The Library of Congress Instagram account is always fun – showing us hidden parts of the library and a photo from the collection almost every day. Recently, this photo (above) caught my eye.
WWII Restrictions on Women’s Clothing in the U.S.
Here’s the Library of Congress caption on Instagram for the photo above:
“On January 16, 1942, just over one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ subsequent entrance into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9024 which established the War Production Board. This board was commissioned to “exercise general direction over the war procurement and production program.” Its primary task was to convert civilian industries into war industries and to adapt American industrial life to support the war effort.
A key way to accomplish that mission was by reallocating materials deemed necessary for military success, such as steel, wool, and nylon. In order to ensure that certain materials would be readily available for war production, the War Production Board issued General Limitation Order L-85 on April 8, 1942.
Better known as Regulation L-85, this order placed limitations on feminine apparel. The order specified the amount of fabric that could be used to create a garment and listed the measurements for feminine apparel items. For example, hems and belts could not exceed two inches in width, garments could not have more than one pocket, and ornamental sleeves, hoods, and scarves were banned.
Read more on how the American fashion industry quickly responded to this new rationing system by emphasizing simple silhouettes. Link in bio.
Image: Material from last year’s garment fashions the skirt of Cynthia’s dress. By making some of the clothes for herself and her family, a woman can fully utilize all leftovers. To conserve fabric, old garments should be re-made when not worn out. Mothers with young children “cut down” discarded adult coats, suits and dresses, conservation measure of an earlier generation. 1943. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.”
Only one pocket…
That limitation of only one pocket on women’s clothes reminded me of a garment I’d seen and heard about – Claire McCardell’s “Pop-over Dress,” which has a single, giant pocket. If you could only have one pocket, you’d want it to be huge, right?
I wondered when the dress was made so I looked it up and yep! 1942, during the war, and after this limit on pockets was put into place. The idea about this dress was that you could “pop it over” whatever else you were wearing, for a quick cover up – say you were going out for the evening, or having guests over, and you need to work in the kitchen, but you don’t want to mess up your fancy dress – just pop this on over. Hence the wide sleeves on this. And yes! It really did come with an oven mitt!
This whole thing – learning about pocket restrictions on women’s clothes – made me wonder if men’s clothes were similarly restricted?
Of course, many men were in uniform, so perhaps there was less of a need to put limits on their clothes? Then again, many women were also in uniforms and serving the war effort, whether in coveralls in factories or serving in other ways.
This blog post has some terrific information on the subject. One of the things it says that before this time, men’s suits came with a jacket, two sets of trousers, and a vest. During the war, that went down to a single pair of trousers, and no vest, and it became acceptable to wear a jacket that didn’t match.
All fascinating bits of history – we think of clothing becoming more casual, women’s skirts shortening, as just the inexorable march of time, of course it happened that way. But the pressures of war, and limits on fabric use, at the very least, sped along those changes.
There’s a statue of Claire McCardell in Frederick, Maryland! See it online here:
I think she might be wearing the Popover dress in the statue – if not, it also has a giant pocket!
And learn more about her on this episode of Dressed, the History of Fashion.
Thanks for coming down this rabbit hole with me!
Pockets for Women! Sash
How does this connect to my art? Years ago, I had a custom embroidered sash made, that says, “Pockets for Women,” and then hired a photographer to take my picture wearing it! The sash was made by the company that makes the sashes for the Miss America pageant. Not that I wanted to reference pageants. I wanted to reference the suffragists and their parade sashes. Though the suffragists presumably sewed their own.
Here I am in the sash, this was before I had purple hair.
Just two days after writing this post, I was reading an article in the New York Times, in which a reader wrote in to the fashion editor to ask what she should wear at a conference where she would be presenting (and traveling to get there).
The fashion editor quoted designer Patrick Robinson, who said:
He had one word: popover. A popover dress, for those who don’t know, is a style invented by Claire McCardell, the patron saint of practical fashion and godmother of American sportswear, as a sort of do-everything garment. It was a runaway hit and later became the basis for all sorts of wrap dresses. It is, in other words, a garment that is eminently flexible and easy to wear.
Here’s the whole article if you’d like to read it:
Patron saint! Who knew?