Nostalgia: A Column About Vintage Fashion

Liv Combe, News Editor

After the frugality of the Great Depression ended, American women could finally afford to buy clothes again. This meant that they could splurge on clothes that used more fabric than necessary: Though small, details like gathers, decorative pockets and pleats were signs of luxury and freedom. This came to a screeching halt with the beginning of World War II, when every available scrap of extra material had to be sent over to Europe to aid in the war effort. By 1942, rationing was in full swing, and materials like silk, nylon, wool and leather were no longer readily available.

During the 1940s, the hourglass shape was in, and the popularity of the silhouette continued the previous decade’s emphasis on the female body. Shoulder pads were added to dresses and coats, and blouses in general were full and boxy, providing a contrast to the slimmer waists. Skirts were cut in an A-line, looser than a pencil fit, and fell to the knee or just below. Pumps were the most popular style of shoe, with a low heel and flirtatious peep toes.

This was the ladylike look that 1940s women were going for, but war rationing required patriotic fashionistas to be a bit more creative with their wardrobes. American wives saved material by turning their husbands’ suits into their own, as well as using curtains to create new clothes. One especially well-known example of everyday rationing was the faux stocking line, drawn onto the backs of legs with eyeliner to mimic stocking seams. Because nylon was desperately needed for parachutes, many women sent over their own nylon stockings and went bare-legged for the war effort. These drawn-on lines were easily smudged and messy, however, so most women chose to stick with the simpler alternative: white ankle socks.

Pictured in this photograph is an idyllic young college couple out by the entrance to the Ladies’ Grove of the Arb. Evelyn Hisey, OC ’47, and Walter Sikes, OC ’49, posed for this shot in the spring of 1947 — just one couple of many featured in a series titled “Boy Girl Relationships” that seemed never to have made it into Hi-O-Hi that year (but survives in the Archives to baffle modern-day Obies).

Evelyn’s dress — made of simple cotton and emphasizing her waist — is perfectly in vogue with the affordable fashions of 1947. When the war ended in 1945 and the rationing slowly came to an end, many women celebrated by adding details of extra fabric just because they could. Although small, the frills lining the neckline, sleeves and front of Evelyn’s dress are nevertheless significant of the post-war social changes. You’ll also notice that she opted for ankle socks over makeshift nylon stockings.

1947 was one of the most significant years for high fashion, one that would shape the clothing industry for a solid decade afterward. This was the year that Dior came out with his “Corolle” line, which Time Magazine dubbed the “New Look.” Calf-length skirts full enough for petticoats, sleek, tailored blouses and form-fitting, nipped-waisted jackets were suddenly the hot styles for sophisticated American and European women. Dior used yards and yards of fabric for each piece, making the New Look not only a lavish antithesis to the wartime austerity but also a symbol of wealth and decadence.

Not too many Obies at the time would have had a piece from Dior’s New Look floating around their wardrobe. But if this photo from “Boy Girl Relationships” is any indication, Evelyn obviously looked good enough for Walter.