Friday, December 11, 2009

Wartime Glamour: An Oxymoron?

Thanks for all your insightful comments on my thoughts about 40s fashion! One comment in particular really resonated with me and I wanted to devote a post to the subject. Anita said:
I agree with you - the garments of the 40's have a unique charm. So many world-changing events in a short space of time - your point about creativity in the midst of restraint is interesting. Just as an aside, does it feel a little frivolous to enjoy the clothing of a war-era? It's something I think about...
I instantly knew what Anita meant: it's kind of strange to look back, from a position of comfort and luxury, to a time that was so incredibly dark and to want to co-opt it. And just think about how we talk about the era. We praise the glamour, the fabulous styles, the lovely hair and makeup. But pick up any book about wartime fashion and it's impossible to avoid the treacherous undercurrents: you can only imagine the type of environment in which women were wearing siren suits and Red Cross volunteer uniforms. (Side note: here's a great web resource on wartime fashion.)

But ultimately, I think embracing the fashion values of the 40s can only be cause for celebration: after all, so much of the modern craft movement parallels the ideal of "make do and mend." And in some ways, it's easy to find similarities between the 40s and today: as my husband aptly put it, both eras are marked by "a confluence of events that make us all feel like the world is going to hell." And it can't be avoided (as much as we might try), that in my country it currently IS a wartime. I actually think we would do quite well to strive to imitate the ideals of the 40s. I mean, what's really frivolous is the fact that the U.S. is fighting two wars and dealing with major economic and environmental crises, yet we act like everything (fashion and otherwise) is business as usual.

So yes, I do find it a bit frivolous when a designer like Diane Von Furstenburg takes inspiration from 40s wartime fashion and turns it into a $600 dress. But to take the inspiration and to follow in the footsteps of the women of the 40s - to do it ourselves - well, that must be the opposite of frivolous, right? Not that sewing your own clothing today makes one a saint and automatically immune to the evils of careless consumption (just look at my fabric stash and shoe collection, for goodness sakes). But it's a start.

Those are my thoughts for now, but I know this is an a topic that I'll continue to ponder. So many thanks to Anita for bringing it up.

Now, let's hear from you please!


  1. One of the things about 40s fashion (vs. the 30s) is that we can look at those photos and except for some particular items such as hair style, we can really envision ourselves in those designs. That era really had such a huge effect on modern women's clothing. However, one of the things I always think about when I look at them is that those women who were 18 years old plus had been youngsters during the Great Depression - with all that that experience entailed (from 'making do' to 'not having enough to eat - and the physical effect that that situation produced).

  2. What an excellent point regarding our current wars!

    Our last president exhorted us to keep shopping or the terrorists would win. That attitude has made so many of us downwardly mobile.

  3. Some very interesting points to ponder. These women had been through so much in their lives with the depression and then the war, my grandmother being a young woman at war time and a youngster during the depression. But they kept their heads up, made do, stayed women and feminine, gained skills and confidence and pitched in to help in the war effort and keep the home fires burning at the same time. We could learn so much from them. I know that much of who I am and how I operate and think has been passed down from this era through my mother and grandmother, their thrift, work ethic, ideals, homemaking, etc. I am so grateful to my grandmother for pulling through these difficult days and making the most of them and for continuing on in the day to day, giving birth to my mom right in the midst of the turmoil, for continuing to look towards the future and pressing onward with courage and sheer hard work.

  4. I think the reason we love this era so much is that people were forced to be creative with in a certain set of restrictions. I think this inspires a creativity that otherwise wouldn't be there. My husband's passion is a good example.... he is very much into improv theater and when there is no restrictions set on the scenes they fail miserably, but when there are bounds to work within, the scenes that come forth are genius.

    Women were forced to be creative with what they had to work with... as I've always heard, necessity is the mother of invention.

    With all the recent focus on being green, it seems that we are moving towards reusing things in our lives the same way that women did in the war era. Reminds me of J.Stern Designs blog where she is making herself a pair of pants by cutting down mens pants from the thrift store - $2.50 for a fantastic pair of pants that are custom fit is a wonderful example of working within the bounds of a financial restriction, which most of us are experiencing....

  5. I was thinking about your post and had to share my experience with the 30-40s. My father is the youngest of ten children. When he was born in the mid 30's he had three brothers who fought in WW II. Even though it was hard times, my family speaks of the time with such pride and their stories aren't of complaining or feeling sorry for themselves. They did what they had to do and didn't think differently.Times and people were different back then and patriotism was high. Granted this is my little ole experience, but my father loves when I sew vintage or have dishes and even Christmas decorations from the 30's, 40's and, yes, 50's out at my home. He loves to remember and, of course, wonders how women's fashions have strayed and why women don't dress like ladies anymore... For me, sewing from this era is in some ways showing respect and always remembering.

  6. "One of the things about 40s fashion (vs. the 30s) is that we can look at those photos and except for some particular items such as hair style, we can really envision ourselves in those designs."

    I couldn't agree more. I've recently got a bunch of German sewing magazines from 30s and 40s into my hand. And as much as I admire the 30s fashion, I'm not so sure of I'd wear it - but in the 40s, there were many designs I would immediately put on myself and feel like myself in them! Moreover, some of them remind of things my mother used to wear when I was a small child - especially the coats - so some of the aesthetics must have remained with us for a long, long time. (I guess the communism and therefore worse economy in my country must have had to do with it, too. I'm Czech.)

  7. Sorry for the mistakes in my previous post - I must have been thinking of two things at the same time, or what!

  8. I like the WWII era of dress because it reflects the very complex gender dynamics of the time (this is perhaps why this era speaks to 21st century women as well). WWII did not just spawn a generation of economizing housewives. It was one of the few times in history when many were called upon to work outside the home and to find the strength and autonomy to either go to the front as WRENS or WAVES or keep the homefront ticking along (at home OR as munitions workers, Land Girls, etc). I think the fashion reflects the fact that for once the ideal woman was strong, capable (those big shoulders) and yet glamorous. To some, perhaps this is the beginning of the "Superwoman" ideology that many modern women struggle with (having to be the perfect wife, mother, AND career woman outside the home), but from a fashion standpoint I just think 40s fashion is DIVINE for the way it balances the rational and the frilly, the so called "masculine" tailoring elements and the "feminine" millinery, etc. Also the quality is just unprecedented. Okay, stopping now. Clearly, I am very passionate about this topic. THANKS for posting!

  9. Great thoughts from both of you! I just officially started working as a seamstress about 6 months ago and I could not have imagined how quickly I would have work and regular customers. But I think the economy supports such a job with the idea that our clothing is something we are wanting to hold on to a bit we're having them altered to fit weight changes etc. And the one thing I've noticed getting a lot of attention is jeans. People are having them hemmed in stead of just stepping on them until they rip. They want things to last. I've also noticed an increased interest in learning to sew.

  10. Two very interesting posts! I do love this blog for the clothes and the thoughts.
    The styles worn in the forties have their own place in history and, like any other style, will continue to inspire. I associate them with women in strong, coping, 'doing' roles. The idea of enjoying fashion borne out of privation is somehow incongruous but what... are we supposed not to appreciate it or be inspired by it because of the arena in which those styles emerged? My grandmothers endured the war in Liverpool and Birmingham respectively, then the rationing that followed. Apparently they made the best of what little they had in the way of clothes, and loved and enjoyed the 'luxuries' that they could create or obtain in a way that we probably can't understand in today's throwaway society. My mother has some crazy stories from the war years - for example, being dragged back home in the middle of an air raid because my nana couldn't face sitting in the air-raid shelter (not knowing what she'd come out to) without her knitting. Pictures and stories from people who were there allow us to imagine both the horror in extreme cases, the decade-long hard times for almost everyone and the pleasures that would have countered those. I'll end my comment with reference to Anita's question by saying that I would only feel like enjoying forties fashion was something frivolous if I had never in my life considered the wider context. (I will always detest the term 'refugee chic' though, absolutely nothing we can do about that!)


    when I tried to post this earlier it said the link was broken but seems to be working now, sorry if it doesn't. I missed the exhibition but article gives interesting examples of what some women would do to feel a la mode!

  12. This is an interesting topic and as a European maybe I have a slightly different perspective. I'm lucky enough to still have my grandmother (born in the 20s in Normandy, and therefore experienced WWII first hand - the everyday fear under German occupation, a house bombed by the Brits during the Liberation, post-war restrictions). A few months ago I was excitedly showing her some vintage patterns and magazines, telling her how some people even use vintage machines to sew on... I expected her to look at them with some nostalgia; instead, all she said was 'You know, those times really weren't that great, people shouldn't romanticise them. We were very pleased to be able to move on...'.

    People were resourceful and made do, but there was no real joy in it. We on the other hand have the privilege to look back and love the fashions and express clever theories with the benefit of hindsight, but I can understand why someone who lived through those times would rankle at the rose-tinted view that we sometimes have now, as well as the luxury of being able to buy over the internet (and often fly over from the other side of the world) what to them was borne out of duress. My grandmother's comments made me feel terribly shallow and frivolous at the time, but let's face it, it'll take more than that to stop me...

  13. I know that this is potentially a controversial thing to say, and in no way am I down playing the horrible experience of living during a world war, but there were some positive effects of life in 1940's wartime that we can also take inspiration from. I know from hearing the stories of my grandmothers (in the UK), both experienced a kind of liberation that was directly due to the onset of the second world war. One escaped (temporarily) an intensely suffocating middle class existance by being drafted to work on a farm. The other was a seamstress in a factory making parachutes, but desparately longed to join her sisters in, what she saw, as the exciting life lead by the WAGS.

    I think so much of these freedoms are related to clothing. The garments women wore changed so much in direct correlation to their new roles, including 'slacks' and skirts with more movement. Making their wardrobes as exciting as they could armed with their limited resources and their imaginations was one of the many challenges that women had to rise to. By studying, adopting and enjoying the techniques and the styles employed by women in the 40's, I really think we are honoring them in some way.

    As you pointed out, there are major parallels between our times (be it warfare or the 'war' against climate erosion) and theirs, and we would be fools not to look back and investigate how our fore-mothers played it!

    Thanks so much Gertie for bringing such interesting topics to the floor.

  14. Nathalie's grandmother is right. Tough times are not to be romanticized, but hopefully we can still honor and learn from the people that went through them.

  15. I also agree with what Nathalie's Gram had to say. It's easy to look back and call the sewing of the 40's "clever" when we all have the freedom to choose how we get our clothing. The WW-II generation really does deserve the title of "The Greatest Generation". We really don't know what true war sacrifice is. In all the time we've been at war, I can't think of a single thing I've been forced to "use up, wear out, make do, or do without" as they did back then. Sad, really. This post has really given pause for thought!

  16. I think that women who sew or dress vintage typically have an awareness and an appreciation - more like respect - for the women they are imitating. None of us are blind to the suffering and hardships that they must have endured, but we admire them for their bravery and determination and wish to appropriate some of those characteristics for ourselves. From my view, such appreciation for 'wartime glamour' can never be frivolous because intrinsic to it is respect for those women.

  17. This is something I have been thinking a lot over the past few weeks. Especially as more and more people ask me why I choose to imitate fashions of the 40s. I think most people don't understand why I'd want to celebrate such a dark era, but I find the idea of "make do and mend" and doing it myself something that I not only enjoy, but can keep alive some of the skills that generations before used. Does that make sense? (I'm extremely tired tonight, so if I sound like I'm babbling nonsense, forgive me! ;)

    "I actually think we would do quite well to strive to imitate the ideals of the 40s. I mean, what's really frivolous is the fact that the U.S. is fighting two wars and dealing with major economic and environmental crises, yet we act like everything (fashion and otherwise) is business as usual."

    Amen, sister! ;) You took the words right out of my mouth!

    ♥ Casey
    blog |

  18. The single biggest reason to love 1940's fashion? The clothes! They were beautifully designed and made for women, not anorectic fourteen year old hookers.

    Fashion today is incredibly liberating, but is it flattering?

  19. As someone who really enjoys sewing, knitting, and natural fibres, I've heard the same arguments from my grandmother about all those things - the stuff you had to do out of desperation is the stuff you can't see anyone doing for fun. She adores 100% polyester elastic waist pants and modern washer and driers. She loves being able to pop over to the strip mall behind her apartment and buy anything she needs.

    Women made clothes in the 40's that used less fabric and could be made out of men's clothes that weren't being used because they had to. Women knit 100s of socks for soldiers because they couldn't be made by machine (at least not well). For those women, I can totally understand why those things would have negative connotations and not be something to aspire to. But the clothes and the actions of hand crafting themselves are not to blame. It is interesting to knit socks, and they are much better than the store-bought versions. The 40s fashions are beautiful and thrifty all at the same time. I think some cultural sensitivity is called for, but I don't think we need to throw out all of this heritage just because it's associated with pain for those who lived in those eras.

  20. 'Wartime glamour: an oxymoron?' ... no! There is nothing sinister nor guilt-inducing in enjoying WWII fashion. Women aspired to remain attractive despite their straitened circumstances - one need only look at magazine advertisements of the time to see this. Indeed, some propaganda deemed it a woman's wartime duty to remain attractive as it boosted morale. Further, a range of Utility Clothing was produced under the auspices of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers, a group that included Edward Molyneux, Bianca Mosca, Norman Hartnell and Digby Morton. Not only does this indicate that women wanted to look good, but that Utility Clothing tried to be 'fashion' in the full sense of the word.

    That we find the fashion of the time aesthetically pleasing is a testament to the fact that they succeeded in combining thrift with glamour. When admiring or copying these fashions, it's not as if you're profiting from or trivialising someone else's tragedy (like, say, 'heroin chic' or 'gulag grunge'). Rather, you are embracing and celebrating the determination and inventiveness of those women who, despite the circumstances, determined to remain attractive (for their own morale as much as the men's) and in doing so, created their own distinctive style that we still admire.

    On a final note (I promise!), that perennial fashion icon, the trench coat, was, once upon a time, exactly that - a coat for the trenches. Designed by Burberry for soldiers, civilians quickly took it up (as they did braid, belts and epaulets) as a fashion statement of solidarity and patriotism during WWI. Surely an irrefutable example of 'wartime glamour'!

  21. There was a lot of suffering during WWII, it is true, but I think that there is a lot that happened during that time that is worthy of emulation. The balance between being a strong working woman and being feminine is one of them. Another is the idea of thrift and really using the things you have to the fullest. It is important for both financial and environmental responsibility. I recently heard an interesting article about the transformation of the idea of spending little from the virtue of thrift to the vice of stinginess. Instead of telling us that we need to consume less to help the war effort and the country, they're telling us that we need to consume more! Ultimately, our current way of living is based entirely on credit, including the country's credit in relation to bond holders, etc. Starting in the 50's there was a sense of over-abundance that was a direct result of the end of wartime rationing that has since lead directly to the way that subsequent generations here in the US have very little sense of make do or do without.
    It is somewhat interesting to me to wonder why (or if, I suppose) this hasn't happened before. There have been plenty of horrible wars before, where people did great things and made great sacrifices (which is why I hesitate to affirm the idea of "greatest generation"). On the other hand, the extended period of prosperity that we have experienced in North America and Europe, and the extent to which credit and consumerism propagates across all class levels seems unprecedented. With the way that some people are reacting to this recession, which can't compare to the Great Depression or the way people live in many other parts of the world, it seems like we have no sense of what it is to truly make sacrifices.


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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