Did someone say scandal?

No, it was just Australia’s hemlines during the ’40s. Miss Chrissy educates us on how a frugal decade influenced women’s fashion.

Make and Mend Sewing Room 1942 Image: Public Domain

Make and Mend Sewing Room 1942

WWII started only days after the 1939 couture fashion show in Paris. At that time hemlines hovered at about 15 inches (38 centimetres) from the ground and most skirts showed an A line silhouette. Wartime propaganda was relentless, insisting that every yard (.91 of a meter) saved would mean a quicker route to victory. By 1942 styles were manufactured using a minimum of resources. By 1943, even in Australia the full length gown, which was a staple in every woman’s wardrobe for nightly occasions, had all but disappeared. In fact it was outlawed in Australia as well as France.

Image: Qld State Library

Women would reuse material from their husband’s ‘time to replace’ suits

Australians knew all about rationing too. Food, fabric and the bare essentials were all insufficient for the demands of the day. They lived by their allocated ration coupons so making do and mending were a part of everyday life. Some families (even whole generations in fact) were rationed almost their entire life. Australia did its part and followed the trend of Europe and then America when it came to fashion. Everyone wore simple, practical clothes and yes the hemlines became shorter too, being raised to 18 Inches (46 centimetres) from the ground, not just because the fabric was scarce, but also because if you wore anything that was considered ‘too luxurious’, you risked looking as though you were not doing your bit for the war effort and were subsequently at risk of being scorned by other women.

‘Make do and mend’ became most women’s motto. Women had to think outside the square and reuse and remake what they could. (Let’s face it ladies, war or no war, women still liked mixing the wardrobe up a bit and having something new every now and then!) As they could not always wait for the next allocation of fabric ration coupons, they would re-use the material from their husband’s ‘time to replace’ suits, which may have become available because their husbands sadly didn’t return from war, or if they did, their pre-war suits were too large for them. They would unpick these suits and refashion them into a tailored, fitted jacket with wider shoulders and a matching A line skirt for themselves. This suit, although more on the masculine side than previous fashions, still cut a great shape, was durable and looked smart and is still very fashionable today. They also refashioned old dresses with the latest style collar, or added pockets in a contrasting fabric making it pop, turning it from shabby to chic! These changes heralded a whole new era of stylish fashion.

Ministry of Information Exhibitions 1943 Public Domain

Women setting up make-do-and-mend rooms during wartime.

However not everyone had the luxury of owning sewing machines and irons, so ‘common’ make-do-and-mend houses or rooms became available for women to get together to work on their garments. I can only imagine this would also have been a great social opportunity for them during what were extremely trying times.

It took some time for fashion to regenerate after the war, but life gradually got better and there was more food, more fashion and more riches. The beautiful designers started emerging with the likes of Dior in 1947 who introduced long luxurious skirts and beautiful dresses – such extravagant designs that used yards and yards of fabric were seen as POSITIVELY SCANDALOUS!

The women of the post-wartime truly did have smaller everything – waists, busts and feet – than we do today, but they also had a secret weapon in their armoury that gave them those beautiful silhouettes. Which bring us to Foundation Garments – brassieres, girdles, step-ins, petticoats and waist cinches. Did you know that the perfect hourglass figure is where the waist is 10 INCHES smaller than the bust and hips; for example 36 – 26 – 36? If you remember that all vintage frocks were made with foundation garments in mind, you can breathe easy when that gorgeous vintage dress seems a little too snug around the middle!

For me, I’m all for foundation garments!  Any minor discomfort is worth it if it creates the sculpted illusion of the perfect figure. If I know everything is in its place, I feel beautiful! The best compliment I ever received was from a dapper gent who said “Ma’am, may I say, you cut a great shape there”. Ladies it is not about size and weight, it is all about SHAPE.

Til next time…

Miss Chrissy runs the Lindy Charm School for Girls, offering workshops, EMCEE services, Hen’s Parties, Weddings and more.

Image sources from top:Public Domain
Qld State Library
Public Domain

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