Shorter Skirts and Shoulder Pads: How World War II Changed Women’s Fashion

Today’s post comes from Marisa Hawley, intern in the National Archives Strategy and Communications office.

As part of the “six weeks of style” celebration to recognize the Foundation for the National Archives’ partnership with DC Fashion Week, we are showcasing fashion-related records from our holdings. This week’s fashion theme is Women and the War: 1940s Fashion.

Women's Work Safety Fashion Bulletin, October 1942. (National Archives at Atlanta)

Women’s Work Safety Fashion Bulletin, October 1942. (National Archives at Atlanta)

During World War II, the United States experienced a drastic—albeit temporary— transformation in gender roles. Nearly one in every three American men left home to serve in the military between 1941 and 1945, so women increasingly began to take up civilian jobs to carry on the work of their male counterparts.

These women not only continued to manage the households, but they also worked in factories, laboratories, power plants, government organizations, and military auxiliaries. The war completely changed the responsibility of women in the workforce during these years—and subsequently transformed how they dressed.

The general style adopted by women in the 1940s greatly resembled U.S. military uniforms. The cut and color of clothes worn on the home front often mirrored what was worn by soldiers fighting in the European and Pacific theaters. Blouses and jackets became increasingly militarized and masculine with shoulder pads, and hats were also styled similarly to the U.S. Army berets.

Fun fact: the company that produced this advertisement,Higgins Industries, is most famous for its production of the Higgins boat, an amphibious landing craft that was used extensively in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

Because women were now taking on more labor-intensive tasks like driving trucks, flying military aircraft, and working in shipyards, safety and practicality took precedence over glamour and femininity. The popularization of “Rosie the Riveter” meant that slacks and headscarves were considered stylish.

Rosie the Riveter Poster, War Production Board 1942-43. (National Archives identifier 535413)

Rosie the Riveter Poster, War Production Board 1942-43. (National Archives identifier 535413)

Working women traded in their high-heeled shoes and silk pants for khaki jackets and blue jeans. They also began wearing wraparound dresses with fewer adornments and pinned their hair back to avoid getting it caught in the machinery.

Pragmatism aside, women’s clothing also needed to adapt to the rationing of certain materials for military purposes. Wool and silk were in high demand for uniforms and parachutes; most civilians wore clothes made from rayon or viscose instead.

To conserve fabric, dressmakers and manufacturers began designing shorter skirts and slimmer silhouettes. Nylon was only available for civilian use in restricted quantities, so stockings soon disappeared and women went barelegged.

By the end of the war, over 6 million American women had joined the workforce, and nearly one out of every four married women worked outside the home. Although many were ultimately replaced by men once they returned from war, it is remarkable what women accomplished on a national scale in just four short years.

These women demonstrated patriotism, skill, and determination, making an undeniable impact on the workplace—and the fashion world.

Office Memo to TVA Employees regarding Uniforms For Women Public Safety Service Officers, April 17, 1943. (National Archives at Atlanta)

Office Memo to TVA Employees regarding Uniforms For Women Public Safety Service Officers, April 17, 1943. (National Archives at Atlanta)

Office Memo to TVA Employees regarding Uniforms For Women Public Safety Service Officers, April 17, 1943. (National Archives at Atlanta)

Office Memo to TVA Employees regarding Uniforms For Women Public Safety Service Officers, April 17, 1943. (National Archives at Atlanta)

Examine more “signature styles” and history-making signatures in our current exhibition, “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures,” in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

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