The 1940s in clothing, not fashion
A look at the war years through the lenses of FSA photographers
Last time we looked at what women were wearing in their work and everyday lives in the 1930s, sometimes in alignment with and sometimes in contrast with what we expect based on the editorial images from the period that we’re possibly more familiar with. The outcome is, I believe, a more well-rounded view—and hopefully appreciation—of the clothes we may get to wear from these eras.
Style-wise, moving from the Great Depression to the WWII years is somewhat gradual; even though in fashion conversations today we tend to think in terms of decades, the transitions are far from that clear cut. This is especially true in the early war years, when austerity forced, or at least encouraged, people to wear clothes for much longer than most would consider reasonable today (but not you, dear reader, right?).
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I love the drama of the hat on the left. I will probably do a series on the women who photographed for the FSA/OWI at some point, including Esther Bubley. She had an incredible eye for capturing a mood, through people’s eyes in particular.
Note the belt on the left—if I found this I might think it was 1980s.
I love her expression so much. You get the feeling that the photographer asked her to stand this way, and that he’s trying to capture these women who are being trained to drive buses and taxis in somewhat feminine poses and she’s like, uh, okay guy. In many cities across America (and England), women were trained to drive public transit vehicles as more and more men went overseas. Nadine McKee Henry of Seattle (not pictured here) was 23 when she started driving a cab after Pearl Harbor. Although she claimed the veteran cabbies and servicemen were kind to the 30-odd women who joined their ranks, men still on the home front often treated them the worst. “The first couple of weeks on the job were a lesson you couldn't get out of any library… some of the men were as cruel as could be. I think because we were the first women to come out from under the yoke of men's power. They knew they were losing their grip and they resented it."1
Mary McLeod Bethune was an incredible figure in education and politics for the Black community in the early 20th century. At this time in 1943, she was not only Vice President of the NAACP but also served in the Roosevelt administration as director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, a capacity in which she is perhaps acting in this photo. She was also a member of the advisory board that created the WAC (Women’s Army Corps) in 1942 and helped to ensure it was racially integrated. She was an extremely effective writer, activist, organizer and educator.2
In 1939, Germany invaded Poland from the west and the Soviet Union invaded from the east, forcing over one million Polish citizens into exile in Siberia. Many died there from cold, malnutrition and disease, until Germany attacked the Soviet Union and in 1942 the surviving refugees were sent to the Middle East. Roughly 120,000 were sent to Iran to live in one of four camps like the one pictured above. Despite the country’s political instability and lack of resources, the refugees were accommodated as well as could be expected. “Polish refugees were well-received in Iran, and they integrated into the host society and worked as translators, nurses, secretaries, cooks and tailors,” said Reza Nikpour, an Iranian-Polish historian and member of the Iran-Poland Friendship Association. “Some of them also married Iranians and stayed in Iran permanently.”3
Tule Lake Segregation Center was the largest of the ten internment camps that housed persons of Japanese descent during the war, holding over 18,000 people from Washington, Oregon and California as a result of Roosevelt’s unconstitutional executive order 9066 which forcibly removed people from their homes and businesses.4 This could obviously be an entire post in itself, but I wanted to highlight their faces and fashionable clothing with the horror of the backdrop.
I love the vibe here, the way they’re wearing men’s trousers and giving absolutely no fucks about how they present gender for the camera or the other workers, they’re just doing the job and getting through it with some laughs. At rail yards like this one all over the country, women were hired during the war as turntable operators, machinists, storeroom clerks, tool-room attendants, porters, conductors, track workers and engine wipers. Overall, after looking at hundreds of photos of people from all walks of life in these photos, I feel even more convinced that anyone who says “people were just smaller back then” is speaking at best from a place of ignorance and at worst… well, let’s just assume the best.
Paynter, Susan. “As WWII raged, Seattle's first female cab drivers made history,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 9, 2004. https://www.seattlepi.com/news/article/As-WWII-raged-Seattle-s-first-female-cab-drivers-1144290.php
Varzi, Changiz M. “The complex story of Polish refugees in Iran,” Al Jazeera, June 3, 2017. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2017/6/3/the-complex-story-of-polish-refugees-in-iran