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Clothing Amidst Conflict: Womenswear During WWII

Part 1: Fashion on the Frontlines

The United States attempted to remain neutral during the first two years of World War II. However, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his intent to involve America in the war against Axis powers. One day later, he declared war on Japan and said on the radio: “We are going to win the war.”

The period between December 1941 and September 1945 is one of the darkest periods in American and world history. It also proved an especially pivotal moment of progress for women in American society. In an effort to maximize soldier counts, men were moved from non-combat roles into frontline facing positions. The remaining unoccupied roles--both in the military and industry--were filled by women. The purpose of this exhibition is to examine the lives of women who contributed to the war effort, both on and off the frontlines through the clothing they wore.

The first portion of this exhibit explores the fashionable uniforms worn by women who served in the military. During World War 1, women played important roles as stenographers, nurses, and as servicewomen for the Women's Land Army. Their roles expanded in WWII and between the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (which later became the Women's Army Corps known as WACs), Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), Women Accepted for Volunteer Military Services (WAVES, a naval branch), Marines, and the Coast Guard, over 350,000 women served.. While the uniforms of each branch share similar design elements, each is distinguished in some way, whether by fashion designer, color, silhouette, and/or material.

Part 2: Fashion off the Frontlines

Though women in the military played a critical role during WWII, they weren’t the only women contributing to the war effort. Businesses lost an important part of their labor force when men enlisted, and women stepped up to offset that dearth. Women were empowered by earning an income, but at the same time, their wages were lower than the men who’d previously been working these jobs.

The jumpsuit on display resembles the iconic uniform of an industrial worker during this period, commonly known as “Rosie the Riveter.” Denim coveralls made of durable 100% cotton was a suitable material for women on the move doing laborious manual labor. “Rosies” accessorized their look with a bandana, which provided additional safety and enhanced concentration. This unofficial and classic red-and-blue Americana uniform amplified the sense of patriotism and grit women felt at the time.

Women were both at work and home, and styled their bodies for the different roles and spaces they inhabited. They dressed for occasions big and small. Everyday civilian attire reflects this, as does special occasion wear. Fashion trends during the early forties blended the fabric rationing, patriotic sentiment, and militaristic features, with hope for the future. In combination, these trends reminded the civilians that war was happening and women were not sitting idly.

Land Acknowledgement: Cornell University is located on the traditional homelands of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ' (the Cayuga Nation). The Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ' are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign Nations with a historic and contemporary presence on this land. The Confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York State, and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ' dispossession, and honor the ongoing connection of Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ' people, past and present, to these lands and waters. Moreover, we acknowledge that Cornell University obtained 977,909 acres of expropriated indigenous land through the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862.

Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Charlotte Jirousek, Professor Denise Green, Helen McLallen, the Cornell Fashion + Textile Collection, The Fiber Science and Apparel Design Department, the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, The Kheel Center for Labor-Management and Documentation Archives, The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Annette Becker,The Texas Fashion Collection at the University of Northern Texas, Brian Berke, Lisa Edson, Gwen Bymers, Frances Lauman, Marjorie Holmes Sullivan, Mrs. John (Kate) Hopwood Payne, Sally Gibson Noel, Elizabeth Schmeck Brown, Joanne Runkel, and Emily F. (Mrs. W.T.) Grams

Curator: Audrey Perlman, Undergraduate Student the Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design, Class of 2021

Advisor: Professor Denise Green, Associate Professor in the Department of Fiber Science & Apparel Design

Date: May 2021 - September 2021

Social Media: Instagram @cornellfashioncollection, Facebook @cornellfashion

Funding: Charlotte A. Jirousek Fellowship, generously supported by Melissa and Michael Neborak