Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Women's Fashions in the 1940s

By Alice Askins, Education Coordinator at Rose Hill Mansion

Fashion changes all the time, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly.  In the 1940s, women’s clothing did both at the same time.  In some ways the evolution of women’s fashion stalled for a while because of World War II.  An a-line skirt coming to below the knee, with a broad-shouldered jacket or blouse, persisted as the basic silhouette for women through about 1947.  In other ways, women found new options for dress and clothes for different circumstance.

Joan Crawford, 1940
As you might expect, the war affected fashion in several ways.  Since the 1800s France had led women’s fashion and it fell to the Nazis in 1940.  Some of the big couture houses closed their doors while others tried to stay open, if only to keep their legions of employees in work.  To shop French couture during the war you, however, had to have German permission.  French design took its own course during the occupation, and tended to be on the frivolous side.

The vacuum at the head of the fashion industry gave designers in other countries the opportunity to make names for themselves.  In the United States, designers for films became influential.  Gilbert Adrian and Edith Head both designed clothes for films and for street wear.  Claire McCardell, Norman Norell, and (French-born) Pauline Trigere were other American designers who came to prominence in the 1940s.

The problem for all designers was that food and gas were not the only things rationed.  The war effort imposed limits on the yardage that could be used for garments, the amount of trim you could use, the fibers you could make into civilian clothing (a lot of rayon was used) and even the cut of a skirt or suit.  A skirt hem could be only 2” deep, for instance, and only so many inches in circumference.  Pockets and belt loops were not allowed.  Belts could be only an inch and a half wide.  The allowed circumference for a skirt hem was fairly generous here in the United States (it could be 70”) but most skirts were narrower.  People wanted it to be evident that they were complying with the regulations and helping with the war effort. 

In this P.B. Oakley photograph the women are pointing to their legs to indicate that they are going without stockings.  Nylon also went to the war effort
While fashion was marking time in some ways, it was also expanding a few options for women.  With men gone into the service, many women filled their roles in manufacturing.  The new work demanded appropriate clothing.  It meant that for the first time, large numbers of women got used to wearing pants, overalls, and coveralls.  Turbans, scarves, and snoods appeared first in the factories as women wore them to keep long hair out of machinery.  Soft loafers or moccasins were worn to work on aircraft to prevent dents and scratches on the metal.  Comfortable, functional work styles tended to migrate into women’s off-duty hours. 

P.B. Oakley photograph of women training to run machinery
Despite, or perhaps because of, their foray into “men’s” work, women were still expected to look as pretty as possible.  This was intended to keep up their spirits during a difficult time.  It was also supposed to inspire the men at war to heroic efforts.  Women’s waistlines were always defined in the 1940s.  In Britain, makeup became impossible to obtain during the war years, because it was made from materials valuable to the war effort (like petroleum products and alcohol.)  In the United States, though, makeup was always available and women were expected to wear it.  For women in uniform, there were certain shades of lipstick and rouge required to be worn with them.

With a relaxation in some areas of women’s wear, play clothes developed.  In the early 1940s, these consisted of shorts with skirts worn over them (shorts were too brief to wear by themselves in public).  The removable skirt allowed women to appear in public as though wearing a dress, but to streamline for sports or beachwear.   Later playsuits were skirtless.  Swimsuits continued a long trend toward brevity.  Two-piece suits were popular in the 1940s, and the bikini was designed late in the decade. 

1940s playsuits
After the war, with the easing of restrictions, women’s fashion changed its shape decidedly.  People were ready for a change.  France regained something of its leadership in couture, and French designers introduced a new look in 1947.  Dior generally gets credit for the New Look, but others were showing very similar shapes.  Shoulders became rounded and sloping, waists were nipped in, hips were padded and hemlines dropped again.  Some skirts became very full while some were very narrow.  Shoes had thinner heels and more pointed toes.

The New Look of 1947
Only about 25% of American women kept working after the war.  Some quit to return to domestic duties, while others were fired and replaced by returning men.  Many women who continued to work resumed traditionally feminine jobs in health care, office work, or teaching.  Images of housewives from the late 1940s and 1950s show women wearing the New Look to clean house.  We can assume, though, that most women faced with grubby jobs continued to wear the clothing they found functional for work during the war.  

Don't forget our 1940s USO Canteen is Friday, February 27 at Club 86 from 6:00 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Ah, The Movies!!

By Karen Osburn, Archivist

On February 17 Arsenic and Old Lace will be shown for 50ȼ at the Smith as part of an exciting lead up to the USO event the Geneva Historical Society is holding at Club 86 on February 27.  This movie is one of hundreds of feature films produced and released in the 1940s.  They covered all genres, dark comedy like Arsenic and Old Lace, film noir like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, “feel good” films like It’s a Wonderful Life, satiric social commentary such as The Great Dictator with Charlie Chaplin, the classic Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart, and comedies like the Road to Morocco starring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. 

The stars were ones whose names are still familiar today.  People like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, William Bendix, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Greer Garson, Judy Garland, Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland, Joan Fontaine, Cary Grant, Tyrone Power, Gene Kelley, Maureen O’Hara, Rosalind Russell, Clark Gable, and John Wayne were all performing in the movies and the list goes on and on and on.

We did not go to the movies often when I was a child.  There were few movie theaters, if there were any in the town I grew up in.  The City of Rochester had movie theaters that were really fancy.  One called the Riviera, I finally went to in the mid-1960s, when my friend Pamm and I took our little sisters to see Walt Disney’s Jungle book, (I cried in my popcorn when I thought Ballou, the bear, was killed).  We dressed up to go to the theater that day and it was really special for me since until that day, the only movies I had seen were at the local drive-in theater.

I loved the Lakeshore Drive-In. When I was growing up my father worked for what would be called the Department of Public Works in my hometown of Greece, NY.  At that time, one of the perks for working for the town was a pass to the drive-in and if we were going to see a movie, that is where we went.  My dad did not care for the “great indoors” much so if we could do something outside we went.  I saw some terrific movies at Lakeshore. 

Of course we took the station wagon, blankets, pillows, snacks, and sometimes one of my friends.  We didn’t go frequently since it had to be a movie my father would like and that was suitable for me.  The films that generally fit the bill were Walt Disney animated or live action films. 

What does this have to do with the 1940s?  Well, many of the movies I saw were first released in the 1940s and by the time I saw them at the drive-in for the first time they were just being re-released.  It was like a little child’s idea of heaven.  Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1938- can you name all seven?), was successfully re-released in 1944 beginning the studio’s seven year re-release plan.  Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942), Fantasia (1941),  and The Three Caballeros (1945) were all released during the war while productions of Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Wind in the Willows (all in the beginning stages) were put on hold as Disney Studios worked on training films, propaganda films, and home front morale boosting short films.  Walt Disney himself headed up a group that created insignia for military groups. The first insignia was created about 1933 for a Naval Reserve Squadron stationed at Floyd Bennett Field in New York.  Altogether the insignia designers created 1200 unique insignia for various soldiers and sailors. They were seen as morale boosters and most brought some humor to the men and women who wore them.  Walt Disney said he felt he owed it to the people who were serving.

With three Schine movie theaters in Geneva during the 1940s many of the movies I saw at the drive-in when they were re-released were brand new, seemed glamorous and provided their viewers with the opportunity to escape from the stress of war, rationing, worry, fear and anger.  Ah, the movies.  What a wonderful thing they are!  

Friday, February 6, 2015

Corcoran Family Scrapbook

By John Marks, Curator of Collections and Exhibits

In October I mentioned that Hobart & William Smith Public History students were creating posters on aspects of Geneva and World War II. The posters were on display from November to mid-December. Issues ranged from labor shortages during the war to the German POW camp on Pre-Emption Street, but a number of students focused on the social scene and nightlife during that time. Two basic questions that motivated them were: what was Geneva like during the war, and how did people stay happy?

Eric Lewis loaned us a family scrapbook that addresses the students’ questions. It documents his grandparents Francis George Corcoran and Marion McGuigan before and after they were married.  Frank joined the Navy in November 1943 and was sent 15 miles away to Sampson for basic training.

The photos were all taken outside in a neighborhood so they don’t show us much in the way of Geneva during the war. However, they seem to be large gatherings of family and friends, a pastime neither rationed nor prohibited. Frank was fortunate to be close enough to home to be part of festivities when on leave from basic training.

As for happiness, people continued to fall in love and get married, as Frank and Marion did on May 18, 1944. Frank was still stationed in the US and had leave to come back to Geneva for the wedding. The many photos look like any wedding, regardless of events in Europe and the Pacific.

The scrapbook has numerous postcards and some letters. Servicemen and women had free postage privileges but national security limited about what they could write. Most cards are about missing the recipient or the monotony of service: drilling, waiting to drill, or waiting for mail. Once shipped overseas, one’s location was limited to “at sea” or “somewhere in Belgium”.

In 1945 things did get interesting for Frank, although it’s not obvious from the way things are presented in the scrapbook. There is a water-stained letter dated “Mar. 14 at sea” and an envelope postmarked Mar. 26 1945 with an address for the USS Franklin. The next page has a typed letter from a friend that said, “I was pleased to learn some of the particulars about your safe return from that inferno that raged on the Franklin…”

The USS Franklin was an aircraft carrier off the coast of Japan that was attacked by a single plane on March 19, 1945. Two bombs dropped on the centerline and aft sections that ripped through several decks, setting off fires and explosions. Official Navy casualty figures were 724 killed and 265 wounded; some historians feel the toll was higher. The ship sustained the second largest naval casualties of the war, after the USS Arizona that was hit at Pearl Harbor.

Like many survivors, Frank jumped into the ocean, with the letter in his pocket, and was picked up by another ship. The letter was eventually mailed when the survivors reached Pearl Harbor.

Frank survived the war, came to Geneva, and raised a family. The later photos of family life illustrate something World War II veterans talk about: they did their duty but then they just wanted to get home and get on with their lives. Only in hindsight have many veterans appreciated the scope of their contributions.