Topics in the News
American Fashion Goes to War
Americans Watch and Worry.
Even before the United States entered World War II, American life had been transformed by the fighting in Europe. While terrified at the prospect of war, Americans nonetheless felt relief at the first stirrings of economic recovery from what had seemed like the endless Depression of the 1930s. U.S. factories worked hard trying to meet the civilian and defense needs of European allies, which improved employment in the United States. But as much as Americans enjoyed the new prosperity generated by the war, the security for which they longed was threatened by the increasing pressure for the United States to enter the hostilities. In December 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan, and Americans soberly prepared for battle.
As with many industries, the war presented the American fashion world with both unprecedented restrictions and unique opportunities. The war affected fashion through the newly developed War Production Board (WPB), through which Roosevelt exercised "general responsibility" over the nation's economy. The WPB allocated scarce materials and adjusted domestic production and consumption to war needs. Through the Supply Priorities and Allocations Board (SPAB), the government set price limits on consumer goods and directed existing supplies to war-related...
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Clothes for Women
Shoulder Pads and Hats.
The dominant silhouette of the early 1940s featured broad shoulders that gracefully tapered into a tailored waist over a narrow skirt that fell just below the knees. Shoulder pads were found in nearly every dress, suit, and jacket. The padded, broad shoulders lent women an air of strength and authority, traits valued in women in the 1940s and seen as crucial to surviving the war. Most outfits were topped with a hat, which aided in the popularity of American milliners such as Lily Daché, John Frederics, and Sally Victor. Hat designers added tall brims that gave the appearance of height or wide ones that gave a sense of summertime grace. Others trimmed the crown to the bare minimum, topping it with wiry fabric curls, veils, bows, jewelry, or fur. When wool was scarce, Daché used yarn, specifically mop yarn and twine, and even made caps from the gold epaulets of uniforms.
Despite government regulations and restrictions, women in the 1940s had a variety of looks from which to choose. One of the most dominant included a padded, broad-shouldered jacket and pencil skirt worn with platform-soled shoes and a high-crowned hat, large jewelry, long pocketbook, and bold red lipstick. A variation was a short jacket worn over a slightly flared skirt, a string of pearls, and pumps. Many women tucked a small piece...
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Enlisted Wear Abroad and at Home: Men and Women in Uniform
Men in Uniform.
When American men enlisted in the army in 1941 they were issued a uniform that was the final product of hard-won battle experience, design savvy, and mass production. Overriding concerns in designing military uniforms were fabric durability and the ability of the fabric to dry quickly. The most immediate effect of the war on traditional uniform design was the use of new fabrics. With soldiers in the tropics, uniforms were made of cotton, shirts were looser and more comfortable, and new fibers such as nylon helped create a barrier against insects. Pants also changed. Replacing the tight leggings used in World War I, pants narrowed around the ankle. Uniforms also came in a range of colors to help soldiers blend into the diverse areas in which they fought. Officers' shirts ranged from yellowish-drab to dark green. Nonregulation gray or forest-green shirts, trousers, and caps appeared, and the yellowish chino khaki fabric became popular.
What Soldiers Wore.
A U.S. infantryman in the European theater in 1944 would typically be dressed in an olive-drab wool...
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Cutting the French Apron Strings.
As was true for many industries, the war had an unexpected effect on the American fashion industry. With the fall of Paris to the Nazis in 1940, the city was effectively cut off from the world of international fashion shows, fashion journalism, and fashion manufacturing. Without the French as a guide, American fashion was forced inward. This gave American designers the opportunity to make a name for themselves with the American public.
A Boom to the Industry.
Under the encouragement of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, New York made a bid to be the next fashion capital of the Western world. La Guardia worked with designers and the press to organize new shows and new press coverage of New York designers. Yet the dominance in fashion of New York was challenged almost immediately by Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Boston, as designers across the country enjoyed their own liberation from French influence. The American fashion industry boomed during the war years, demonstrating that American designers had style and ingenuity. The clothes Americans produced in large quantities were stylish and well made.
With Paris silent, Hollywood became a dominant influence in setting trends. Adrian, Hollywood's premier costume designer, introduced high...
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Importing the International Style: Architecture in the United States
World War II indirectly brought modern architecture to the United States. Modern architecture emphasized function over form and simplicity over elaboration and embraced new materials and metals. The cool surfaces of glass and metal characteristic of what Philip Johnson and Henry Russell Hitchcock called the International Style captured the modern fascination with technology and applied it to big and small structures alike. One center of modernist architecture was the Bauhaus in Germany, which gained notoriety in the 1930s through its principle designers Peter Bejrems, Walter Gropius, and Marcel Breuer. Their "monuments to modernism" owed nothing outwardly to traditional and local architectural vocabularies but instead emphasized the inseparability of structure (materials used and the foundations of the structure) and form (style).
One important and immediate effect of the war on American architecture came in the years before the United States entered the conflict. Many European architects fled to the United States in the late 1930s to escape the political oppression of the Nazis and an increasingly less favorable economic environment. The transplanting of such talent to American cities, particularly Chicago, shifted the center of architecture from Europe to America and American design schools. Gropius was...
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A Postwar Housing Boom.
In the second half of the decade the United States began to experience what would become the largest housing boom in its history. The economic expansion stimulated by the war translated into more money in the pockets of many people who dreamed of owning a house. Thanks to the GI Bill, veterans enjoyed access to low-interest housing loans and assistance with down payments. These factors meant that after 1945 many Americans were buying houses, often in the newly developed suburbs. The housing options facing American home buyers were eclectic, ranging from the utilitarian to the elegant.
Choices of Styles.
The great need for houses in the postwar years was met with an explosion of construction, a refinement of mass production, and a broad mix of styles. In southern California architects revived the Stick style, first introduced at the turn of the century, which was characterized by its use of the wall surface as a decorative element rather than as a functional support. Its other notable features were its gable roof, overhanging eaves, and porches decorated with diagonal or curved braces. The mission style was also revived in California in the postwar years. Like the Stick style, mission-style houses had deep eaves, overhanging roofs, and open porches. The mission style expressed the Hispanic roots of California and...
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Redesigning the American Car: Conversion and Back Again
Interruption and Conversion.
Throughout the 1930s American automobile producers had been moving toward a longer, sleeker, and lower design for cars. But such developments were interrupted in 1941 when the U.S. automobile industry was assigned a leading role in the American war effort. As a result, factory production of civilian cars virtually stopped. The automobile industry converted from manufacturing cars to producing tanks, jeeps, trucks, aircraft parts, marine engines, radios, refrigerators, torpedo parts, and anti-aircraft guns to arm the United States and its allies.
A Reluctant Ford.
Henry Ford, designer of the Model T and founder of one of the country's biggest automobile companies, opposed U.S. involvement in European hostilities from their outbreak in the late 1930s, Ford, who had grown more and more suspicious of his rival automakers over the years, wanted nothing to do with war preparations. Thus, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed General Motors president William Knudsen to head the new National Advisory Defense Committee in May 1940, Ford believed that the president was attempting a takeover of his company. With cajoling and pressure from friends and family, Ford finally agreed to produce airplane engines in November and soon became a vital force in arming the Allies and the United States. In 1942 Ford opened...
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HOLLYWOOD DRESS DESIGNER
Designer of the Stars.
Adrian, described as "Hollywood's highest-priced couturier," designed the look that dominated American fashion in the first half of the 1940s. Gilbert Adrian studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York and at its Paris campus before becoming a costume designer for revues in New York. Adrian then moved to Hollywood and designed clothes for M-G-M through the 1930s. In 1942, with American designers cut off from Paris, Adrian opened his own fashion house in Beverly Hills, showing both ready-to-wear and custom-made clothes and hats. In 1944 he won a Coty American Fashion Critics' Award, and in 1946 he brought out two perfumes, Sinner and Saint, with accompanying lipsticks.
The look Adrian made famous in the 1940s consisted of a long jacket with little or no collar or lapel, a single-button front closure at the waist, wide shoulders with long fitted sleeves sporting two darts at each elbow, and a straight skirt with a kick pleat. Made famous by Joan Crawford, the designer's fashions fit perfectly with wartime fabric restrictions. Adrian also enjoyed using large, dramatic prints—incorporating his favorite animals, gigantic playing cards, palm leaves, or Etruscan figures—for his long dinner dresses. These dresses were usually made in fluid fabrics and...
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Breuer, Marcel 1902-1981
Hungarian American architect Marcel Breuer had been a student and a faculty member at the Bauhaus in Germany before arriving in the United States in 1937 to join Walter Gropius on the faculty of Harvard University. Breuer's work embodied many elements of fine architecture. He combined traditional wood and brick with newer materials such as concrete and metal. A modernist, Breuer emphasized in his designs the structure and form characteristic of the International Style and played an important role in establishing the style in the United States.
From Germany to America.
Breuer was born in Pécs, Hungary, in 1902. After graduating from secondary school in 1920, he enrolled in the Bauhaus, which was founded by Gropius in Dessau, Germany. In 1924 Breuer received his degree and joined the faculty as a master of carpentry, remaining there until 1928. While at the Bauhaus, Breuer designed several modern chairs and other furniture employing bent, tubular steel frames. In 1928 Breuer and Gropius left the Bauhaus to form their own practice, which survived the international depression of the 1930s and the rising cultural control of the Nazi regime. In 1935 they left Germany for London; two years later they moved to the United States. Breuer kept his post at Harvard University until 1941. The...
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McCardell, Claire 1905-1958
Queen of the Casual Separates.
With her first collection in 1941, Claire McCardell became a significant figure in the fashion world. Unlike many of the designs of her contemporaries, which she considered "strident," her dresses were soft in style. She was the first designer to take sportswear and make it for every possible need. Golf skirts and bathing suits were as important to her as evening dresses. Her designs shared a set of characteristic features. Bathing suits were made with the same halter necklines and out of the same fabrics as her dresses. Wrapped or peasant-inspired tops appeared in bathing suits and dresses alike. Jersey, denim, chambray, and taffeta were equally topstitched, spaghetti ties were wrapped around the waists of leisure and dress clothes, and wool was used for leotards as well as wedding dresses.
McCardell was born in Frederick, Maryland, in 1905. She attended the Parsons School of Design starting in 1925 and two years later went to the Paris division of Parsons to study fashion design. She graduated in 1928 and spent five years working in various fashion houses. In 1932 she went to Townley Frocks as a design assistant; after the first showing of her dress designs she was promoted to designer. In 1942 she conceived the idea for her popular "Popover"...
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Merrill, John 1896-1975
Founder of SOM.
In 1939 John Ogden Merrill joined architects Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings to found Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), one of America's foremost architectural firms. Best known for designing large office buildings, the firm was noted for its sophisticated, artful handling of big buildings for big institutions and businesses and for its use of glass and metal-curtain walls.
Merrill was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1896. He attended the University of Wisconsin from 1915 to 1917, when service in World War I interrupted his studies; he served as an officer in the army until 1919. After the war he transferred to the architecture school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and graduated in 1921. He worked in various offices and a short time for the Federal Housing Authority. In 1939 he joined Skidmore and Owings in their partnership.
Architect of the Manhattan Project.
In 1942 Merrill moved to Tennessee to take charge of designing the secret buildings at Oak Ridge. The firm designed a town for 75,000 people who worked on and supported the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb. He supervised the work on the buildings at Oak Ridge until 1945, when he moved to the firm's Chicago offices. Having...
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Saarinen, Eero 1910-1961
ARCHITECT AND FURNITURE DESIGNER
From a Family of Architects.
Born in Kirkkunummi, Finland, in 1910, Eero Saarinen was the youngest child of the famous architect Eliel Saarinen, who explained that his son was "born practically on the drafting board." Saarinen's uncle, aunt, and grandfather were also architects. When he was thirteen the family moved to the United States, and his father became director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Saarinen graduated from high school in 1929 and went to Paris to study sculpture. Upon his return to the United States he worked in his father's office on furniture designs. In 1931 he entered the Yale School of Architecture. From 1939 to 1947 he worked for his father's firm of Saarinen, Swanson, and Saarinen, afterward called Saarinen, Saarinen and Associates. His work was interrupted by three years of wartime service in the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, D.C.
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Simpson, Adele 1903-
Quintessential New York Designer.
Adele Simpson exemplified the finest in American fashion design for nearly five decades, turning out collections of flattering, tasteful, and functional clothing for women. She was best known for her matching ensembles of coats and dresses. She served her apprenticeship in a New York ready-to-wear house and studied at the Pratt Institute of Design in Brooklyn before becoming a top-paid designer in the 1920s. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s she had her own label as designer for Mary Lee Fashions. In 1949 she established her own firm.
The youngest of five daughters, Simpson became interested in sewing at an early age, designing and making the outfits she and her sisters wore to school. After graduating from the Pratt Institute of Design, she became the head designer of a New York ready-to-wear clothes house at age nineteen. After she moved to Mary Lee Fashions her designs won the industry's top prizes, including the Coty American Fashion Critics' Award in 1947.
New Applications for Cotton.
Simpson's reputation during the war was as a pioneer of inexpensive sportswear in an expensive age. In 1946 she was one of the first designers to use cotton for both day and evening wear. Most clothing...
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Trigere, Pauline 1912-1961
Starting from Scratch.
In 1942 Pauline Trigere started to design clothes in a New York loft and produced a small, yet eye-catching collection of a dozen dresses. She then invited buyers to her loft to see her designs, which she hung from rafters and light fixtures. In 1944, due largely to her persistence and good taste, her ready-to-wear clothes won notice from the press. In 1949 she won the first of her three Coty American Fashion Critics' Awards. Although her creations tended to be conservative, she pioneered many fashions, including reversible coats and wool evening dresses, collars that moved and folded, black dresses with sheer tops, sleeveless coats, and cape-collared coats and tunics.
Trigere was born in Paris in 1912 to a tailor and a dressmaker. At age ten she could operate the Singer sewing machine and help her mother with custom tailoring. At fourteen she made her own clothes, which were the envy of her friends. While in college she was an apprentice in the salon of Martial et Armand, where she claimed she learned the subtleties of bias cuts and fabrics. In 1937 she moved to New York, where she worked with designer Hattie Carnegie. In 1942 Trigere started her own business, with her brother in charge of the business end of the company. He took her first collection of outfits...
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Victor, Sally 1905-1977
The Dean of Hats.
The creator I of many hat fashions, Sally Victor has been called "the dean of American millinery design." Among the best known of her designs are the baby bonnet, the collapsible straw hat, the Flemish sailor hat, the war worker's turban, the Grecian pillbox, and the airwave hat. She received the Fashion Critics Millinery Award in 1943. She was also an ardent advocate of establishing American designers in the fashion world and did much to promote New York as a fashion center.
Born in 1905 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Victor was one of eight children. When she was two her family moved to New York, where as a teenager she learned to sew her own clothes. In 1926 she took a job as head millinery buyer at Bamberger's, a large New Jersey department store. The following year she married Sergiu F. Victor, head of the wholesale millinery house of Serge, where she soon became the chief designer. In 1934 she opened her own retail millinery salon. The Sally Victor salon prospered through the Depression due to her originality and shrewd business sense, which helped propel her to the headlines during World War II When materials were in short supply during the war she refused to depend on textile manufacturers, instead experimenting with any fabrics she could acquire, often dying and...
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People in the News
In 1940 Elizabeth Arden, the cosmetics and skin cream mogul, branched out into clothing with the assistance of designer Charles James.
In the fall of 1945 Julia Coburn, former director of the Tobe-Coburn School of Fashion Design, articulated the postwar dilemma facing designers: what will women want to wear after years of wartime restrictions?
Movie star Rita Hayworth set off a controversy in her title role in Gilda (1946) for the scene in which she strips off her arm-length gloves. While the sexy scene dazzled thousands of her male fans, it upset many critics and conservatives who deemed it inappropriate for the viewing public.
During World War II Hollywood designer Edith Head visited Manhattan and expressed nostalgia in The New York Times for the lushness of Hollywood costumes before the war: "How well I remember the day when we would swirl fox skins around the hem of a secretary's dress or put a white satin uniform on a trained nurse. Now we hold to stark realism."
On 28 May 1940 William S. Knudsen, president of General Motors, resigned to assume the chairmanship of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's newly formed National Advisory Defense Committee, a group composed of business leaders to help ready America to enter the war.
In 1943 Eleanor...
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COTY AMERICAN FASHION CRITICS' AWARD
(The "Winnie"—to an individual selected as the leading designer of American women's fashions)
1946—Omar Kiam of Ben Reig
1948—Joseph De Leo
THOMAS B. CLARKE PRIZE
(Given by the National Academy of Design for interior design)
1942—Douglas W. Gorsline
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Charles Sumner Beach, 94, inventor of the industrial knitting machine, 19 March 1947.
David Beecroft, 68, pioneer in the automobile industry and former president of the Society of Automobile Engineers, 5 November 1943.
Elmer Jared Bliss, 78, founder of the Regal Shoe Company, a well-known manufacturer of women's shoes, 1 July 1945.
William Starling Burgess, 68, naval architect and pioneering airplane designer, 19 March 1947.
George Cary, 86, nationally known architect, 5 May 1945.
Frederick C. Chandler, 71, one of the founders of the Chandler Motor Car Company, 18 February 1945.
Ralph A. Cram, 78, internationally famous architect who redesigned the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York, 22 September 1942.
Paul Philippe Cret, 68, well-known architect, 8 September 1945.
V. Chapín Daggett, 84, founder and director of Daggett and Ramdell, a cosmetics manufacturer, 9 December 1943.
M. Max Dunning, 72, architectural adviser to the Public Buildings Administration commissioner, 19 April 1945.
Ernest Flagg, 90, designer of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, 10 April 1947.
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Elizabeth Burris-Meyer, This Is Fashion (New York: Harper, 1943);
Le Corbusier, When the Cathedrals Were White: A Journey to the Country of Timid People (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947);
Thomas Hawk Creighton, ed., Building for Modern Man; A Symposium (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949);
John Peebles Deem, The Book of Houses (New York: Crown, 1946);
Beryl Williams Epstein, Fashion Is Our Business (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1945);
James Marston Fitch, American Building: the Forces That Shaped It (Boston: Houghton Miffiin, 1948);
S. Giedion, Space, Time, and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1947);
Raymond K. Graff, The Prefabricated House, A Practical Guide for the Prospective Buyer (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1947);
Talbot Hamlin, Architecture: An Art for All Men (New York: Columbia University Press, 1947);
Hamlin, Architecture Through the Ages (New York: Putnam, 1940);
Elizabeth Hawes, Fashion is Spinach (New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1940);
Joseph Hudnut, Architecture and the Spirit of Man (Cambridge,...
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Important Events in Fashion and Design, 1940–1949
- Architect Frank Lloyd Wright completes the People's Church in Kansas City, bringing modernism to church architecture.
- Colorfast textiles are improved, allowing prints to be more durable through many washings.
- Japanese silk supplies to the United States continue to dwindle under the trade embargo between the two countries.
- In fall, with the fall of Paris to the Nazis, the United States experiences its first fashion season without French designers.
- New automobiles and trucks numbering 4,476,000 are produced in the United States, a 25 percent increase over 1939. Americans own 69 percent of the world's cars.
- College women and debutantes go hatless, a trend that alarms the millinery industry.
- New York mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, acting as national director of civil defense, appoints a committee of stylists to submit designs for women's uniforms.
- Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's master plan for the Illinois Institute of Technology applies his distinctive design to low buildings.
- Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen win first prize in the Museum of Modern Art competition for functional furniture.
- Architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer are commissioned...
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