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Fashion in the Forties

Despite material shortages and Canadians' devotion to war work, fashion did not disappear. Fashion provided temporary relief from the sober realities of war. Women occasionally allowed themselves to indulge in pretty, feminine fashions, reasoning that by looking their best, they could work their best. While women's magazines were filled with war stories and information, they were also a primary source for fashion information. Fashion was highly influenced by the war; fashion sections and sewing and knitting patterns all contained war propaganda, and styles began to reflect the war mentality: clothing designs emphasized material conservation, simplicity, durability, and practicality.

Material shortages represented the primary influence on war fashions. The Wartime Prices and Trade Board, a federal program formed just prior to the Second World War to monitor the economy and restrain inflation, started controlling prices, supply, distribution of materials, and clothing styles. It was the patriotic duty of the public and clothing businesses alike to incorporate these restrictions into their fashions and therefore conservative clothing became the order of the day. Rubber, metal, and silk were needed for the war; consequently, they would no longer be available for use by the clothing industry. Metal zippers were often replaced by buttons, and silk stockings were now made with artificial silk and called “Victory stockings”. Garment styles were simplified and standardized to reduce waste; for example, manufacturers limited the depth and circumference of skirts and stopped making trouser cuffs and double-breasted jackets. Women now wore fewer accessories because they were a waste of material and often impractical. Also, heavier fabrics were popular because they were more durable and longer lasting.

Men's attire during the Second World War was largely simple and unassuming. With a shortage of wool artificial fibers like rayon were introduced. The colors of clothing during this time were plain; Most outfits were of a solid color such as black, navy, or dark grey. Practicality was an important aspect of clothing design during the 1940s as men wanted comfortable and durable garments conducive to labour intensive work. Typically, men only wore suits made from rationed materials for special occasions. V-neck sweaters and slacks were a popular alternative to a suit. Men seeking unconforming fashion trends opted for the zoot suit consisting of an oversized jacket, wide lapels and broad shoulders while the pants were high-waisted, wide-legged and tight-cuffed. The zoot suit was often seen at night clubs and restaurants.

One way people contributed to the war effort and the conservation of materials was to redesign the clothes they already owned. Fashion sections in magazines often taught women how to transform old clothing; some cities had places called “remake centres” that hosted classes devoted to this new art. Men's suits could be made into dresses, blouses, vests, and children's clothing. Household textiles, like curtains and tablecloths, were also transformed into clothing.

The fashion industry was affected by the Second World War in numerous ways. For instance, there were “Blackout” fashions, inspired by air raids in Britain; these fashions consisted of white accessories, and light-coloured jackets and outerwear that could easily be seen in blackout conditions. During the war, simplicity was stylish; people who wore frivolous clothes were believed to be frivolous themselves, and thus, unpatriotic. Women's evening fashions were streamlined and simple whereas day clothing reflected the needs of the new working woman. Women wore lower heels, bandanas to keep their hair out of their faces, and skirt suits for office work. Suits were iconic for the era; they were styled after military uniforms like the Canadian Women's Army Corps uniform, which was admired and envied in women's fashions. Women's fashion became more masculine; for the first time in Canadian history, it was acceptable and even commonplace for women to wear slacks and overalls.

By the end of the war, traditional feminine fashions returned to the forefront as women prepared for the men to return from overseas. But as the Wartime Prices and Trade Board only gradually removed style restrictions on clothing, for a while, fashions stayed simple and conservative.


Caton, Susan Turnbull. “Fashion and War in Canada, 1939–1945.” Fashion: A Canadian Perspective, ed. Alexandra Palmer. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.

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