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Ithaca, N.Y. – A new fashion exhibition, Clothing Amidst Conflict: Womenswear During World War II, will feature clothing worn by American servicewomen, medical professionals, and civilians from 1941 to 1945. The exhibit will open at The College of Human Ecology (Level T) on May (insert date), 2021.

The exhibit is curated by Audrey Perlman ‘21, a senior in the College of Human Ecology with a particular interest in wartime fashions. “Fashion changed so suddenly and so drastically during World War II,” says Perlman, which is why she decided to center her research on womenswear during the early 1940s. Fashion extended to women’s changing roles in American society, from workwear to uniforms. “By the end of the war, each branch of the military included women in some way, and servicewomen were outfitted in strikingly fashionable uniforms” says Perlman. It was an important moment in history when women could join the military and be officially recognized as such.”

Women played critical roles in World War I as stenographers, nurses, and in the Women's Land Army, but their roles vastly expanded during World War II. Over 350,000 women served in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (which later became the Women's Army Corps, the WAC), Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (the WASPs), Women Accepted for Volunteer Military Services (the WAVES, a naval branch), Marines, and the Coast Guard. While the branches share similar design elements, each branch is distinguished in some way, whether by fashion designer, color, silhouette, and material.

Perlman continues, “Off the frontlines, gender roles were being radically transformed. Young women, wives, and mothers found themselves entering the workforce and taking jobs in factories. Fashion and social decorum changed quickly” Indeed, as women assumed the jobs their husbands left behind, and the new jobs in factories spurred by the war effort, masculine accents entered womenswear. Shoulder pads created a powerful silhouette, pants became acceptable, and utilitarian collars and pockets were increasingly routine.

Women on the homefront wondered, “How can we help our soldiers from afar?” and this sentiment permeated fashion trends. Fabric rationing took effect in June of 1941, making full sleeves, long dresses, circle-skirts, and other designs that relied on copious amounts of fabric impossible to buy and unfashionable to wear. Women supported the war effort through fashion, opting for a slimmer, more tailored look. Hemlines began to shrink and knee-length dresses and skirts emerged. Nylon was reserved for the war , so women forwent their beloved stockings and instead drew a tan line up the backs of their legs to mimic the look. Even wedding dresses were designed for future use so as not to be wasteful.

“Fashion does not exist in a vacuum, independent of the world around it,” says Perlman. “Fashion is the product of its time and place, a visual and tangible manifestation of everything going on around us, and I hope to remind people of this with my exhibit. Clothing is a useful and important tool we can and should use to think through, question, and understand politics, culture, history, and ourselves.”

The exhibit is curated by Charlotte Jirousek Research Fellow Audrey Perlman BS ‘21, a undergraduate in the Fiber Science and Apparel Design program. Perlman is advised by Professor Denise Green and is assisted by the Cornell Fashion and Textile Collection.