Call of Beauty: Rationed Fashion on the Home Front

By the time Americans entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they had already been feeling the effects of shortages.

Gas was still available in the fall of 1941, but gas stations were reducing their hours of operation to help conserve energy.

New cars weren’t in short supply yet, but automakers were reducing their production of passenger cars to build more airplanes and tanks. Businesses were warning Americans to take better care of their cars because it might be a long time before they could be replaced.

Of all the industries affected by the war, though, none brought the effect of war closer to Americans than the glamour business.

As J. C. Furnas points out in his November 29, 1941, article, “Glamour Goes to War,” American women were coping with shortages of cosmetics and stockings well before 1941. Embargoes and blockades halted the export of essential perfume oils from France, Bulgaria, Tibet, and Zanzibar. Necessary ingredients for lipstick and hair dye were no longer available from warring nations. Chemical solvents in nail polish were being requisitioned for military purposes. Even the brass used for lipstick containers was in short supply.

Almost all available silk had been purchased by the Defense Department to make parachutes and tents. Nylon stockings should have been the economical alternative. They had been introduced in May 1940, and 64 million pairs had been sold within the first year. But the raw materials of nylon were being used in the war effort, and women who wanted to avoid a bare-legged look were painting seams up their calves.

When the military began buying up the market supply of textiles, the fashion industry responded to the shortages by using less fabric in dresses. Hemlines went up and unnecessary detailing was dropped.

When cosmetics began to disappear, there was no matching movement to cut back on lipstick and powder. European perfume ingredients were replaced with synthetics, and whale spermaceti used in lipstick was swapped for more domestic lubricants.

Women continued to pursue the conventionally feminine image, even when operating heavy machinery in a B-17 plant. Advertisers encouraged this attitude, telling women it was their patriotic duty to maintain their looks for their men in uniform. The author himself warns that “many women, deprived of the usual makings of charm, would lose the personal self-confidence that helps bolster them through the ills of life.” The thought of 40 million women “reverting to Nature” made everyone jittery.

Much of the article is addressed to the “man of the house,” suggesting that his wife shouldn’t panic over the shortage. She may not have heard his reassurances, having already left for work at the munitions plant.

Front page for Glamour Goes to War
Read the original article, “Glamour Goes to War,” from the November 29, 1941 issue of the Post.

Featured image: Photos by Constance Bannister for “Glamour Goes to War,” from the November 29, 1941, issue of the Post.

War, Work, and Women, Part II

In April of 1944, when J. C. Furnas asked the question “Are Women Doing Their Share in the War?” [PDF download], he admitted, “This subject makes tough generalizing.”

Nationally, however, it seems to balance up this way: in war industry, women have been pulling their weight, and still are, though the last few months of 1943 saw a dismaying tendency among job-holding women to quit.

Women do all right in the armed forces when enlisted, but too few bother. In civilian-volunteer work, the situation is healthy only in special lines. In the home they could do better; in general co-operation they are unimaginative. The sum is not impressive. It is easy to see why many women going all-out in topside war-activity jobs admit disgust with their own sex, sometimes heatedly.

The author reported that the WACs (Women’s Army Corps) was having trouble meeting recruitment numbers. Hospitals were short of nurses’ aides. Moreover, women were spending a lot of the money they were earning and not saving precious household wastes.

The favorite general diagnosis for the failure of women to enlist is that fathers’ and boy friends’ disapproval is the catch. In view of how little masculine disapproval affected women’s urge to vote and wear colored nail polish, the theory seems inadequate.

Rosie the Riveter’s detractors like to harp on the fact that, in spite of fair-to-wonderful pay, absenteeism and turnover run higher among women than among men in war jobs.

Fair-to-wonderful was $31 a week doing the same job that paid a man $56 a week. Beyond the unfairness of the pay inequity, there’s also the household budget reality: a women who replaced a man lived on 45% less money.

Female lifeguard in World War II
“When G.I. Joe comes home from the wars, and naturally wants his old job back, will she have to come down from her perch?”

Admirers point to the fleets of planes over Berlin and Micronesia, made in plants where 40 per cent of the pay roll are women, many of whom never had an industrial job before.

The significant point seems to be that, where employers realize that women are not just “little men,” but different creatures, Rosie does very well. In some War-Department plants, handling high proportions of women cleverly, their absenteeism and turnover are better  than men’s.

The Moore Dry Dock Company, of Oakland, California, an important shipyard turning to women as manpower dwindled, once had a women’s turnover of 20 per cent every three months… Nowadays. Moore’s newly recruited women go on the job after a full course… to break them in on what men know automatically… It works. The first three months reduced turnover of women so processed to 7.9 per cent.

Rosie’s other troubles may come from the obvious fact that, to quote a sage expert, “Women don’t have wives”—nobody at home to clean the house, get breakfast, pack a hearty lunch and have a hot supper waiting. With a home and often youngsters to look after before, or after, her eight-hours at the plant plus transportation time, Rosie has a job and a half. No wonder so many women quit war jobs in a few weeks from discouragement or, after four to six months, from exhaustion.

The steady rise in the birth rate in the last few years is one thoroughly valid reason, of course, why many young women are not in war work. The nation now has more than 1,500,000 babies and children under four whom it would not have had if the birth rate had stayed at 1937 levels. Taking care of them under wartime shortages of help and safety pins is often a full-time job for a new mother, and always the best possible national service.

Almost 3,000,000 babies born since 1940 were “first births,” meaning inexperienced mothers. The total woman-hours involved in taking care of the 10,300,000 American babies known to have been born in the last four years is no negligible factor in the national situation.

Still, many women accepted these challenges. They took on totally new jobs and continued to hold the old one as homemaker. However they contributed to the war effort, women must have taken a dim view of the armchair experts who questioned their patriotism. They could criticize women’s motives and performance because they were volunteered, not ordered. Men escaped such criticism thanks to the wonderful incentive of the Selective Service Board. Even so, many men found ways to dodge the draft, and the criticism.

An eminent American legislator, asked to wrestle with that problem for purposes of this article, finally muttered something about “Why just talk about women? Too many Americans of both sexes are still trying to sit out the war.”

Read “Are Women Doing Their Share in the War?” [PDF download].