In Honor of Memorial Day…Some Interesting Facts About the Links Between Fashion, Beauty and War

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With Memorial Day weekend approaching, we all look forward to BBQ’s, extra time off and fun with friends and family.  It is important to take pause and to recall what this holiday is all about…remembering all of our countrymen who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our safety and freedom.  The far-reaching effects of war have influenced all aspects of our culture throughout the years.  Being a voracious reader and a lover of history I am always interested in learning new facts.  One of the most informative classes which I ever took, while in college, was a fashion history class called, “History of Costume”.  This class taught me a great deal about how style has been shaped around historical events throughout the ages.  In the intervening years I have read a great deal about how the history of beauty has been similarly shaped.  With Memorial Day Weekend approaching, I thought that it would be fun to share a few of these interesting facts pertaining to the relationship between some of America’s most famous conflicts and their influence on fashion and beauty.

  • Revolutionary War

-The proud British Military wears bright red uniforms which hide blood and make it easier to identify allies on a smokey battlefield; unfortunately for the British these uniforms also make their soldiers into highly visible targets.

-Although most colonial American styles emulate European fashions as the war rages on many of these fashions and expensive fabrics become harder to obtain.  In fact, for his presidential inauguration in 1789, George Washington is clothed in dark brown broadcloth, the first produced in the United States.

-In addition to his many inventions and contributions, Benjamin Franklin is also noted for his contributions to fashion, including suspenders and bi-focal glasses.

  • Civil War

-As the Civil War rages on and supplies become increasingly scarce, Confederate President Jefferson Davis needs to get creative.  He dispatches special troops to the swamps of the Mississippi River.  Their mission?  To collect alligator skins.  Alligator is the most durable leather in the world.  The struggling Confederate Army is soon outfitted with shoes, bridles, belts and stirrups made from the exotic leather.

-The Civil war lasts longer than anticipated.  While originally standard uniforms were not issued, as the war carries on the need for matching uniforms becomes clear.  The demand for uniforms during the Civil War coincides with the development of new methods of factory production.  Standard sizes are developed (prior to the Civil War all clothing was hand-measured and tailored).  Civil War uniforms become amongst the first mass-produced clothing in history.

  • WWI

-As America enters WWI, American women are called upon to donate their steel corsets to the war effort.  The result?  28,000 tons of donated steel allows enough material for the production of two battleships!  Escaping the corset opens the way for women to embrace the free and loose style of the 1920’s “flapper”.

-Due to the decline of imports during WWI, particularly from France, many beauty products begin to be manufactured in the United States for the first time.

-The use of camouflage to hide equipment and position is developed extensively by the French in WWI; this use is quickly adopted by foreign armies.  Use of military camouflage in fashion can be seen as early as 1919.

  • WWII

-In July of 1942, cosmetics are deemed “inessential” by the War Production Board.  As a result, their production is limited; however, the decision is reversed by that October…the War Production Board has decided that cosmetics are good for boosting the public’s morale.  One of the most popular beauty trends associated with the 1940’s?  Red lipstick.  Check out my post entitled, “Why Red Lipstick is a Classic”.

-Wartime shortages lead many women to opt for the accessible extravagance of growing their hair into long luxurious waves (a la Veronica Lake).

-The shortage of able-bodied men  during WWII sees many women entering the workforce for the first time.  The U.S. Government runs a propaganda campaign featuring “Rosie the Riveter” and stating “We Can Do It!”.  Her hair is covered by a snood to protect it while she does her factory work.

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-Much of the Glycerine used to make Nitroglycerine (the explosive in dynamite) is supplied by soap factories.

-The first sunblock is formulated by the U.S. government in order to protect U.S. sailors while serving in the south pacific.

-Nylon is patented in 1937.  When the first nylon stockings go on sale in the U.S. in May of 1940, there is a run on department stores across the country.  Unfortunately wartime necessity creates a stocking shortage (all of the nylon production is being used for parachutes and other military essentials).  Due to a shortage of stockings, the use of leg paint is increased…this is a product which will later be developed into self-tanner.

Necessity is the mother of invention.  Many of the most popular fashion designs of the 1940’s are developed in response to shortages.  Check it out:

-Wedge Shoes gain popularity because they use a wooden platform which conserves leather.

-Pencil Skirts, which are cut in one straight line from hip to hem, are designed as a result of fabric rations; the design uses the least amount of material.

-Due to the elastic shortage, the Beret becomes a popular wartime hat.

-WWII is the advent of the “shoulder bag”…it comes into fashion as a way for women to store wartime essentials such as bandages and medicines.

  • Vietnam

-Anti-War/Anti-Establishment protestors frequently expressed their political views by wearing long free-flowing hair and sporting beards.  The “hippie” look of the 1960’s is directly tied to the anti-establishment sentiments of the day.  Much of the 1960’s fashion defied the “conformity” of 1950’s fashion.

As you can see, America’s wars have greatly shaped and influenced American life and culture including our style.  This weekend let’s all take a moment to pay tribute to those who gave everything for the future of our great nation.

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