Essay by Marketa Uhlirova and Bakri Bakhit Wardrobe Emergencies

Marketa Uhlirova and Bakri Bakhit

What place does fashion occupy during a war conflict? Is there – and can there be – room for fashion at times when poor economic conditions, coupled with great anxiety and uncertainty, permeate people’s lives, turning them upside down? Can the “new place” reserved for fashion at wartime be anything other than strange, dubious and questionable?

An image of triviality, frivolity and self-indulgence is part of fashion’s cultural inheritance, constantly perpetuated in the popular consciousness by literature, the arts and media, be they highbrow or lowbrow. Arguably, this accusation levelled at fashion has never been more harsh than during major wars, matched perhaps only by periods of severe totalitarian regimes. It is during these times of centralised power and heightened ideological polarisations that fashion seems to acquire the most distinct and coherent identity – it is regulated, programmed and controlled. Contrary to its whimsical self, it is transformed into something oddly tangible, almost solid, a timeless essence that is called upon to come into service of a more noble moral purpose.

The Second World War provides a well-documented case study of fashion’s peculiar politicisation vis-à-vis war. By 1940, fashion in most of Europe was threatened with annihilation. Due to the radically changed political and economic situation, couture houses had to close down or drastically reduce staffing. Businesses dwindled, restrictions were imposed on clothing production, prices were regulated, and textiles and clothing factories had to be converted to accommodate production for the war effort. At the same time, a discrepancy began to be felt between fashion’s quest for beauty, style and novelty and the real conditions of life. But even during the time of hostilities, the appetite – and a need – for fashion could not be fully denied, contained or streamlined to fit any given political agenda. Any attempts at rigid control were quickly met with resistance, a desire (however suppressed) to escape it. Crippled by war, fashion may have stopped symbolically. But new measures were introduced that ensured it continued to be produced, disseminated and consumed.

It was generally understood, although not explicitly acknowledged, that fashion’s discourse based around novelty, visual pleasure and entertainment can be a valuable propagandistic tool. It could be argued that its significance extended beyond its own field – fashion turned out to be an instrument that could mediate on a variety of levels between national policies and society. Fashion was used strategically to “dress” political issues and promote preferred social norms and stereotypes. At the same time, governments across Europe and America embraced film – and newsreel in particular – as a mass medium that can boost civilian morale through selective messages communicated in simplified ways. The newsreel was seen as precisely the form that appeals to a broad audience regardless of social class; one that can at the same time be tightly controlled by state propaganda offices in terms of production, distribution and exhibition. (1)

Given that the primary concern of newsreels was to influence and regulate public perceptions of war and how it was fought, it would appear that fashion was merely a marginal subject. But in reality, it turned out to be a highly effective and “newsworthy” one, even though its topicality couldn’t be compared with the pre-war period (the fact that newsreels presented fashion less markedly as “hot news” aligns them with the Ministry of Information-commissioned production of documentary and instructional films on the subject). Despite governmental efforts at strict regulation of its production and public image, wartime women’s fashion remains an incoherent, conflicting and unresolved phenomenon. The newsreels and instructional films between 1939-1945 alone are testament to this, showing fashion in a variety of contradictory guises: she embraces military elements, appropriating the battlefield as its own; she becomes utilitarian to adapt to wartime conditions; she becomes a fantasy world designed as a much-needed escape from the lived reality.

In British Pathé’s Tin Hats for All (1941), fashion speaks about anti-bourgeois sentiments and national pride. The film shows the mass-production of tin helmets in a British factory, referred to by the male voice-over as “the latest British style of metal millinery in the making.” This is followed by a sequence showing two women dressed in sober civilian clothing, supposedly representatives of the general public, who try the helmets on and look at each other, and in a pocket mirror: helmets too can be fashionable if worn with the right flare! British tin hats are then contrasted with American hat fashions. The camera here frames three oversized gift hatboxes placed on a table. As three mannequins lift up the lids, three heads emerge from the boxes dressed in eccentric hats. The same British commentator then scolds American fashion for entertaining such “crazy” creations. The fantastical character of the chirpy American demonstration is the antithesis of the “realist” austerity of the British factory, serving to contrast “resilient” Britain against frivolous and “ignorant” America, the former shown as directly hit by the war, the latter seemingly oblivious of it.

As other Pathé’s films Mode inspirée par la guerre (1939), Germ Masks for the Crowds (1941) and Paramount’s Fashions for 1943 (1943) demonstrate, fashion also became a tool which could feminise war, easing the traumatic transition from peace to wartime. Shown in a good light, the new civilian accessories such as gas masks, shelter suits, tin hats and germ masks, in themselves indexes of war threat, could be made familiar, “normalised” and even, bizarrely, offered to women via news items as fashionable and desirable. The emphasis these films put on protection equipment and functional clothing asserts that qualities such as heroism and resilience were now desirable in women as much as men.

The link between fashion, film and the new requirements of practicality is also striking in Safety Styles (1943), a short instructional film produced by the American US News Review, which identifies the classic Hollywood film star Veronica Lake as a trendsetter, capable of pulling “the rest of the country” onto her side. A male voice-over acknowledges that Lake’s hairdo “established the style that swept feminine face of the country” and proceeds to ask the actress, seated in a beauty parlour and adjusting her glamorous peekaboo hairstyle, to give up her long locks and “put glamour to its wartime place.” The film then cuts into a factory scene showing women at work on large industrial machines who periodically pause to adjust their hair. By eventually handing over a comb to her hair stylist to tame her “wild” hair into the Victory Roll, Lake validates the idea that war and old style vampish glamour don’t go together. Working women must surrender the spectacle of femininity in favour of practicality for the sake of safety or as an expression of solidarity.

Fashion themes such as repairing, preserving, altering, making-do, recycling and rationing were undoubtedly among the dominant ones exploited by filmmakers at this time. Films such as Paramount’s Ban on Silk Stockings (1941), MOI short instructional films In Which We Live Being the Story of a Suit Told by Itself (Richard Massingham, 1944) and Rationing in Britain (1944), Warwork News’ How to Make do and Mend (1943) and Pathé’s Evening and Day Frock (1943) and Day to Day Frock (1943) act as manuals that instruct women on how to make do and mend. Rationing in Britain shows two female characters, a middle-aged woman and her daughter, whose respective missions are securing food and clothes in exchange for allocated coupons. Evening and Day Frock (1943) follows a young woman at home as she cuts patterns and sews, turning an evening dress into a day dress. Another woman in Day to Day Frock demonstrates how to turn one dress into seven different permutations for each day in the week. Domestic tasks are portrayed not as ordeals but as jobs that can be enjoyed, especially when managed by a clever and skilful housewife. The recycling theme of “kriegsbedingte Kleidgestaltung” (war-caused clothing design) is also foregrounded in an untitled 1944 Deutsche Wochenschau newsreel which reports on a catwalk show held during a lunch break in a German arms factory. Here women employees are shown sartorial tips under the slogan “aus Alt mach Neu.” (2)

On the one hand, all of these newsreels and instructional films show women as sensible and disciplined wives performing traditional women’s tasks, respectable in their domestic celibacy. Referring specifically to MOI’s production, Sue Harper wrote: “What should be stressed is how much is missing from the ratified women of [these] films. They do not enjoy their own bodies or anyone else’s… Half of their identity has been sliced away, in the interest of the state.” (3) On the other hand however, these films remain faithful to the genre’s pre-war approaches to women, perpetuating them as a source of titillation and entertainment through typically patronising and sexist male voice-overs. As Nicholas Reeves observes, newsreels essentially failed to respond to the new employment circumstances in which women at wartime found themselves. (4)

This goes some way to showing that women (and fashion) throughout the war didn’t have to universally sacrifice their femininity and “masculinise” themselves, as is sometimes claimed. Particularly as women began to fill in vacancies in the work place, thus posing a danger to the established male-female role division, they began to be programmatically encouraged to hold onto their femininity. For one, the French government actively encouraged women to stay feminine to counter war’s virility; proclamations by the fashion media that women should stay pretty and pleasing to men were not uncommon. But the French weren’t alone in allowing decidedly feminine representations into the visual landscape. It was gradually acknowledged elsewhere in Europe and America that femininity, beauty and elegance could be powerful agents, beneficial in keeping up a country’s morale. As Antonia Lant points out, female glamour during wartime “[took] on a heightened national character: femininity [was] mobilised for war effort.”(5)

(1) For further discussion on newsreel and documentary film production during the Second World War, see Nicholas Pronay, “The News Media at War” in Pronay and D.W. Spring (eds.), Propaganda, Politics and Film, 1918-1945 (London: Macmillan Press, 1982), p. 173-188; Clive Coultass, “The Ministry of Information and documentary film, 1939-45,” Imperial War Museum Review no. 4 (1989), pp. 103-111; James Chapman, British at War: Cinema, State and Propaganda, 1939-45 (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 1998), pp.249-54; and Richard Taylor, Film Propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 1998).
(2) Another version of this slogan was “Eins, zwei , drei – aus Alt mach Neu.” (one, two, three – make new from old!)
(3) Sue Harper, Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know (London and New York: Continuum, 2000), p. 49.
(4) Nicholas Reeves, The Power of Film Propaganda: Myth or Reality? (London and New York: Cassel, 1999), pp. 163-4
(5) Antonia Lant, Blackout: Reinventing Women for Wartime British Cinema (Princeton University Press, 1991), p.11.

© Marketa Uhlirova and Bakri Bakhit, 2006

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