Do you remember the affluent aesthetic of the Roaring twenties in the Great Gatsby? Do you remember the opulent sequined dresses, the fur pieces, ruffled skirts, and the overdose of glitter? Recall Daisy Buchanan with her iconic headpieces and her flapper-esque bob hair cut? Well, it was all one decade away from being irrevocably changed.

The age of the Second World War (1939-1945) marked a turning point in fashion consciousness around the world. Though it may be difficult to imagine today, wartime dictated all other aspects of life, including fashion. That is to say, if you were alive then, men would be enlisted in the army and women would be deployed as nurses or factory workers (yes, the gender roles were pretty rigid at the time). There was simply no escaping the all-encompassing nature of war. But how did this monumental moment in history manifest into new fashion collections?

Battle of the Fabrics

[Image Description: A couple at an amusement park in the early 1940s.] via FIT, NY, Pinterest
Ever wonder how women transitioned from frilly Victorian gowns to knee-length skirts? Well, fashion is a product of its time and socio-political values. While fabric coverage was gradually minimized since the 1920s, it was shortages during World War Two which cemented “revealing” clothing as the norm. 

All resources and raw materials around the world, in most countries, were concentrated at battlefields. In fact, most countries at war had introduced rationing. This means that if you wanted to go shopping in wartime Britain, you had to make do with the 33 coupons of clothing a year which were allocated to each person.

There was also a law in place which specified the amount of fabric that could be used to create a specific piece of clothing. That meant no extra pleats, drapes, or folds; all trends which we may take for granted today. Yet, fashion houses used the scarcity as an impetus to create simpler and leaner silhouettes. So it was actually World War Two that ushered fashion into a classical form, featuring pencil skirts, button-down dresses, and so on.  

Simplicity, Practicality, and Androgyny          

[Image Description: Women guards, placed on duty at the Naval Ordnance Plant, operated by the Hudson Motor Car Company in Detroit, Mich. At present the girls are unarmed, serving only as escorts for persons entering the plant, but are using weapons on the target range in preparation.] via The Atlantic
The war also saw the emergence of a new woman. Previously confined to their homes, women were now included in the workforce. The look of the wartime woman had to be cast in terms of simplicity and practicality. Utilitarian clothing was the need of the hour. And utility found itself in the form of pants, blazers, and jumpsuits. These forms also began to resemble what was then seen as a more masculine aesthetic. At a time where nationalist sentiments were on high, there was a more conscious effort to dress in a more gender-fluid manner. This is also where the shoulder pads and straight collars (which are all the rage today) came around! The roots for androgynous clothing were thus struck.


Parisian fashion and the Nazis

In the years leading up to the war, Paris had established itself as the fashion capital of the world. However, with the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940, many great fashion designers faced two choices: flee the city, or surrender to the Nazis. Names which are mammoth in the fashion industry today were mired in controversy then. Hugo Boss, for instance, was responsible for making the Nazi uniforms. Yes, you read that right. The fearful and emblematic uniform, which wreaked much havoc in the world was being produced in Boss factories. Coco Chanel, too, came under fire for her Nazi allegiances. Due to the highly controversial nature of the fashion scene in Paris, New York stepped us the fashion leader of the world. 

Christian Dior’s New Look: an anti-feminist move? 

[Image description: Exhibit of the statement ensembles from Dior’s 1947 collection, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.] via Google Arts and Culture
After the end of the war in 1945, Christian Dior wanted to reinstate Paris as the fashion capital once again. As Paris had reclaimed its sovereignty, Dior also decided women needed a new look.  His debut haute couture collection that was launched in February 1947 was instantly branded as the New Look. His collection boasted sloping shoulders, pinched waistlines, and A-line skirts. Fabric was used in excess, the hats were animated and the gowns featured full volume. The wartime aesthetic was instantly dismissed. It was a kind of rebellion against the restrictions of wartime. It was a collection that supposedly symbolized democracy.

But did it truly? Wartime restrictions had ironically brought about a certain kind of independence for women. They were no longer imprisoned by corsets and impractical voluminous gowns.  During the war, the gender binary was slowly loosening up. Social gender roles were becoming more fluid. In fact, the practicality and convenience of clothing which we enjoy today finds its roots during wartime fashion. Dior’s attempt to bring back an overtly feminine aesthetic under the guise of nostalgia for the pre-war years could be seen as a regressive move in fashion history. The excessive padding around the hips for an antebellum appeal could indeed be one of the grossest forms of cultural appropriation.

After all, this is what Coco Chanel had to say about his collection: “Dior doesn’t dress women, he upholsters them.” And rightly so, Dior’s collection just became another instance of men telling women what to wear. 

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  • Safa Shoaib

    Safa Shoaib is an educator and counselor turned entrepreneur, writer, and editor. She has a B.A. Honors in English Literature from the Lahore University of Management Sciences and has written for local publications such as the Express Tribune. She is a history buff who is equally passionate about literature. In 2021, she co-founded Deja New Pakistan, the first of its kind marketplace of pre-owned fashion in Pakistan, pursuing the vision of sustainable fashion.