In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Historic Clothing Collection

1940-1950

Fashion more or less stalled during the war years. Cloth for civilian clothing was limited because production was prioritized for military purposes. Bates Mill in Lewiston produced vast quantities of textiles for war purposes, from uniform fabric and hospital bedding, to parachutes and life rafts. Wool and the new synthetic, nylon, were reserved for the war effort leaving cotton, rayon with some wool for the home market. Clothing was not rationed as it was in Britain, but the War Production Board (WPB) issued order L-85 in March 1942 to regulate the amount of fabric used in garments. Prescribed economies prohibited details such as trouser pleats and cuffs, patch pockets, skirt pleats, shortened skirt lengths, and encouraged a straighter silhouette.

While the collection at Maine Historical Society includes World War II military uniforms, as yet it holds little in the way of civilian war-era fashions. One example, a circa 1943 yellow square shouldered, tailored, fitted waist rayon dress with a just below knee length skirt features two small pockets suggesting it was made from existing pre-war fabric. At present (2020) there are no examples of the simple restricted fabric fitted, short basic skirt suits from the early war years. However, Mabel Graney's minimalist, possibly remodeled slate blue six button wedding skirt suit, with a front pleat short skirt suggests a wartime provenance.

The same chunky square styling seen in outerwear modeled by Hollywood celebrities in late 1942 and 1943 is found in the four-piece ensemble comprised of a coordinated yellow blouse, brown wool short skirt, tailored jacket, and boxy reversible yellow / brown waist length square shouldered cape. Another example, a plum colored, tailored wool jacket and box pleated skirt ensemble also features a matching square shouldered hip length cape. Also among the collection’s period garments is a pale powder blue wool and rayon V neck day dress, whose style lingers in the 1930s, with a matching softly draped scallop edge short shoulder cape.

Once the war was over, pocket and pleats appeared again as fabric restrictions were lifted. An example of such is a shortish everyday dress made of narrow vertical red and white striped cotton, which may date from the late 1940s or into the early 1950s. From the collar and lapel neckline, there is a front closure with four sets of three buttons, and two knee level box pleats below a patch pocket, matching the pocket on the left chest. The pockets and sleeves are edged with a stylish detail--bands of horizontally placed stripes.

In more fashionable quarters, before the new fashion blazed its trail, European and American designers experimented, producing some exotic creations. In this vein, there are two American examples in the collection. One is a V neck navy blue cocktail dress with trumpet wrist sleeves and a skirt tightly gathered at the hips to drape in a cascade from the waist, showing a wine color lining. It is labelled: ‘Ceil Chapman,’ a designer known for her provocative dresses. The draped front styling is reminiscent of a 1946 afternoon dress by French designer Jacques Griff.

The second example features a V neck, cream satin dolman sleeve bodice, attached to a long tapering wrap around black skirt, and a heavy red rayon waist sash with an outsize (oversized) bow and long ties at one side. A label inside the waist reads "Bonwit Teller New York Trainer-Norell." Norman Norell was an important American designer famous for his elegant and timeless clothing. In the post war era, draped details, outsize bows, bunches, and swags were prominent design elements in evening and cocktail wear. The back of what was, perhaps, the original 'little black' cocktail dress by major U.S. designer Nettie Rosenstein featured a huge flat black bow with tails from waist to hem.

Limited French fashion influence during the war had the effect of encouraging home-grown American fashion design. In prosperous post-war America, New York, and California became centers of a successful and growing fashion industry mass-producing an abundance of affordable American designed, well-fitting clothing for college girls, women’s wear, and casual wear for every occasion and activity.

Dior introduced his famous "New Look" in 1947, two looks in fact, one flared skirted, and one slim and straight "pencil" skirted. Two suits in the MHS collection may be late 1940s possibly early 1950s interpretations of the new "pencil" skirt suit. A lightweight rayon of fine green and red lines (checks) giving a neutral colored appearance has a smooth seamed fitted hip covering jacket, with hip pockets, and a below knee, longer straight style skirt. Made of pale gray summer weight rayon, the other suit has a similar longer skirt, and neatly fitting hip-covering tailored jacket, with an attached short shoulder cape, a feature that lingered into the 1950s.