Fashion in times of crisis: wartime lessons that we can learn from our great-grandmothers

When it comes to the pandemic, people are increasingly saying: “We are at war.” Of course, this is not a war during which bullets fly, but some analogies with the Second world war can still be drawn: in the rear, those who stay at home fight the deadly enemy, and on the front line it is beaten by employees of hospitals and nursing homes, they are real heroes. The evil irony of fate is that it was the generation of the Second world war that was under attack — our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Now, in 2020, the 1940s have taken on a new meaning, so what can that era teach us?

The events of the past few months strangely echo the idea of the Maison Margiela spring-summer 2020 show — John Galliano dedicated this collection to the patriotism and heroism of people who participated in the second world War. Uniforms of nurses and soldiers, images of French partisan women and secret service agents-that’s what the designer presented on the podium. It is unlikely that Galliano, with all his highly developed intuition, could have suspected the impending pandemic, he was inspired by the war for another reason. What we should learn from our predecessors is willpower: “to Understand the significance of history and its lessons,” says Galliano. “Time passes, old hopes, values and heroism are forgotten, and everything is repeated again and again.”

Maison Margiela spring-summer 2020 

Now we are seeing a return of fighting spirit and solidarity: volunteerism, activism, noble deeds, creativity that does not die even within four walls, and resourcefulness — we have found forces in ourselves that we did not even know about a month ago. All this applies to the fashion industry as well. Responsible attitude to the means of protection, attempts to appreciate and love what you have (rather than buy new), the transfer of factory and home sewing capacity to the public service, the willingness to share, improve, save — all these are part of the great struggle to save our planet.

“Ask yourself, what can I do to help?” says Phillip lim in a recently recorded video for, which announced the creation of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund’s A Common Thread program, aimed at raising funds to support members of the fashion community most affected by COVID-19.

The pandemic has reminded us that we have persistently overlooked the last few decades of increasing overuse — fashion has always been ready to participate in the global response to the crisis. In the years of world war II, the industry provided assistance to the front-the hands of designers and women volunteers, who resourcefully solved the shortage of materials. This was reflected both in the Vogue shoot and in the work of the editors.

Nurses in gas masks, 1942

© Everett Collection Inc

Now we learn courage from the examples of our incredible grandmothers and great-grandmothers, who, despite all the hardships, managed to take care of their clothes. We tell about six striking Parallels between that distant time and the present.

Vogue at war

THEN: Vogue met the Second world war with life-affirming editorials and reflections on how to make fashion work in difficult times. The magazine featured the work of the famous photojournalist Lee Miller, a fearless American who had been the Muse of the artist man ray in the 1920s, and in the 1930s took up photography, married sir Roland Penrose, and moved to England. From there, in war-torn Europe, she reported.

In 1939, Miller joined British Vogue and on behalf of editor-in-chief Audrey withers went to shoot women in war: soldiers, nurses, pilots, vigilantes who replaced men in agriculture, factory workers, drivers and red cross volunteers.

After the London edition of Vogue was bombed in September 1940, withers moved the employees to the wine cellar, under the stairs, and Miller captured it. “Vogue is here in spite of everything! — says the caption to the photo. “In a simple way, but cheerfully and cheerfully, Vogue, like all Londoners, takes refuge in a bomb shelter.” For reference: at the same time, Bettina Ballard from American Vogue arrived in Paris and joined the ranks of the red cross, and Sally Kirkland and Mary Jean Kempner went on a business trip to the Pacific front.

Lee Miller and American soldiers, 1944

© David E. Scherman

The most historically significant works of Lee Miller were made in the last days of the war in Germany and France. She accompanied American troops in the liberation of the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps, shot and regularly sent harrowing films to British Vogue. “Believe me, the civilians knew what was going on there,” Leigh Audrey withers telegraphed.… I hope that Vogue will dare to publish these photos.” And Vogue published it. Edna Woolman chase, editor-in-chief of American Vogue, wrote in her autobiography: “We hesitated for a long time, held several meetings about the publication and finally did it. The decision seemed right to us.”

NOW: According to the old tradition, Vogue is still talking about the problems of real women. for example, published an article in The New Responders: The Grocery Workers-stories and photos of young grocery store employees who continue to go out to work, meet people so that life in new York does not stop. This portrait of frontline survivors is a true chronicle of the pandemic. In some ways, it can even be compared to Lee Miller’s reports on women who put themselves in danger during the war.

Destine Riviera at work at Gourmet Garage, new York, 2020

Designers unite for the sake of saving resources

THEN: At a time when London was being bombed and the supply of fabrics was strictly regulated, the British government organized a group of the best couturiers in the capital, so that they all developed a design under the anonymous brand Utility Apparel Order marked CC41 (stands for Civilian Clothing Order 1941 — “civilian clothing series, 1941”). — Primas’. Vogue). Among the participants of the project were Elspeth Champmunal, editor of British Vogue, who became a designer of the brand Worth London, hardy AMIS, Digby Morton, Bianca Mosca, Viktor Stiebel and Edward Molyneux, who previously dressed Parisian divas Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich.

Their innovative idea can be called a harbinger of what is happening in fashion today: minimalistic eco-friendly clothing, sewn according to simple but original patterns. Vogue stated: “If we want women to buy less, we need to make the product better.” The practical cut meant knee-length dresses with wide shoulders, suits with skirts and trousers — wartime classics that still inspire Miuccia Prada. The typical style of shoes provided for a massive stable sole, so that it was convenient to walk and ride a Bicycle. People then tried to save money and use public transport less often — just like we do now.

Cecil Beaton, Vogue 1940

NOW: There is no more relevant wording today than “Buy less, but better”. Let us repeat that the foresight and ingenuity of fashion designers of the war era became a kind of harbinger of the responsibility of modern designers. By 2020, many brands have begun to work with the waste of their own production — fabric scraps and other illiquid materials – and create amazing things from the” garbage”.

Can the practical approach of designers from the Second world war and their desire to work together become relevant again? The first swallows of this progressive movement for a less selfish system were seen in Milan and London. Miuccia Prada has called RAF Simons as Prada’s second creative Director. Phoebe English launched a campaign among fellow designers to share their unused materials. She will create a collection from what she has collected and mark everyone who has participated in it. Exchange, cooperation and careful attitude to resources-these are the components of a promising future.

Phoebe English autumn-winter 2020

Do it yourself

THEN: Women will not allow anything and no one to stand between themselves and fashion — skirts were sewn from curtains, blouses with prints were made from handkerchiefs, if there were no stockings in the closet, then they simply drew a seam directly on the leg. Military brides were married in dresses made of parachute silk. At that time, it was vital to be adept with what you already had. So needlework turned into a real art. In 1943, the British Ministry of information published the book Make Do and Mend — a pocket guide with many instructions: how to re-sew an old thing, how to deal with moths, how to save energy during washing, how to properly unravel a woolen sweater to knit something else out of it. Almost every woman could sew then. And so the next generation — teenagers of the 1960s-grew up with the understanding that you can fit a dress to the figure for a Saturday night on your own.

Kamilla Koffler, Vogue 1941

NOW: The pandemic and self-isolation provoked a surge of interest in repairing and updating things. Instagram and YouTube are full of instructional videos that allow you to learn any skill from the comfort of your home: embroidery, knitting, sewing, darning, or anything else you like. On the one hand, this is a way to keep yourself occupied during the quarantine, and on the other — an opportunity to show the younger ones that you can create things yourself. The lessons learned now will certainly benefit in the future — we will learn to appreciate what we have, we will respect the painstaking work of craftsmen, and our children will never forget these days of home creation.

The need to wear masks

THEN: Lee Miller’s surreal 1941 photograph of two volunteer firefighters in metal protective masks became one of the symbols of the London bombings. In 1939, in England and France, gas masks were already issued to the civilian population in case Germany decided to launch a chemical attack. The latter never happened, but the women managed to turn the bag with a gas mask, which was prescribed to carry with them at all times, into a fashion accessory. The headlines of Parisian Newspapers before the occupation said: “Parisian Women will never give up fashion because of the war.” So it was: the girls picked up special bags to match the outfits, and fashion designer Jeanne Lanvin even came up with a special accessory of cylindrical shape on the shoulder strap for her clients.

Lee Miller, 1941

© The Lee Miller Archives

NOW: The trend for protective masks was clearly set by Marin Serre’s February show. “The most difficult thing is to stay calm when faced with a tsunami,” the designer said in a conversation with mark Holgate of Vogue Runway. Now residents of Europe and America are catching up with Asians, for whom the mask is the norm, they have long been used to using it to protect themselves from viruses and dirty air. Young designers quickly reacted and began sewing, in which the main thing is to comply with safety requirements and make a mask from a washable material.

As soon as the Paris medical Academy and the Centers for control and prevention of diseases of the U.S. in unison confirmed that protect the respiratory tract, going outside must, the mask instantly became an integral part of our reality (important note: buy professional medical is for doctors, ordinary people have enough homemade dressings).

Turban as a sign of protest

THEN: Women and girls turned the need to cover the head into an attribute of high style — in military Paris, this became a real political statement. “During the occupation, Parisian women tried in every possible way to tease the wives of German officers — for example, they dressed completely differently from them,” explains British Hatter Stephen Jones. — Some wrapped kitchen towels and rags around their heads, contrasting them with the neat hats of German women, and so expressed their resistance. They tried to look as bold and provocative as possible. So the turbans became a sign of protest.” Rioters on the streets inspired the hatmaker Madame Paulette, who became famous in the 1940s thanks to bulky turbans. In the working environment, however, pragmatism reigned Supreme. The then-popular “riveter Rosie” — a factory girl who was depicted on posters promoting safe work for American women-hid her hair behind a kerchief.

Donald Silverstein, Vogue 1956

NOW: By 2020, turbans and other headbands have taken a strong position in the multicultural fashion industry. The iconic covers of British Vogue-Adwoa Aboa in a turban Stephen Jones for Marc Jacobs (the debut issue of Edward Enninful as editor — in-chief), Rihanna in a bandana (the current may issue) – only confirm this. Now, when it is impossible to get to a colorist, and conferences in Zoom occur every day,the ability to beautifully disguise an unwashed head is expensive.

Steven Meisel, Vogue 2017

Modernization of shoes

THEN: Ever wonder where the wedges came from? Salvatore Ferragamo had an Epiphany in the grim wartime Italy. Leather and metal were then requisitioned by the army, and Ferragamo solved the problem by replacing the usual materials with new and unexpected ones: he made soles from cork, and braided straps and jumpers from household waste, such as cellophane wrappers. The fruits of the ingenuity of a skilled shoemaker were immediately elevated to the rank of actual High fashion, and no one said a word about the “low-grade” alternatives. Ferragamo wedges instilled in European women a love for the massive soles popular in wartime.

Salvatore Ferragamo, 1937-1938

NOW: Modern avant-garde designers also often use undervalued materials. For them, this is an opportunity to transform their aesthetics and reduce their production waste. The leader in this field is Helen Kirkum, who took upsikling sneakers back in 2016 while studying at the Royal College of art. Since then, she has built a business on this: Helen buys sneakers from Traid thrift stores in London, takes them apart and builds new ones from the fragments obtained. “I want people to appreciate the beauty of scuffs, stains, signs of wear and tear, I emphasize all this especially,” says Kirkum. — I like to think that the memories embedded in a thing will live on.”

Helen Kirkum

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