Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Ration Fashion: A Wartime Dress

I love this Hell Bunny dress. I bought it on sale from Canada's Blame Betty, and was so sure I'd love it that I ordered it without trying it on, even though I couldn't return sale items. I've worn it many times since, but I'm only just now getting to writing a post about it.

Hell Bunny clothing is wonderful for accurate, retro wear. (I've just ordered a 1940s style coat from them that is making me heart sing with anticipation.) Though the stretchy fabric is modern, this dress would have looked just right in the late 1930s, through to the mid 1940s. In other words, it makes me look like I'm from one my very favourite fashion eras.

Of course, historically, this is one my least favourite periods. I'm Jewish and once wrote a post about what it would have been like for me in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. I don't want to write about that right now, but not because it's irrelevant.

Instead, I'm avoiding writing about it because, these days, anti-Semitism is more relevant to me than it ever has been before. In the last several months, as Trump's power has risen more than I ever thought it would, I have been on the receiving end of the worst, most hateful anti-Semitism I've ever faced in my 46 years. The people attacking me this way are openly racist and also very openly pro-Trump.

It's another example of what I'm calling The Trump Effect. My 84 year old, Portuguese friend, who was in Europe during World War II, says of Trump's rhetoric: "I've heard it all before, but not for a very long time."

It's bone-chilling.

And that's all I'm going to say about it for now. Let's use this post to just enjoy the fashions of the 40s. I think we all deserve that right now.

Virtually everything about my dress, and the style it emulates, is influenced by World War II. The shorter hem ...

Dress: Hell Bunny; Shoes: Munro; Sunglasses: Aldo; Ring, earrings, and dress clips: vintage
... and narrower skirt use less fabric than other styles, and were thus in compliance with the cloth rations imposed during the war. This cut was also more practical than longer, more cumbersome styles, making it easier for women to contribute to the war effort without being hampered by their outfits.

It's widely assumed that the padded shoulders so popular for women during the war were influenced by men's military uniforms and that seems entirely plausible to me too.

Having lived through the 80s, I was and am understandably leery of padded shoulders. My arms and shoulders are pretty powerful now that I'm disabled: they do a lot of the work my back can no longer do. I wasn't keen on adding to my already substantial shoulders.

But, really, you just can't do an early 1940s look without shoulder pads. It just wouldn't work.

Besides, with a few notable exceptions like Joan Crawford, most women's shoulder pads were not insanely huge until the 1980s.

Light shoulder pads do have the benefit of making the waist look smaller and I do like that.

As I was doing some research for this post, I looked at a lot of modern women posing for photos in their retro garb. I decided to copy some of their poses and, wow, they really do flatter the figure!

Between the dress and the poses, I felt I looked pretty good, both from the front...

... and from the back. 

I'll write more about the dress in a bit but I'd like to talk about the hair first. Most people associate the early 1940s with elaborate pompadours and "victory curls." Those hairstyles certainly were popular, but so were simple, looser, curly ones, like this centre-part style. It's an extremely easy one for me to achieve, since my hair is already curly. When my hair is wet, I just put a little product in it, part it in the middle, and plait two tight braids starting above each ear. I make sure to comb the ends into curls, so as to avoid the spiky ends of 1980s crimped hair.

(Incidentally, this hair style works wonderfully well for a 1970s look as well, especially if you're wanting a more mature, sophisticated 70s look. I wrote a post about 1970s feminists in which this hairstyle figured prominently.)

Sara Montiel
No matter how it was styled, curly hair was almost mandatory in the 1940s, so perms were back in style. We often saw those perms swept over to one side, a la Rita Hayworth (to whom my hair is most often compared) but the centre part was another option that most stars tried at some point.

Either way, the curls create quite the halo effect when backlit. In these days of hair straighteners and blow-outs, such a halo effect is associated with a lack of sophistication but, to be frank, I find that a bit racist.

Many "ethnic" groups, like Jews, are likely to have very curly hair, and I don't think we should have to straighten it to be considered chic or professional.

Virtually every popular hairstyle, then and now, has required black women to straighten their hair or wear weaves, a fact that has always bothered me. I think we'd all have to be blind not to notice racism in our culture's beauty standards. It behoves us all to fight this sort of nonsense. I do it in my own, tiny little way, by wearing my Jewish hair in its natural, "ethnic" state.

Probably the most famous centre-part of the 1940s was that sported by Hedy Lamarr.

She wore it with casual dresses ...

... similar to mine ...

... and with very glamorous looks too. Tell me these curls aren't sophisticated! Just try.

Do also note her dark red lips, another staple of the 1940s.

I tried to really darken my lips, but my lipstick wasn't the best quality. The colour is good but it's blotchy and smeary so looks uneven in this photo. Still, not too bad, I'd say.

Marilyn Monroe
It was really pretty much imperative to wear dark red lipstick throughout most of the 1940s. Everyone did it.

Shirley Temple
Everyone, from child stars trying to look grown up ...

... to average gals at their loveliest. (Because her hair is shorter, my guess is that this photo is from the late 1930s.)

So, that's the hair and lipstick. Back to the dress itself.

As I said before, it has the inevitable shoulder pads ...

... often paired with gently puffed sleeves.

In the days of cloth rationing, puffed sleeves required only a little fabric to add a feminine effect to dresses with fairly severe lines.

Note the exaggerated nipped waist here on Katharine Hepburn's dress.

Another added feminine effect was the tight waist, extending down to the hips and up to just below the breasts.

Without using much fabric, this immediately emphasized the female shape.

This is probably a wedding photo. Wedding dresses were in scarce supply during World War II and, even if a woman could access and afford one, wearing it might be considered in poor taste in the those days of deprivation.
Such dresses very often included pleats at the hips and shoulders to add a sense of fullness to the breasts and hips.

I wonder if wartime dresses were designed to exaggerate curves because so many women were underweight during the war, particularly in Europe and Britain, and most especially in the USSR and Nazi occupied countries. (I'm trying not to make this post a downer, but if you want to learn more about starvation during the war, start by reading about the siege of Leningrad in the winter of 1941 and 1942.)

It is ironic, then, that this style is so flattering on curvier figures like mine.

I assume it is because they were so sexy that such styles were exaggerated still further in the glamorous dresses of the stars.

Some of the sillier iterations of this style make its lines easy to see. Rita Hayworth (here with her famous, side-swept curls) had one of the most beautiful bodies in Hollywood, but you really can't tell with this dress. Every fashion trend has its limits.


I think one of the silliest, most entertaining iterations of this style is Katharine Hepburn's wedding dress in the superb comedy, The Philadelphia Story.

Hepburn's character was extremely rich and American, so apparently untouched by cloth rationing. Generally, though, dresses and skirts saved on cloth during World War II by being knee length. This is about as short as women's clothes could go at the time without being considered inappropriate. (It wasn't until the 1960s that really mini miniskirts came into being.) I'm pretty short, so I'm guessing my dress would have been a bit too long at the time.

Even after the war, as the world economy slowly recovered ... 

... moderation was not only prudent; it was the law.

Still, I have seen a few examples of longer dresses and skirts from the period. My guess is that they're American.

Interestingly, as I gathered vintage photos to illustrate this post, I spent quite a while trying to find dresses that fit just like mine. I found many that were very similar ...

... but most were looser than mine.

Eventually, I realized that my dress would have been considered a little racy at the time. I first found similarly tight ones in photos of swing dancers.

In other words, these would have been the dancing dresses of the day, the equivalent of the sexy dresses young women now wear to go clubbing. The ones most similar to mine were the slightly daring dresses of youth.

Gloria Grahame as Violet Bick in It's a Wonderful Life
They were also the dresses of fallen women, floozies, women of questionable morals (ie, unmarried women who were obviously not virgins).

These were gangsters molls, film noir femme fatales, and prostitutes. To my mind, they are played to most heart-wrenching effect by Gloria Grahame, whose haunted face imbued a humanity in this frankly sexist movie staple.

As an aside, her haunted face reminds me a lot Meg Tilly, who recently returned to acting in the wonderful, Canadian drama, Bomb Girls, set during World War II. I've seen this same look on many sexual abuse survivors. Tilly, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at a writer's party, has written quite openly about child abuse, including child sexual abuse. I wonder if this haunted look is particular to those of us who have been through hell.

In other words, I feel a blog post on this topic brewing, but I'll leave it at that for now.

Guess where else I found dresses most like mine?

Here's a hint.

Yup. I found them in pinups, with all their "oopsy, my underwear are showing all by accident" crap.

Such poses and looks are fun to recreate and there are lots of women who get a huge kick out of doing so.

But, you know, when you really contemplate them, they're pretty irritating. Give this one a look, for example. She's exchanging a peep at her stockings and undies... for a break on a parking ticket.

Such jokes are common today too, but, for me, with my history as a trafficked child, this bartering of the female body for goods, services, favours, and money... is not my idea of empowerment, even if the woman herself is the one doing the bartering. I'd rather find my power in more lasting ways, thanks.

The racism implicit here is so obvious, I'm not going to bother to explain it. You can see it as well as I can.
At any rate, the flip side to this female trope of the 40s (and today) is that such women are not to be trusted. They are seen as sexually rebellious and therefore dangerous, likely to use and abuse men, rather than love them.

This was the stuff of film noir movies and thousands of pulp novels, with their salacious covers and formulaic plots (though the lesbian pulps of the late 50s and early 60s are great fun to read now).

Such women, then, are likely to be punished in 1940s movies, magazines, and pulp novels. The terrified woman in sexual peril was and is a staple of thrillers and murder mysteries (and fashion shoots). She's sexy -- apparently. Either, she's a "bad girl" and getting what she deserves ...

... or a blameless virginal victim, a "good girl."

One guess which one is likely to die and which is likely to be saved.

I wasn't thinking of any of this when I was posing for these photos. I was just thinking about how I love my pretty dress and how fun it is to feel like I really looked like I was from the 1940s.

When I posed in front of this teensy little waterfall, I was also thinking of that popular, 1940s, honeymoon destination.

Niagara Falls. Doesn't this dress remind you of mine?

But, when I looked at the photos, I was reminded of Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 movie, Niagara.

Guess what she plays in the movie? One guess. You got it: an untrustworthy, overly sexual woman who uses and abuses men. Yawn.

Let's get back to the outfit, puleeze!

Let's talk shoes.

I love these Munro shoes because they seem so perfect for 1930s and 40s outfits. With my disability, I have a lot of restrictions in what I can wear on my feet without causing my pain to escalate quickly and terribly. I love that these shoes have a little heel but somehow still don't hurt my back. It's just a very little heel, but it's a big deal to me. I keep checking Munro's website to see if they're making any new ones in different colours but, so far, no luck. Last time I checked, though, they were still selling these ones, if you're interested.

A Foncie's Photo
As with all genuinely comfortable and practical shoe styles that are actually pretty, this one seems to have been enthusiastically adopted by women of all ages.

Such shoes could be found with dressier, higher heels ...

... but this was a time when practicality was important for women -- key actors in the war effort -- and lower heels just made more sense.

Lucky for me!

Now, the sunglasses.

There wasn't actually that much variety in sunglasses in the 1930s and 1940s (and there was even less variety before that).

They were almost all round ...

... so I generally wear this Aldo pair when wearing a 1930s or 1940s inspired outfit.

They're great for covering signs of age, fatigue, and chronic pain. Plus, you know, then you can go without makup and still look well pulled together.

And, of course, they're also actually practical ...

... against the cruel sun, especially for someone like me, who hates the sun.

Did you notice my dress clips?

Let's take a closer look at these beauties.

Angela Lansbury
For instant period detail, I adore dress clips.

Because they could be used in so many creative ways, including on shoes, they were great companions to the "make do and mend" ethos of World War II. While some clips were obviously made for a single purpose, like these shoe clips, many could be used in pretty much any way a woman could imagine.

Some dress and fur clips were made of real gems and precious metals. Most though, were a relatively cheap way to update the neckline of an out-dated dress or blouse during the Depression and the war. Notice how the fabric around these clips is puckered, revealing that she has used the clips to pull down the fabric into a popular square shape. I've done this with some of my own outfits and it works like a charm.

Obviously, they're also an easy way to add a little glitz to a plain outfit.

There's no particular down side to dress clips, as far as I'm concerned.

I'm curious about this particular pair though.

I have seen some that obviously date from the 1930s and 40s and have a similar, grape-cluster look as mine.

But I'm not sure if mine are authentic to the period. I found one of these in a charity store for a few dollars. A very quick Etsy search turned up several matching ones, making me wonder if they were made more recently than the 1940s. If they were that old, I'd expect them to be a bit more scarce. If you know anything about their origins, do please let me know.

I'm sure that my Avon ring and earrings are of relatively recent origin but I think they go nicely with the dress clips. I got the earrings at the same charity store where I found the dress clip. I found them so versatile that I slowly found the rest of the full parure on Etsy. 

The purse, a gift from a dear friend, is wonderfully authentic to the late 1940s. 

It always makes me feel like the real deal when I'm in a 40s inspired outfit. Plus, it matches my hair, shoes, and cane.

Finally, to add to the period specificity of this post, I did as I often do: posed on a block where the houses would have existed when my outfit was in style.

This house is a particular favourite. I love the lines of its front doorway. I also thought the pale green would go well with my pink dress. 

This house has a real Arts and Crafts appeal.

These houses aren't so great for the period but I like the photo itself and it's a good one to use to bid you adieu.

So ta ta from the 1940s. Have no fear: I'm sure you'll be seeing the 40s right here again. Stay tuned.



  1. Dear Charlotte, wonderfull interesting post and amazing pictures. I wear Hell Bunny dresses too and I love them. Antisemitismus make me sad and it is shockingly.

  2. You look wonderful. I love those shoes - comfortable and pretty is a rare combination. I wore a similarly shaped dress today, albeit with a slightly fuller skirt, and comfortable, low-heeled, lace-up shoes, that I learned from you are a great match. Thank you! Trump scares me too, very much.

    1. So sorry to say that I just went to their website and I no longer see these shoes. Damn. They do have some really nice mary-janes with the same heel that I might try for some 1920s looks. It's so fun to hear that I've had an influence on your fashion choices. I'll bet you looked great in your dress and lace-up shoes.

    2. I just found these shoes that are very similar. Cobb Hill is supposed to be very comfortable too.

  3. In fact, could you by any chance share the name or product number of your shoes? I have googled but not found anything similar though I did find Munro shoes...

  4. Very nice post and inspiration. xoxo

  5. Great dress and a very interesting post. Loving the photos, old and new. Thanks for linking up with this informative blog. Jacqui

  6. Loving this "new" but so vintage dress, and of course, your essay on curls. I struggled to straighten mine for so many years - it feels like I finally woke up. Your settings are so charming and your writing is a must-read. xox


  7. I love the Hell bunny dresses. I've found them to be the most comfortable and fun. The fit is also pretty bang on in between sizes. They are also our most popular brand in our store.

  8. Your dress looks so good on you. Somewhere in my basement I have a very similar dress to the one you are wearing here. It was from the mid to late 1970's but was definitely 1940's inspired, same color as yours.

    It was so much fun seeing all of the vintage pictures you included in this post. I had to go back through the pictures several times there was so much to see. I loved the homes that you chose for background in your photos. Cozy looking to me. The rolled hairstyles look like a great idea for summer of for dressy occasions. My hair is so ruler straight that it is near impossible to put it up in even a bun without having little ends sticking straight out like voodoo pins. I have to curl my hair in order to do any kind of up dos. Thank you for all of the work you put into this post. It is great.