top of page
  • Writer's pictureCat T. Gardiner

A Woman's Essentials

Hi-di-ho friends! Just recently, I packed for a business trip to Washington DC and found myself chuckling at what "essentials" I needed to roll into a tiny carry-on suitcase. The size of the travel case hasn't changed much since the 1940s but the contents sure have! How on earth was I going to fit six days of clothing and toiletries, not to mention laptop with phone and computer chargers and outerwear? Then I considered how different those essentials are living in the warmth of Florida in comparison to the chilled, most likely rainy springtime climate above the Mason-Dixon Line. I should opt for slacks ... who the heck wants to squeeze into hosiery, which, if memory serves, is still part of a woman's business fashion style in the Northeast. Of course, one thought led to another as I added the bottles of conditioner, skincare, three different hairbrushes, three pairs of shoes, every sort of cosmetic color that should coordinate with my outfits and a myriad of other beauty supplies that are definitely, positively, essentials.

And all of the above sparked this blog post. There were fewer "essentials" during the war years, but those that were were concrete, and it didn't matter where you lived on the home front, and it sure as heck didn't matter what the climate was. In fact, some of these fashion standards, carried into the military. The WAVES, the Army Nursing Corps, the WASPs, etc. considered several of these necessary to their uniforms.

The essentials in women's beauty during the 1940s meant two things: Duty and patriotism. Looking ones absolute best, exemplifying the pinnacle of femininity-even during military service and the factories-was all for the boys. A morale booster. Imagine this: At the height of the war, there were 19,170,000 women in the labor force. That's a lot of support!

COLORS: Coordinated outfits are always essential but matchy-matchy wasn't super important. What was important was choosing the right color because fashion was, in a round about way, on the ration. Skirts became shorter, no pleats, much simpler, and that meant colors, too. In the interest of National Defense, fabric colors were restricted, dyes became limited during the war. To the right is the Fall 1942 Woolen Color Card. So choosing colors that were going work well together was important.

GLOVES: Gloves were a crucial element to elegant fashion right up until the 1960s. There were different lengths for different times of the day, but they were worn - year round - even in Florida.

Not only socialites and debutantes wore gloves. The girl next door did as well. In the late 1930's, Vogue magazine wrote this: "Smart women wear them at the opera ... At formal dances, a fair number of gloves are in evidence. They are worn occasionally to dinners, but are removed when dinner is served. Daytime gloves are longer, covering the cuff or meeting the sleeves of the new shorter sleeved dresses. Short, stitched gloves fastening with one button are smart for sports."

HAT: Like a man's Fedora, a woman's hat completed her outfit. It was an absolute essential for special occasions and a wonderful form of personal expression. Thankfully, they were not on the ration, but they did get smaller to conserve fabric. Most often, they were worn above rolled and pinned hair, tilted just so, and sported lovely adornments of flowers or feathers. Fascinators, Pictures, Fedoras, Peter Pans, and Turbans are to name a few, but all were the picture of femininity and grace.

Other styles emerged, too. Flowers were tucked into a curl or at the side of a snood, a staple in wartime home front hairdressing that I absolutely love! The snood (hair net) was a common style during the Renaissance period and, today, makes a great "bad hair day" solution.

HAIR (Bob) PINS: It's true that the lush, face-framing peekaboo style of Veronica Lake and Rita Hayworth's cascading waves were all the rage, but they weren't practical or safe for gals outside of Hollywood. Female employment in defense industries grew by 462 percent from 1940 to 1944. That's a lot of hair and Veronica Lake demonstrated in this public service film (below) just what could happen.

Enter Victory Rolls, pinned at the sides and crown, they became a symbol of wartime gals whether in the factory or at home. Hair pins were essential to securing the rolls.

STOCKINGS (not pantyhose): Did you know that the term "Nylons" became the catch word for stockings? A deliberate marketing device on DuPont's part. You see, silk was hard to get, expensive when you could, but after Pearl Harbor near impossible. In 1939, DuPont created the synthetic knit, nylon, and their first commercial focus was stockings. The fit and durability of nylons were so popular that 64 million pairs were sold in 1940. A year later, we entered the war. Nylon was so durable that women on the home front had to give up this essential to their wardrobe because the boys serving needed parachutes and tents. That stocking shortage lasted until 1947!

Leg make-up to resemble stockings

If you were lucky enough to have a pair, you cherished it and wore them only for special occasions. Otherwise, you settled for make-up, specifically manufactured to mimic the look of nude (black colored nylon was not until the 50s) stockings, but that wasn't enough - you needed a girlfriend to draw that black line up your leg. The line was essential, too. Although a seam was made in its manufacturing, it was also a fashionable way to elongate the leg. Men loved long gams!

For women serving in the armed forces, they were required to wear stockings and color varied depending upon branch of service and year. IE: white for Navy nurses in white uniform, but in 1944 beige-cotton or rayon-became standard.

LIPSTICK: And not just any color. It had to be red. Whether ruby, claret, or blue-red, it all was

meant to send the message "Patriotism." The colors were named accordingly: Victory, Auxiliary, Montezuma, and Fighting. Choose another color and you were sending the wrong message.

Those beautiful gold-toned tubes of the 30s were gone, replaced by utilitarian non-essential metal and for a short time, paper and plastic tubes. Every last drop of lipstick was used because, as essential to beauty and morale as it was, it was scarce. Two ingredients: castor oil and petroleum were needed in war production and difficult to obtain.

HANDKERCHIEF: Like the language of the fan, generations have used the handkerchief for more than blowing. Queen Elizabeth I used it to communicate to her court, Civil War soldiers kept them as keepsakes. No doubt, during WWII they dried many tears. Hand-stitched souvenirs sent home from the boys to mothers and sweethearts were an essential in a woman's purse. This lovely poem was written by a fellow member of the National League of American Pen Women about her memory of a handkerchief.

A Handkerchief

copyright: Bette J. Lafferty Long before the tissue came each little girl did know, A handkerchief in her pocket was a must with furbelow. Do you have a handkerchief, a nice linen one will do, With fancy lace surrounding it and your initial on it too? Perhaps yours is made of cotton like the ones I had long ago, The ones my mother used to tie my nickel in for the picture show. Tissues come and tissues go but handkerchiefs come to stay, Like friends you keep them near your heart and never throw them away.

NAIL POLISH - MANICURED FINGERS - Just as important today (and yes, I did pack nail polish for my trip) the appearance of a woman's hands were essential to her wardrobe. Hence, gloves, for keeping them clean and soft. Polish may not have been essential in the factories but that didn't mean that cosmetic companies didn't push the patriotic agenda to war workers with products such as "Dura-Gloss" for Rosie as she riveted. Again, patriot red was the rage.

For a night out on the town, U.S.O dances, the movies and walks with your GI, half-moon manicures were popular. Below is a little tutorial video that I made should you want to give this style a whirl. It's a swell look and making a comeback in today's savvy nail manicures.

There were a few other essentials - those items the boys referred to as "silky unmentionables," a slip being the most important. But the most essential essential to any woman's wardrobe during the war years was simply a smile because that could lift any weary soldier's spirit in a heartbeat!

Until next time my friends! Keep 'Em Flying!

bottom of page