The Crimean War gave us, along with Florence Nightingale, the cardigan sweater and the balaclava hood. As well as Lord Raglan's sleeve. In the First World War British officers, weighed down by the mud of Flanders, cut off the skirts of their coats and created a new uniform for foreign correspondents and private eyes, the trenchcoat. Convoy duty in the chill North Atlantic inspired the duffel coat. And so on.
By the time the Japanese surrendered in the summer of '45 much of the world had been at war and in uniform for nearly six years, Americans for almost four. I read recently that in midwar, in 1943 or so, one of the big Fleet Street dailies surveyed its readers as to what bothered them most about the war. These were Londoners, battered by the Blitz and suffering shortages of food and just about everything else, and they reported as their worst wartime peeve, "women in uniform."
When the war ended I was still a schoolboy and didn't know a thing. Which is why when I was asked to write about what happened back then to fashion and the fashion business, I called John Weitz, the New York-based fashion designer.
Weitz had been around in 1945, very much so. He was Berlin-born but on our side and mostly British-educated, apprenticed into fashion design just before the war. When we, the U.S., got into it, so did Weitz, who ended up in the O.S.S., the predecessor to the C.I.A., and was dropped behind German lines to do nasty, unsporting things to the Nazis.
After peace broke out he returned to New York and got a job in fashion.
There'd been severe rationing of fabric during the war and even in '45 and '46 there were still shortages here and it was even worse in Europe and, of course, Japan, with so many factories damaged or destroyed or having been converted to arms manufacture. And switching back to making cloth and apparel took time. As Weitz remembers, veterans just out of the service had priority for goods in short supply and to this day he isn't quite sure it was his fashion sketches that got him his first postwar job or his veteran's status that enabled his new employer to procure additional piece goods.
But shortages were shortages. The fashion influences of the time, says Weitz, "were Rosie the Riveter and women in uniform. They wore their hair short and their skirts short. Rosie wore a bandana to keep her hair from being yanked out by the machinery. Leather had been rationed as well and women wore clunky, wooden-soled shoes (much like what Frenchwomen were wearing when Paris was liberated a year earlier)."
Paris, Weitz recalls, got back into the fashion business as quickly as it could. The big names back then were Patou, Lanvin, Jacques Fath, Schiaparelli ("as a name, a label, not really as a designer"). Coco Chanel wasn't among them. She'd closed the doors of her fashion establishment before the war and, out of favor for a wartime romance with a German officer during the Occupation, wouldn't reopen until 1954, nine years after the war.
What of Rome? And Florence? Those great engines of world fashion didn't count in 1945. "The Italians didn't exist in fashion until much later."
Christian Dior's famous "new look?" Many of us have the impression that came along as soon as the fighting ended. But it wasn't until 1947 that Dior launched his new, long-skirted, full-skirted look for daytime wear, in Weitz's words, "riding in on a wave of feminism" after the hard-edged masculinity of the war and of postwar austerity.
In New York, as the nation shifted into a peacetime mode and economy, there were fresh young designers like Bonnie Cashin and Anne Fogarty ("pouf skirts and crinolines," Weitz remembers) and the start of something the world would come to call "sportswear," of which Weitz himself was among the pioneers.
Oddly, though America had helped save Europe and liberate France, and with the Italians not yet on the scene, big U.S. stores continued to promote Paris fashion names rather than the young Americans. "Lord & Taylor was the only Fifth Avenue store to promote American designers," Weitz says, "and Saks Fifth Avenue had only one American designer, Sophie. And she was married to the man who owned the store (Adam Gimbel)."
But what of the war's actual influence on the look of clothes and the things we wore?
"There was the fashion influence of the war's `big men,' " Weitz said. "Churchill's bowties in polka dots. Roosevelt's navy cape. The Ike jacket." That last, the designers says, "came out of Eisenhower's Western roots. It was his personalized version of the short Levi's denim work jacket."
The war gave us unpleated uniform trousers which carried over into civvies. Before the war most pants were pleated. Chinos (or khakis) became standard casual wear. The T-shirt largely (except for Marlon Brando, gangsters and Calvin Klein male models) rendered the old-fashioned athletic undershirt obsolete. Brilliantly colored T-shirts, scarlets, orange and greens, derived from the garb of color-coded specialists working flight decks aboard aircraft carriers. Cutoff jeans were the linear descendants of navy bellbottoms cut short by sailors in Pacific heat (Luther Billis in "South Pacific?").
There was a more subtle shift in fashion brought on by war. "Men commissioned officers and gentlemen by mandate wanted after the war to prove themselves and look the part, even if they went to state teachers' college, as if they went to Yale and Princeton. So off they went to Brooks Brothers. Men were fed up with hats. They had to wear them as part of the uniform and helmets for protection. Before the war you had to wear a hat. There were even wisecracks based on hats. `What's your hurry? Here's your hat.' "
Oh, one other fashion note from the war that Weitz recalls now. "Nylons became a sort of international money. Soldiers used nylons to get women."