This month Cicilia proposes a retrospective on 1940s fashion in France, the UK, and the US. From fabric shortages and Utility Clothing to the post-war Hollywood glitz: an insightful overview of one of the most turbulent decades, closing up with a stylish review of Hollywood, one of the latest Netflix miniseries.
1940s FASHION – FRANCE, UNITED STATES, AND UK
The 1940s were one of the most turbulent decades ever. Wartime restrictions also set boundaries on fashion to avoid any waste. Men had to go to the front, and women had to leave behind the idea of being just housewives. Production was hectic during wartime, and many women started working in factories; hence, Utilitarian Clothing was very popular. Glamour and femininity had to step back, leaving space for practical and functional clothing. Moreover, despite being affected by war differently, European countries and the United States experienced a significant limitation to fabric and haberdashery usage.
France had been established as the centre of womenswear fashion long before the 1940s. However, many fashion designers left Paris with the war outbreak, and France was cut off from the UK and the US. Hence, its designs weren’t shown anywhere but nationally. One of the greatest French designers was Jeanne Lanvin, who proposed full-skirted outfits and fashionable wedding ensembles.
On the other side of the Atlantic, American fashion designers also had to deal with minor fabric rationing. Thus, ladies flaunted sleeker attires with discreet knee-length skirts without frills. French style didn’t reach the US, and for the first time, American design started thriving, in particular ready-to-wear. In the 1940s, emerging designers were Normal Norell and Claire McCardell. They proposed simple yet trendy collections that became immediately very popular. In particular, Norell focused on feminine and stylish outfits such as sequinned sheath dresses. He filled the void left by the absence of French designers, taking advantage of the lack of rationing on sequins. McCardell designed everyday clothing masterfully, navigating the fabric allotment. In 1942 the US government imposed a ban on the trading and usage of wool and silks; hence, McCardell started using denim, seersucker, and jersey, producing designs that became classic.
In the UK, Norman Hartnell was the most famous fashion designer during wartime. In 1949, he gained the Royal Warrant as Dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and in 1957 he received the same award from Queen Elizabeth II. He was one of the founders of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers, established in 1942 to promote British fashion. Hartnell was commissioned to make outfits, always following the war restriction guidelines, by many noticeable British people.
He also reworked already-owned garments. He then had to leave civilian womenswear design. As many other designers, he helped the country in uniform creation and production. Hartnell created attire for women in the British army, nurses, and female members of the City of London Police and Metropolitan Police.
The majority of citizens wore uniforms, as almost everyone was somehow involved in helping the country. Indeed, menswear suits were used less than before. Once not on duty, men wore single-breasted jackets with a limited number of buttons and pockets. Turn-ups were a noticeable fabric waste, so they disappeared.
As the war was getting more challenging, fabrics were strictly rationed, and in 1941 the British government introduced the so-called Utility Clothing guidelines. Garment manufacture followed strict rules, and they all had a CC41 label, indicating they complied with the Civilian Clothing production regulations. This scheme aimed at helping the economy, and it was a triumph. Manufacturers had a specific quota to produce garments, and 85% of the total production was Utility Clothing. In contrast, 15% was allocated to non-regulated garment manufacture.
However, designers had to follow the modest style of the time. Designs and quality were controlled, and so were prices. Indeed, the government wanted all its citizens to afford good quality outfits at a fair price. Specifically, people didn’t use their money but government-regulated coupons. In this way, the upper class couldn’t buy more than essential clothing.
Normal Hartnell was one of the designers appointed to design CC41 pieces. He partnered with Barketex to speed up mass production. Wartime austerity regulated material usage and also labour; hence, clothes were as simple as possible. Just to give you an idea of how harsh restrictions were, garments could have a maximum of two pockets, five buttons, two to four pleats, 160 inches of stitches (4m), and of course, no decorations at all.
Even shoe design experienced a significant change, and only solid and practical footwear was allowed. No heels or open-toes shoes, as they were considered unsafe. For the first time, women didn’t wear stockings, as this underwear type was not essential. Many ladies avoided the few uncomfortable and ugly rayon hose available and just showed bare legs.
In contrast, others drew a line down the back of their legs to mock real stockings.
DIOR – THE NEW LOOK
Christian Dior’s first collection was the Spring-Summer 1947 one, and this was a ground-breaking success. He proposed the ‘New Look’, a style featuring rounded shoulders, a cinched waist and a full skirt; the New Look attire was the celebration of femininity and luxury. It was utterly opposed to the austere WWII fashion. This was a new outlook rather than a simple new look, composed of two pieces. The Bar jacket emphasised the silhouette, and it featured a curved neckline marked by hand stitches. This blazer was pared with the extremely elegant Chérie dress featuring a sloped shoulder and a very narrow waist. In contrast, the skirt was voluminous and fell on the padded hipline. The Chérie dress was a tailoring virtuoso, featuring dozens of handmade pleats and needing almost 470 inches of fabric (12m).
In the US, glitz was coming back, as post-war fashion was beginning to embrace the glamorous spirit characterising the Roaring Twenties. If you are looking for a new series to watch, I recommend Hollywood, a brand new Netflix miniseries. Romanticism, cinematography, and fashion intertwine in a compelling and flowing plot. The lavish nights of 1940s Hollywood stars hide more profound themes such as prostitution, drugs, and racism. Although probably much emphasised by the plot, this Netflix production shows how difficult it was for non-white people to work at the fictional Ace Studios.
The costume designers created outfits with a mix of truthfulness and imagination. Hollywood is an emotionally rich miniseries, and each outfit has a colour palette emphasising the scene. The shades of men’s outfits are very bright and often contrasting. Typical elements of the 19490s, such as fedoras, suspenders, puff-sleeved dresses, turbans, and fresh flowers on menswear lapels, mix in eye-catching colour palettes. Colour combinations are not truthful; however, they give an incredible personal connotation to each character.
Fashion is the mirror of society, and in the first half of the 1940s, it reflected the gravity of war. With the liberation from the Nazi regime, fashion returned to shine, delighting the world with unique creations like Dior’s New Look. Suppose you don’t have any trips out of town or pub nights planned yet. In that case, I highly recommend giving Hollywood a try. Very colourful and eye-catching outfits are a trend for SS 2021. I’m sure you’ll take some styling inspiration from this miniseries.
You can read more of Cicilia’s article on ciciliabrognoli.com