Fashion, throughout history, has been and still is ever-changing and evolving however periods clearly separated in chronology and that are distinguishably different can have similarities as well. Throughout this essay, both the periods of World War I and World War 2 will be compared and contrasted to that of the era of Dior’s ‘New Look’. Specifically, in relation to these times in history, this essay will explore ‘fashion on the ration’ in times of war and the excess of fabric used with the New Look. In exploring these periods, the focus will be predominately on the similarities and differences of the social, economic, and political influences of the times. There will be an analysis of how less gave way to more in regards to design, fabric, and notions between 1920 and 1950 from when the first World War began to when Dior introduced the New Look two years after the end of World War 2.
Two of the most world-defining events in history would have to be regarded as World War I and World War II. The repercussions and changes brought about by these wars are still very much noticeable today in both women’s role in society and women’s clothing. Similarly, Dior’s ‘New Look’ can be considered as one of the most defining moments in fashion history. The name ‘New Look’ was adopted by then Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Carmel Snow after his first haute couture show in Paris in 1947 and having opened his couture house after the ending of World War II. Dior’s “first collection revolutionized the aesthetics of the time”. These two periods, specifically ‘fashion on the ration’ and Dior’s New Look with the use of excess fabric have both similarities and differences that will be further explored throughout this essay.
Prior to World War I, Paris was fashion’s capital. Women from all over the West looked to the Parisian designers for fashion direction and style. Designers such as Georges Doeuillet who introduced a new style for the era that “revived” the empire waist and Paul Poiret, whose designs prevailed throughout the first decade of the 20th century due to the most stylish women visiting him for clothes as his “approach was so advanced and radical that they didn’t work with any other designer’s garments”. Before the eruption of World War I, Poiret’s hobble skirt design and the re-emerging ‘directoire’-styled dress, which gave women freedom of movement with higher waistlines meaning there was no need for corsets, were popularised by many women. However, this style of dress did not last as a more streamlined style was introduced to allow women flexibility in their dress when having to step into traditionally male roles once men were sent off to fight. The hobble skirt style was replaced with a-line skirts as they were to resemble military wear.
The outbreak of World War II transitioned the world back as it was two decades ago. With more at stake in World War II, the repercussions were set to be immensely bigger and on a global level compared to the previous war. As opposed to World War I where rationing was only introduced in January of 1918 and the war ended in November of 1918, World War II erupted and rationing began immediately. In contrast and not that the first World War wasn’t taken seriously, but for the second, people knew what to expect as well as knowing that being twenty years later, the war and fighting capabilities would be far more developed than previously.
From the experience of the German Blockade that introduced rationing in 1918, rationing for World War II was introduced in 1940, only a year after the war had begun, compared to four years after the first world war. Clothes rationing was introduced in 1941. A fixed number of clothes per person was determined and coupons were issued to control the amount of clothing allowed to civilians. In 1942, America aimed to limit fashion’s influenced even further with the introduction of the Production Board issued Limitation Order 85 (L-85). L85 endeavored to save 15 percent of domestic fabric production along with “forty million pounds of wool cloth”. The Order influenced more than just the quantity of fashion; details and notions were no longer allowed, clothing was less full and ultimately clothes became less showy and stylish. Many issues arose with the rationing and coupon policy. The coupons indicated the number of items you were able to buy but did not specify a cost which created inequality). Rebellion against the restrictions was popular and the distinct difference between rich and poor grew.
Europe was left in a state of complete chaos at the end of World War II. The Allied win propelled the United States into the powerhouse status they still currently hold worldwide and Paris started along the road to recovering after German occupation from 1940 to 1944. Only two years after the misery that was World War II in Europe, Christian Dior showcased his debut collection on February 12 1947 in Paris. His collection signified an end to the utilitarian, military-inspired and subdued garments that were worn throughout the war. The newness for younger generations but on the other hand, rather transition to pre-war style was well-loved by many with a comment made that “God help the buyers who bought before they saw Dior” and a claim by Harper’s Bazaar then editor-in-chief Carmel Snow “Dior saved Paris as Paris was saved by the Battle of the Marne”. With all of the love, awe, and praise of Dior’s New Look, it also attracted criticism, with mainly American women believing that the New Look was impractical and anti-feminist, compared to the wartime where it became acceptable for women to wear the same as men. Upon Dior’s first trip to America, he was met with women holding signposts that read “Down with the New Look”, “Burn Monsieur Dior” and “Christian Dior Go Home”. Dior’s looks continued to be controversial in regards to its affordability, the questioning of feminism, and the use of fabric considering much of Europe was still upholding their wartime restrictions.
Both World War I and II share many similarities in that they were both on a worldwide scale, both the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) and the Allied Powers (Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan, and the United States) suffered many casualties and that the home fronts for all were severely affected. Due to the instability and devastation throughout Europe from the events of the first World War; unsettled issues from the end of the war in 1918 were left brewing for a further two decades before the resentment was unleashed by a Hitler-led German invasion of Poland.
Changes in women’s dress can be directly linked to the influence World War I had on the home front. Women had already begun transitioning into traditionally male-dominated jobs before the war erupted however, it pushed the social dynamic to change further in regards to the workplace. Women’s dress became much simpler, besides the trend of the hobble skirt, however, this didn’t last very long. The simplicity, along with the addition of masculine and military features dominated women’s clothing during the war effort. In contrast to the masculine changes adopted to women’s clothing, Dior’s New Look of 1947 brought back pre-war femininity which had mixed responses. The ultra-femininity of the New Look was unliked by feminist groups and created some negativity around the designer who was set to bring fashion back to Paris.
During World War, I and II women were all for taking on more responsibilities. They had been pining, marching, and petitioning for more female presence in the workplace. The war and the space in jobs left by men who had been conscripted into the war efforts gave women the chance they had been looking for. And in turn, traditional clothes women had been wearing needed to change. Although women’s fashion had already begun evolving, the war fast-forwarded these changes. The working woman was unable to wear masses of fabrics in the form of skirts and dresses due to the restricting nature of such garments as well as the need to condense the amount of fabric being used in order to make military uniforms for soldiers. Changes saw a more masculine feel being adopted into women’s wear. Trousers and skirts that were more masculine than feminine became popular, as did skirts that were made similarly to that of men’s military uniforms. Unlike the excitement felt by women in the need to transition into more practical and ‘masculine clothing, Christian Dior’s revival of Parisian couture attracted much criticism from these same women who believed that the New Look and other looks from Dior’s 1947 collection were anti-feminist and ultimately derailed all the work done by women in order to be seen as equal to their male counterparts and be able to work in similar jobs. Women were now more prominent in the workplace than ever before and didn’t want to have to wear ‘ultra-feminine dresses. They loved the conformity, practicality, and easy wear of traditionally male garments such as trousers, pants, and skirts that were more masculine-inspired.
During both the World War I and World War II periods, money was tight. The US especially was unprepared for the economic strain the war would create. Businesses didn’t have a lot of money to spare as people were not spending in this time of crisis. It wouldn’t be fair to say that fashion took a massive hit in the war periods like World War I specifically brought women more comfortability and practicality in fashion and everyday wear, however, it did create a massive shift in the evolution of fashion. In World War II, however, this was direr on a global scale for most aspects of the allies countries including potentially being under foreign rule due to invasion and conquering by Germany if the Ludendorff Offensive on Paris had have succeeded. Rationing in World War II also brought about limitations for designers and clothing for women. The introduction made the fabric that was available for use was made more expensive so in turn increased the price of all aspects of clothing manufacturing. Wool and nylon were needed for military clothing, so most of these were unavailable to civilians. Japanese silk was banned in the USA following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, and rayon was the newest fabric innovation to be introduced and was predominately used for womenswear during the war.
Similarities between the war periods and Dior’s New Look include that they both had a major influence on fashion. Throughout eras prior to World War I more fabric was used the majority of the time as this indicated wealth and higher status amongst richer individuals. The factors of women needing more practical garments to wear whilst working, along with the fabric rationing introduced in 1918, less became popular. The Art Nouveau-styled figure dominated the war period. The traditional bodice piece transitioned into the brassiere which was now more sort after by women who were becoming more physically active. In these simplistic but equally elegant garments, the more affordable fabric was being used in the form of rayon. In the war year of 1914 – 1918, rayon was a new innovation having been developed in 1846 but only began to be manufactured in the United States in 1911.
Following on from the previous topic of the contrast between more and less, wartime rations favored minimalism, practicality, and simplicity in fashion and as the wave of Dior’s New Look after the war had come to an end signified a rebirth of a type of maximalism, and layers and volume in fashion, I have decided to look at how designers incorporate both minimalism and maximalism within some well-known designer collections and how these balance each other. An interesting example that can be seen to have taken aspects of both is Raf Simmons for Jil Sanders Spring 2011 Collection. The collection developed through a discussion of minimalism which leads Simmons and his team to begin to explore the inverse; maximalism. Although in the explanation of his inspiration on Vogue Runway’s website, he wasn’t directly inspired by either wartime limitations on fabric or the drastic change to the voluminous fashion of Dior’s New Look, there are undeniably several aspects of his collection that can be considered a nod to both these times in fashion history. The minimalism aspect of the looks can be seen with the inclusion of the white tee-shirt, paired with large, exaggerated balloon skirts that all feature different shaping and design details. Another resemblance that can be made to both the World War 1 and World War 2 periods is the trousers and tailored jacket look which is reminiscent of women stepping into male roles during the war and experimenting with the traditionally male garments including trousers and formal suits jackets. The immense amounts of fabric used for some looks also can be associated with Dior’s New Look where more was better. However as opposed to Dior’s crispness and accentuation of the bust and hips, in many of the looks in this collection, Simmons has a complete disregard for the traditional silhouette and chose to focus on the exaggerated and disproportionate shapes that can be created outside of the female form with masses of fabric.
In summary, there are many notable similarities and differences between the war periods and the fashion revolution that is Dior’s New Look. The revival of feminine dress with increased fabric usage compared to the wartime periods which had just drawn to a close demonstrates the complete opposition of these two periods of fashion. However similarly in both periods, they were influenced by social and economic factors which showed that only the wealthier could afford better clothes in the wartime and also couture garments when Dior set out to bring couture design back to Paris after the disaster of war. Both endured much criticism in the inequality due to fashion rationing and the coupon system during the war as well as the denouncing of the New Look as anti-feminist and the protests of ‘Anti-New Look’ that ensued. Although these periods of history have both their similarities and difference, ultimately they are integral to fashion today and future fashion. In the way that fashion is currently heading in transitioning the phenomenon of fast fashion into a more streamlined, eco-friendly, sustainable approach; ideas like using less material in times of war and creating elegant timeless designs like Dior can be considered.