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What Not to Wear: Clothing Rationing During World War II

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The following is a guest post by Lauren Krauskopf, a former intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She was a double major in government & politics and History at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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.

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.

The American fashion industry quickly responded to this new rationing system by emphasizing simple silhouettes. New designs made “the most of every inch of material allotted to civilian use” and focused on slim, slender lines. Evening dresses were “straight and narrow”, and the simple, well-tailored look was considered exceptionally chic. Articles that discussed the new fashion trends also emphasized the importance of careful selection and “wardrobe planning” before purchasing any new clothing. A woman’s patriotic duty to ration and support the war effort was still more important than keeping up with the fashion. Moderation was key.

One of the most difficult changes women had to face was the rationing of nylon. Throughout the 1930s, silk stockings were a staple in women’s fashion. With the outbreak of World War II and growing animosity with Japan, however, citizens wanted to reduce their reliance on silk as 90 percent of silk used in the United States was imported from Japan. Nylon became the new stocking material of choice and was quickly loved by women throughout the country. When the new stockings were released in stores in May 1940, four million pairs sold out in two days and thousands of women flocked to their nearest department store.

Unfortunately, nylon was soon reallocated into parachutes, ropes, and netting manufacturing for the war. Shorter hemlines under Regulation L-85 meant that women had to cover up, but without their beloved nylon stockings, women had to get creative. Instead, they turned to the next best thing: makeup. Women would paint their legs with foundation to give the illusion of nylon stockings, including drawing a “seam” on the back of their legs to complete the deception. Special devices were created to simplify the process and department stores even had “leg makeup bars” where women could have their nylons painted on by a professional makeup artist.

Freezing of Japan’s credits may popularize cotton stockings for milady. Washington, D.C., July 26. It appears that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s efforts to improve cotton stockings and thereby popularize the wearing of them as a means of disposing of surplus long-staple cotton, will bear fruit now that Japan’s assets have been frozen in the U.S. Japan furnishes most of the silk used in the stockings manufactured in this country and at the present time, according to reports, there is only about two and a half month’s supply left. Trade between the U.S. and Japan no doubt will be hard hit because of the difficulty of making payments. Nylon production is also slow so the ladies will probably be wearing cotton stockings by the end of the year or else go barelegged. In this picture, David H. Young, Agriculture Department fabric technician, is shown examining one of the cotton stockings which they are trying to popularize. Harris & Ewing, photographer. July 26, 1941. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

By the time rationing was over, women could not wait to get their hands on real nylon stockings once again. 1946 saw intense “Nylon Riots” in cities such as Pittsburgh, where more than 30,000 women rushed to buy their favorite accessory.

The simple clothing styles and creative fashion trends of the 1940s soon came to an end as the war and clothing rationing ended in 1945. By the end of the year, the only thing still being rationed was sugar. As civilian life slowly began to create a new post-war culture, so too did fashion styles.

In February 1947, fashion designer Christian Dior unveiled his new post-war style, dubbed by fashion critics as “The New Look.” This look was the antithesis of clothing created under the order of Regulation L-85. Rounded shoulders, a cinched waist, and a long, full skirt characterized Dior’s “New Look” and quickly became a staple of 1950s fashion. Before long, clothing that reflected the restrictions of Regulation L-85 had disappeared as women were excited to experiment with fashion once again. Clothing rationing during World War II not only influenced fashion during the war, but greatly inspired trends that would come to define post-war culture, and beyond.

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Comments (6)

  1. Great article. Thank you!

  2. In the late ’40s and ’50s, my father operated a small chain of “little mending shops” in the Philadelphia area. These artisans would repair clothing fabrics e.g., torn pants.

  3. Born ten years after WWII, I feel like this mentality was instilled in me by my parents and grandparents. To this day I’m still amazed by how wasteful people are. I cannot look at an object at the end of its useful life without thinking, “Someday I’ll think of a new use for this.” And often I do. But, the reality is, someday it will all be thrown away. What’s it going to take to get back to this level of thrift? I was listening to a David Brooks interview and he mentions that we have become way too egocentric and have lost our sense of community and altruism. The pandemic has certainly proven that true, as well as climate change.

  4. Very interesting…thank you for sharing this information!

  5. Yes, thank you for a great and timely article, as we all need to really be more resourceful and buy into fast and polluting fashion trends.
    I’d love to start a “mobile mending” in my community and Target the seniors, disabled and veterans that I am sure have plenty of perfect or near new clothing items, but don’t wear because of physical conditions, lack of transportation to get them to seamstress or alteration place, maybe there’s not one close by, etc…..for a number of reasons, and I know as more of the senior population grows there will be even more need.
    I would love to know more about Peter Weiss’s father’s business. How was it run, what does he remember about it? Why did they quit the business? Thanks again for posting this article. Have a great day!

  6. My foster mom use to make clothes for herself and her daughters during the 50’s into the 60’s .

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