New Look, 1947