by Tegan Kehoe and Camille Myers Breeze
In last week's post, Jen Nason introduced you to the American Women’s Voluntary Services and the collection of WWII uniforms and accessories we are conserving for Wheaton College. Today we will take a closer look at the garments themselves, and what we they tell us about fashion and rationing during WWII.
1940’s women’s fashions for daily wear were heavily influenced by the war, even outside of the armed forces and support organizations. Women favored tailored blouses, jackets, and knee-length skirts. They were practical, sturdy, and used relatively little fabric, but had feminine details such as shoulder pads and higher hemlines than 1930’s styles. These fashions were sometimes called utility fashion, named after the Utility Clothing Scheme, one of the rationing schemes used in the UK. An exhibit on this topic, entitled “Beauty as Duty,” came to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2011.
An indication not only of the war-time economy but also of the long duration of the conflict is the variety of fabrics found in the Wheaton AWVS collection. Among the collection, we find two pocketbooks, two ties, one belt, five garrison caps, two hats, three skirts, three jackets, and one dress. There are no fewer than 5 different fabrics represented, from 100% cotton plain weave to different styles or types of rayon.
The light-blue cotton skirt, belt, and hat could perhaps be the earliest in the collection. Sgt. Burgess Scott's 1945 article Clothing and the War states that cotton was extremely difficult to come by and rayon was the most common substitute. A manufactured cellulosic fiber, rayon is neither a synthetic nor truly a natural fiber. It can mimic the characteristics of silk, linen, and cotton but rayon has poor elastic regain and was best dry cleaned.
Another interesting feature of this collection is that two of the three jackets have wooden buttons that are painted a gold color to look like metal. During WWII, metal was in short supply, so it was considered patriotic to use substitutes whenever possible and donate metal to scrap drives to be recycled for military purposes. The Wheaton College collection has extra sets of buttons, apparently salvaged from other garments.
Wheaton's AWVS collection is in very good condition and had probably been dry cleaned before going into storage decades ago. Stay tuned for our final AWVS blog, a show-and-tell of the uniforms before and after conservation.