At the beginning of the decade saw extreme social and economic conditions. According to the 1940 US census, one out of five Americans owned a car, one in seven had a telephone and only fifteen percent of the college-age population attended college. Other statistics revealed that only 75% of American households had a refrigerator or ice box, 60% lacked central heat and three out of four farmhouses were lit with kerosene lamps.
On September 3, 1939, England & France declared war on Germany for invading Poland, and refusing to withdraw troops. On September 3, 1940, the United States transferred destroyers to Great Britain. The United States officially entered World War II on December 8, 1941.
On March 8, 1942, the U.S. Government War Production Board issued regulation L - 85, which regulated every aspect of clothing and restricted the use of natural fibers. In particular, wool supplies for civilian use were cut from 204,000 to 136,000 tons in order to meet military requirements. All countries turned to the production of artificial fibers. Viscose and rayon (derived from wood pulp) were the most common. Unfortunately, however, they weren’t a good substitute because they weren’t very warm and had a tendency to shrink.
Stanley Marcus, an apparel consultant to the War Production Board, took the stand that it was the designer’s patriotic duty to design fashions which would remain stylish through multiple seasons and use a minimum of fabric. Therefore, men’s suits were made minus vests and pocket flaps and trousers lost their multiple pleats and cuffs. McCalls produced patterns for transforming men’s suits into ladies suits, since the men were at war and not wearing the garments.
There was 1 exception to the strict rationing of the early forties - the zoot suit. By no means was it sanctioned by the War Production Board - as a matter of fact, the zoot suits were thought of as contraband and illicit items during the War. The fashion was born during the early thirties in Harlem’s nightclubs. It was an exaggerated look comprised of an oversized jacket, wide lapels and shoulders, with baggy low-crotched trousers that narrowed dramatically at the ankle. The zoot influence remained through the 1940s and men’s coats were noticeably roomier as a result of it. Higher-waisted trousers were also due to the influence of the zoot suit.
The end of the war and rationing brought a dramatic change in fashion. Men’s style after the War favored full-cut, long clothing. Part of the reason for this change was a reaction to wartime shortages. Long coats and full-cut trousers were a sign of opulence and luxury, coming in a full spectrum of colors from garish to delicate hues. Hand-painted ties were also popular featuring skyscrapers, exotic foliage, limousines, rodeos, Tahitian sunsets and even pin-up girls.
One of the most extreme changes in postwar men’s fashion was the adoption of the casual shirt. In 1946 and 1947, Hawaiian or Carisca shirts were first worn on the beaches in California and Florida. Made in bright colors, the shirts sported fruit, flowers, flames, women or marine flora. About this time, a man walking the streets of New York without a jacket and shirt tails flapping, became a common sight.
In 1949, Esquire promoted a new look by labeling it “the bold look”. Its characteristics were a loose fitting jacket with pronounced shoulders. Other style changes included single-breasted jackets with notched lapels and three buttons. Henceforth, peaked lapels were reserved for double-breasted jackets. These jackets also included a center vent.
The end of the decade saw American men home from the war and craving a new look, tired of uniforms. American designers left their mark on the world with sportswear. Europe now looked to the United States for trends in sportswear. For the first time in history, young people were setting fashion trends and older people were following.
Chenoune, Farid. A History of Men’s Fashions. Paris: Flammarion, 1993.
Burns, Leslie Davis, Nancy C. Bryant. The Business of Fashion. New York: Fairchild Publications, 1997.
Olian, JoAnne ed. Everyday Fashions of the Forties. New York, Dover Publications, Inc., 1992.
Le Bourhis, Katell. “Vive la Difference.” Connoisseur January 1991: 74-78
Unknown. “Fads and Foibles.” Magazine article unknown
Questions regarding men’s clothing may be directed to Carol Nolan at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website: Men's Vintage Fashions by Carol Nolan - For Swing Dancing Photos and Fashion see Swing Camp Catalina -
Copyright © 1999-2004 Carol Nolan