Crisis and innovation in fashion

Women taking care of business, in style!

University of Virginia Training School, circa 1918

As someone who likes to be frugal and use her resources wisely, I’ve always been drawn to war time fashion. Granted, these were years filled with great sorrow and conflict, but that sadness was tempered with shining rays of hope and camaraderie. Those are the moments when a little bit went a long way as everyone pitched in to do their part. In terms of fashion that different mindset definitely resulted in some challenges, but the creative use of new materials and their incorporation into clever designs is an incredible tribute to the resilience of style (and the people who championed it). Without great sacrifice and the “make do and mend” mentality, would we have seen Ferragamo’s cork sandals or bakelite buttons (or the plastics revolution in general)?

If I am assuming there is a relationship between crisis and innovation in fashion, let’s consider the first global conflict: WWI. Prior to the declaration of war, women were heavily restricted by their fashion (think hobble skirts and corsets). But by the end of the war, women (and their fashion sense) had come a long way. Trench coats and trousers – a lot of the liberating clothing that we would praise Chanel for a couple years later – found its roots here. The contrast between the pre-war and post-war style is truly astounding and it reflects the change in women’s place in society as well. Lines were simplified: A-Line skirts, streamlined silhouettes, and loose jackets took hold. Material shortages made hemlines rise and overall women’s political and social liberation nicely integrated with a fresh look. Just think about it – women could move freely in the world – that simple truth is something that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Note that masculine look

Olga Petrova rocking a riding hat in 1915

I do believe that women’s fashion would have naturally found its way toward more movement-friendly silhouettes. Let’s be honest: Chanel’s genius would not have been denied. But I can’t help but relate the impact of war, women’s role during the conflict, and the influence this had on moving fashion forward (at a lightening pace).

WWII again challenged gender roles and united the masses in their efforts to fight against injustice. But this war didn’t just change fashion’s material choices and tastes, but even changed the level of acceptance for new fashion (via the Hollywood celebrity machine). During the first world war, a lot of people were on the fence when it came to trousers for women – how shocking! But by the time the next crisis arose, people had already lived through the fast-paced fashion of the Jazz Age and were more apt to embrace unique styles.

Additionally, the shortages in WWII were monumental in comparison to WWI. Rationing programs were strict, well-organized, and above all – mandatory. The days of donning nylon stockings were gone and because metal was in high demand, buttons were back in a big way (kiss your zippers good-bye). Naturally, fashion became more work-centric. Accessories came into focus as women used their imagination to stand out from the crowd and designers were no different. Like we mentioned with Ferragamo, man-made fibers and even natural fibers (previously conceived of as non-fashion) were employed: hemp, felt, and cellophane (to name a few). Ferragamo was not alone in his use of unique materials.

Make do and mend - even when it comes to your car!

Rita Hayworth helping the war effort

Elsa Schiaparelli is known for her surreal and ecclectic visions, but she also successfully navigated the brave new world of synthetics. She loved a good rayon and its natural, clingy quality inspired her wrap around dress. Again, fashion may have been arrived at this juncture eventually – but did the war’s restriction encourage this development directly?

We mentioned the impact of fashion marketing in WWII and Edith Head is credited in this great thesis as the main pioneer in this realm. Her design reach was almost limitless – she worked on costumes for so many great films. But her zest for recycling and reuse not only saved the studio money, but showed all those sweethearts out there that they too could have a Veronica Lake moment. A little ingenuity could take your style to the next level.

Bottom line: the restrictions brought about by war redirected fashion’s course into more innovative and creative territory. But is international conflict the sole source for iconic fashion innovation?

Last year the Fashion Institute of Technology curated an exhibit entitled “Elegance in an age of crisis: Fashions of the 1930s.” Now I know what you’re thinking – crisis in the 30s?? Please, these were the years when the champagne flowed and the music was alive. Where’s the restriction, where’s the sorrow? Well consider this: a lot happened during these ten years. You have two main events book-ending this decade: the great stock market crash and the start of WWII, with a bunch of excess and self-expression in between.

Utility clothing - note the turban which was very popular at this time

How a British woman dresses in wartime…

To put this in an even greater perspective, you have the first major international war (which most thought would be the war to end all wars), followed by devastating financial ruin, and then a second global fight. The wild and crazy 30s look like a blip on the radar when you think about it. (A blip that gave us a bunch of amazing stuff, mind you – but a blip nonetheless).

The FIT exhibit credits this time period as the birthplace for modern fashion. Wow. That’s nothing to snuff at. An apex of fashion, the onset of the foundation that set in motion many a runway show – coming about during a time when people needed to escape and dared to indulge. What do you think about all this? Can innovation happen just as easily in times of peace and prosperity as it can in times of crisis? To help you get a more complete picture – check out these theories on fashion.

Cause A Frockus would like to thank The Daily Mail, Forge of Innovation, Meghann Mason’s inspiring thesis work, and the people who post their images to the public domain.

Replies for “Crisis and innovation in fashion

  • Ann Walter

    Becky, I certainly enjoyed your latest fashion overview of the war years. Part of my vintage, fashion program highlights the changes in the style of dress of the 30’s women to the 40’s.Fabrics and/or the lack of fabric, the change in style and versatility of clothing definitely forced a “make do or mend” mentality while restricting her budget but opening a sense of self-worth as she stepped into the world of work.Thank you for sharing another, most interesting newsletter of a challenging era of women’s fashions.

    • Becky Oeltjenbruns Post author

      Thanks Ann – great to hear from you!
      I agree that the 30s to 40s time period in particular is so interesting – amazing what women could create with such limited resources!


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