Menswear Fashions During World War II (1939 - 1945)

“War was declared in Europe in 1939. Suddenly, male fashion discarded ‘all ornament, all exaggeratedly personal touches, all overly fancy dress.’” — Adam, Feb. 1940[1]

“‘I was measured, and the young salesman picked off a rack a zoot suit that was just wild: sky-blue pants thirty inches in the knees and ankle narrowed down to twelve inches at the bottom, and a long coat that pinched my waist and flared out below my knees.’” — Malcom X[2]

There’s no question that the outbreak of war, as well as the influence of wartime life on the citizens of affected countries, had an enormous influence on men’s fashion. What that influence was, however, differed significantly across countries—from fabric rationing and style austerity in Britain, to rebelliously elegant zazous in France. Moreover, these wartime styles—even the much-maligned zoot suit—changed the course of postwar fashion.

Great Britain: Wartime Rationing

“The vest, like most other things, was hit hard by the two world wars.” — Bruce Boyer[3]

Britain began to advocate fabric rationing as early as 1940, as natural fibers especially were needed for the war effort.[4] As Boyer laments above, two-piece suits became increasingly popular as men wore their double-breasted suits without vests—a style already advocated by the Duke of Windsor. In addition to reducing the amount of fabric used, the vest (and/or the additional layer of fabric provided by the double-breasted jacket) became obsolete in terms of functionality due to improved heating in buildings.[5] In 1941, clothing rationing in Britain was no longer merely the subject of propaganda; instead, restrictions were written into law. By the summer of 1941, the rationing system regulated the amount of clothing a British citizen was allowed to purchase.[6] Adults received 66 points to be allocated to clothing per year (children between 14 and 16 years old got 86). Different articles of clothing cost a different number of points based on fabric used: for example, a man’s suit might cost between 26 and 29 points versus a simple dress at 11.[7] [caption id="attachment_168" align="aligncenter" width="293"]445px-A_ration_book_and_clothing_coupon_book_as_issued_to_British_civilians_during_the_Second_World_War._D11310 Ration Book & Clothing Coupon[/caption]   By 1942, the British Board of Trade introduced the Utility Clothing Scheme in an effort to regulate not just the number of items of clothing, but also the amount of fabric and trimmings that could be used to create each item: pockets, pleats, lapel facings, and even buttons were restricted.[8] (Lace and frills were simply banned.[9]) As a result, the English Blade jacket that so characterized interwar fashion was nearly impossible to create or buy without resorting to the black market. Even single-breasted suits began to be worn without vests, and it grew rare for anyone but the most well-off to dress differently for day and evening.[10] In response to regulations, the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (or, Inc. Soc.) developed a mass-produced range of “utility clothes” that met all requirements, making it easy for citizens to abide by set restrictions.[11] This helped cement the ultimate popularity of ready-to-wear clothing, already a flourishing market in the US. Unsurprisingly, Savile Row tailors were in a panic; many famous fashion houses were forced to shut down. Restrictions didn’t end in Britain until 1948; by that point, men’s fashion was irretrievably altered.

France: Rebellious Elegance

  When the Germans invaded Paris in June of 1940, that city, widely regarded as the “international capital of fashion, became shut off from the rest of the world.”[12] Many French fashion houses, too, were forced to close their doors—due in large part to Jewish designers and tailors forced into hiding. Still, the houses left open continued to produce highly evolved fashions. Though German occupiers did impose strict fabric regulations, many people were rather less committed to these rules than their British counterparts. After all, “Because rationing would be of benefit only to the occupiers, no attempt was made to conserve materials or labour.”[13]   Outside these fashion houses, though, most citizens lived in fear of criminal retribution and made do with bans on everything from double-breasted suits, tailcoats, belt loops, trouser pockets, wide ankles, cuffs, and more.[14] However, this overall atmosphere of fear in a once-dazzling fashion capital, this background of “poverty of the average Frenchman’s wardrobe set against the gray uniforms of the occupying army and the luxurious dress of the Franco-German elite,”[15] was only part of the story of French male fashion during the WWII years. Enter the zazous, a “clutch of young people” who preferred extravagance in fashion: “Zazous went systematically against the grain of fashion. They liked long, hip-slapping jackets with sloping shoulders (square for women), flap pockets and large checks. They liked white or bright-colored socks, thick-soled suede shoes and high, striped collars with an English-style pin over which arched sharply-knotted ties”[16] The zazou style originated slightly before the war and occupation—inspired by zoot suit-wearing black American jazz musicians. However, under new regulations, their deliberate excess took on a new and dangerously rebellious meaning. [caption id="attachment_169" align="aligncenter" width="201"]Zazou Suit Cartoon Zazou Suit Cartoon[/caption] French zazous—along with an entire youth culture obsessed with jazz and swing dancing—were severely repressed; even rounded up, beaten, or shaved of their distinctive hair styling by scared citizens and German apologists. Still, the legacy of the zazous lives on in postwar formal wear styles—styles that truly originated in an American minority subculture.

US: The Zoot Suit’s Legacy

[caption id="attachment_166" align="alignleft" width="432"]The Zootsuit The Zoot Suit[/caption] Though the US, too, faced fabric restrictions starting in 1942[17], the WWII years were if anything years of growth and development as far as American men’s fashion was concerned. The US had begun pulling ahead of other nations when it came to leisure and ready-to-wear clothing during the interwar period. Now, the combination of being cut off from Paris fashion entirely and facing restriction allowed American manufacturers to flourish, continuing to produce ready-to-wear clothes in lightweight fabrics, bright colors, and bold patterns.[18] The most notable trend of the period would, of course, have to be the zoot suit—predecessor of French zazou fashion. To say that the zoot suit was a trend originating during the World War II years isn’t entirely accurate, though. Rather, it was during this period that white people (mostly the young—students and revolutionaries) began to adopt, en masse, what previously had been an “exaggerated expression of 1930s elegance by a poor minority whose only access to social recognition was through boxing and jazz.”[19] This was not the first time minority fashions entered the mainstream; however, the zoot suit is arguably the first massively influential piece of black subculture clothing in the history of men’s formal wear.   Like French zazous, zoot-suiters were often singled out and beaten during the early forties—partially due to racial tensions, partially due to the zoot suits’ “full pleats and drape shape [that] were generally considered scandalous and anti-patriotic.”[20] However, even after the war, when US clothing restrictions ended in 1946, the zoot suit’s influence on men’s formal wear (plus the zoot-suiters’ and zazous’ influence on fashion and youth culture) remained.   First, the shape of the zoot suit’s jacket heavily influenced the silhouette of the new Bold Look—a style applied in the postwar period to both business suits and dinner jackets.[21] (Tailcoats, at this point, were virtually obsolete after their death by fabric restrictions.[22]) Second, the influence of minority and youth culture on acceptable fashion changed the traditional passage of formal wear knowledge from father to son, as well as the traditional catering of fashion toward wealthy adults.[23]   Unsurprisingly, many traditionalist formal wear experts bemoan both of these shifts (e.g., Alan Flusser and Bruce Boyer).[24] However, in a different light, we might see these changes as part of a continued progression that began with the adoption of the frock coat for town wear several hundred years earlier. This is a progression of increasing comfort and decreasing formality in even the most formal of menswear options; a progression in which one generation’s semi-formal attire becomes the next generation’s parody or costume; a progression where the next arbiter of fashion—as well as that arbiter’s fashion choices—are initially deemed outrageous if not scandalous before admitting wide acceptance.   So: maybe, just maybe, the legacy of the zoot suit and World War II’s growing youth culture is more similar to the Duke of Windsor’s waistcoat-less double-breasted dinner jacket than is often assumed? [1] Quoted in Chenoune, 203. [2] Malcolm X & Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1964. Quoted in Chenoune, 208. [3] 277. [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid. [6] Laver, 253. [7] The Home Front Handbook, 47-8. [8] Ibid. [9] The Home Front Handbook, 48. [10] Boyer, 277. [11] Laver, 253; Chenoune, 204. [12] Laver, 252. [13] Ibid. [14] Chenoune, 204. [15] Ibid., 205. [16] Ibid. [17] Laver, 254. [18] Blackman, 13. [19] Chenoune, 208. [20] Ibid., 210. [21] Blackman, 180. [22] Chenoune, 204. [23] Ibid., 210. [24] Boyer; Flusser (1985, 1996, 2002)