How to Style: The Wartime Woman
World War II was epoch making for many reasons.
Women’s fashions, along with the attitudes of a whole generation, changed during the First World War and that momentum continued into Second, when both fashion and women’s place in the world again went through a revolution.
The 1930s had been a beautifully feminine age for women’s clothes, although the long sinuous lines and bias cuts tended to favour the more slender among us.
The 1940s, particularly for the women left holding the fort while the men fought overseas, was all about practicality.
Women again had to step into men’s shoes, almost literally. Working in the fields and factories meant sensible, protective clothing had to be worn and for the first time, trousers or slacks became generally acceptable. Most women wore men’s trousers until their own were created.
Dungarees were a wise choice for the hard-working land girl as embodied by the famous Rosie the Riveter, the popular poster girl and enduring symbol of hard working women everywhere.
Possibly the biggest influence on clothing, and its knock-on effect on style, was rationing. Coupons only went so far and had to be saved for something special or vital like a winter coat or a wedding dress.
Fabric was being scrimped and saved everywhere. Hemlines came up to the knee (but not above, heaven forbid!) and skirts were a simple A-line, with no unnecessary pleats or pocket flaps.
(If you want to have a read of the fascinating official Ministry of Information pamphlet "Make Do & Med" you can find it on Amazon.)
As with the First World War there was some liberation from the cursed girdle, where metal and other materials were more useful in munitions and aircraft building, light stability was then built into the clothing itself instead.
The winner at this time was the man-made fabric, particularly rayon, which won out over silk which could be used for parachutes.
Leather was necessary for protective clothing in the field so snake-skin or velvet shoes with sensible low comfortable heels for getting to the office were absolutely the bees knees.
And, lo, the women’s suit was born.
Ultimately practical in that one jacket could work with many different tops and bottoms it was the natural product of the “make do and mend” creed. Once discovered though, women never went back, finding wonderful and varied ways of wearing their separates, most especially with home knitted sweaters. Repurposing was everything.
Patriotic jewellery was a big seller, showing solidarity with your country and your men far away became almost essential, especially in an atmosphere where accusations could run rife – whether it be buying on the black market, hoarding food, disloyalty or worst of all, collaboration. Shoulder pads also popped up in a big way as the woman’s suit took on a military bearing in sympathy with the wartime uniforms worn by both sexes.
So, what do you do when you spend all your time in working clothes, or sensible plain second hand separates?
Well, you go nuts with your hair, that’s what.
Hairstyles were BIG. Victory rolls, fringe rolls and poodles meant hair could be piled way up high on the head, and designed to fit around a hat, beret or turban when you could get out to a dance into the evening. The shorter, more rigid curled styles of the 1930s gave way to longer curls, set overnight with rollers and brushed out to make a big soft wave of hair that gave life and bounce to your walk.
And a bright slick of red lipstick could cheer up the dreariest of days or outfits!
Few of us can understand the fears, restrictions and privations that women went through in those terrible times, or how important a cheerful hat or some illicit silk stockings were to their morale and sense of self worth.
Even with all the restrictions no woman had for decades - or would for decades to come - ever go out without her accessories: gloves, handbag, hat. They were the absolute staples and vitally important to be considered properly dressed and well finished.