- The Washington Times - Friday, May 13, 2011

By Jonathan Walford
Thames & Hudson, $29.95 208 pages, illustrated

One of the best things about the way historiography has opened up over the past half-century is the way it has enabled us to view the palette of the past from different perspectives. Freed from the straitjacket of what used to be termed “political economy,” historians explore different aspects of culture and use them as a means to take a fresh look at even the most overexplored times and places.

This book, by an experienced Canadian fashion curator, takes an in-depth look at the clothing, shoes and accessories of the most transformative decade in a century chock-full of turmoil and upheaval. In so doing, he manages to convey to the reader a marvelous sense of the texture of life as a whole back then.

Much of the world was at war as the decade began, but the United States was not. For most of those in the belligerent countries it was still the liminal period of the Phony War or, as the French called it, “Drole de Guerre” - this joke of a war. But, as Jonathan Walford notes with characteristic authority and perspicacity:

“In the first Paris collections after Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, practical clothes for the domestic market were still designed with an eye for beauty. In Paris and London, utilitarian capes with large pockets and hood, trousers and zipper-fronted jumpsuits appeared as suitable and smart attire for bomb shelters. Turbans showed up as fashionable and efficient coverings that protected the hair from grime and accidents at industrial plants, where many women took up occupations building armaments.

“The beginning of war did not mean the end of glamour. … Innovations included a proliferation of tweed suits that could take a woman from mid-morning to late afternoon functions. Hemlines hovered about fifteen inches from the ground, and most skirts showed an A-line silhouette. … Jackets were narrowly tailored at the waist.”

These styles continued a trend that had been notable throughout the previous decade, as a world edged closer to the abyss of a war that everyone knew was coming. The ‘30s had cast aside those diaphanous loose-waisted dresses of the ‘20s suitable for such frivolities as dancing the Charleston but not practical in the straitened times of the Depression or in an age of anxiety.

Fashion really did reflect those political headlines even as it was making its own ones in trade papers: a tougher, more apprehensive age needed a sharper, more tailored look for a time of harsh economic and political realities.

Mr. Walford takes a global approach to fashion, providing many fascinating glimpses and insights. Fashion in Mussolini’s Italy seems, judging by what we see here, to be surprisingly hideous, mirroring the ugliness of fascist architecture, shocking in a country known in both pre- and post-fascist days for its unique brand of stylish beauty. Despite the jolt and deprivations after the Nazis’ abrupt “Aryanization” of the German couture industry (largely Jewish before 1933), it seems, judging by the modish displays pictured, to have done surprisingly well.

And this despite a lamentable ideologically driven bent toward indigenous “folk costumes” - think dirndls. A beautiful dress by the emigre designer Lanz of Austria displayed in his New York store after his nation had been swallowed up into the Nazi Reich by the Anschluss, and the designs of Elsa Schiaparelli - exiled from Paris in the United States - showed an admirable ability to weather political storms. As did the less creditable collaboration of most of her colleagues back home with the German conquerors. But perhaps both aspects allowed French couture to resume its customary dominance of the industry after the war.

In Japan, militaristic and patriotic symbols were to be found on kimonos, now made from artificial rather than real silk, while in the United States, production of man-made fibers such as rayon and nylon were given a terrific fillip by wartime exigency. But Allied and Axis leaders alike recognized the importance of fashion and its appurtenances in these times. Replying to a request by cosmetics maven Helena Rubenstein as to what she could do for the war effort, President Roosevelt assured her “your war effort is to help keep up the morale of our women, and you are doing it splendidly.” When Josef Goebbels threatened to close beauty salons in 1943, “Hitler intervened on this issue at the urging of Eva Braun: ‘The moment one tries to lay a hand on a woman’s beauty care, she becomes his enemy.’ “

But toward the end of the war, when permanent waves were banned in the Reich, no dry cleaners were operating and soap was so scarce that little was available for personal hygiene, perhaps German women were beginning to know who the enemy was.

In view of their ideologies, the totalitarian belligerents controlled fashion through collectivized means. It is interesting, though, to compare the British and American approaches. In the United Kingdom, clothes were strictly rationed, coupons included with those for food. While many foods were unrationed, clothing was not to be had without the necessary coupon, and the British were more threadbare than ill-nourished by war’s end. On this side of the Atlantic, the manufacture of clothes was controlled by myriad regulations, mandating short hemlines, absence of frills and, in general, “utility standards.” Irksome as these must have been for manufacturers, you only have to contrast the American outfits with their British counterparts to appreciate their superiority.

Of course, as the war wound on, fashion everywhere displayed an increasingly military look. Uniforms seem to have been so ubiquitous and so desirable, so deeply embedded in the zeitgeist, that everyone craved that look. You might think that people would have longed for contrast amid all that uniformity, but that burst forth only after hostilities had ceased with double-breasting and wide lapels on men’s suits (and not just zoot suits) and with the splendors of the New Look with its dramatically sweeping dropped hemlines and profligate use of materials and decoration. The proliferation of such frivolity and luxury really signaled that people were finally liberated from the iron corset of wartime exigencies and practicalities. Liberation had truly come, and about time too for most people.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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