It’s the pandemic phrase repeated over and over these days: we’re in a war, we’re fighting a war. It may not be a war that’s raining down bombs and bullets, but there are strangely similar parallels to the last great conflagration of the second world war: a lethal enemy is being fought on the home front as we shelter, in families, in communities, and by heroes and heroines on the frontlines in hospitals and care homes. And meanwhile, it’s precisely the second world war generation — our grandmothers and great grandmothers who lived through it — who we’re all being called upon to protect. As the 1940s speak to the 2020s with startling new relevance, what that era has to teach us — about them and about ourselves — is suddenly a fascinatingly useful area to explore.
The events of the past few months now shine the strangest light on the meaning of John Galliano’s Maison Margiela spring/summer ’20/‘21 show: it was a collection he dedicated to the public spirit and heroic values of women and men in the second world war. Nurses’ uniforms; army, navy and airforce uniforms; images of female French resistance fighters and undercover agents — it was all there. There’s no way that Galliano, even with his zeitgeist-attuned antennae, could have known about the coming pandemic. Nevertheless, he’d hit on his inspiration for a very good reason. What we need to learn now is a bit of backbone: “Reverence for the lessons of history, and what they taught us,” as he put it. “Stories of hope, heroines and liberation are forgotten as history draws ever closer to repetition.”
Repetition? Now, maybe we’re seeing that wartime public spirit flooding back in all the good ways: volunteering, activism, generosity, the at-home creativity and resourcefulness — the discovery of all the strengths none of us realised we had in us even a month ago. Overnight, the relevance to fashion is right there with us, too. From the need to wear protective clothing, to consider and love what we already own, to turn over factory and domestic sewing production to public service, to share, repair and conserve — it goes all the way through to intersecting with the bigger battle of our time, saving the planet.
“Ask yourself, how can I be of service?” were the words Phillip Lim chose when he pitched in to add his voice to a home-recorded Vogue.com video bringing news of how the CFDA/ Vogue Fashion Fund has been repurposed as A Common Thread, in support of Covid-19-affected people in the American fashion community. His stirring choice of phrase was a flag-waving example of how people in fashion — both vast conglomerates and individuals — have been rising to levels of cooperation and creative thinking that were almost unimaginable before the worldwide coronavirus emergency.
It was also a reminder of something that had dropped out of our collective memory during these past two decades of speeding overconsumption: the fact that fashion steps up to play honourable roles in times of crisis, and always has. It did so during the second world war. It did so among designers, women who volunteered, women who adapted creatively to shortages; it was there on the pages of Vogue, and in how its editors played their parts.
So if there’s ever a time to take heart from how our amazing grandmothers and great-grandmothers did it — while still caring about fashion and beauty — it’s surely now. Here are six eye-opening comparisons between then, and how we are now.
- Vogue at war
Then:Vogue rose to the occasion of the second world war with uplifting, inventive editorials and practical strategies for making fashion work in times of hardship. It also published the landmark photojournalism of the intrepid Lee Miller. A fearless American, who had been visual artist Man Ray’s muse in the 1920s, Lee spent the 1930s as a photographer at the heart of the surrealist movement, and was married to Roland Penrose in England when she was determined to play her part in reporting the war from embattled Europe. Joining British Vogue in 1939, she was commissioned by editor-in-chief Audrey Withers, going out to photograph women at war: in the forces, nurses, pilots, land girls, factory workers, drivers and Red Cross volunteers.
When Vogue’s London offices were bomb-damaged in September 1940, Withers captured the editorial staff working under the stairs in the wine cellar. “Here is Vogue, in spite of all!” read the upbeat caption. “Unceremoniously, but cheerfully, Vogue, like its fellow Londoners, is being put to bed in a shelter.” Meanwhile, American Vogue editor Bettina Ballard joined the Red Cross in Paris, and Sally Kirkland and Mary Jean Kempner went to report from the Pacific front.
Lee Miller’s most historic testament came in the last days of the war in Germany and France. Embedded with the American army, she entered Buchenwald and Dachau as the camps were being liberated, and sent harrowing photographs back to Vogue in London. “Believe it,” she cabled Audrey Withers. “No question the civilians knew what was going on… the railway siding into Dachau runs past villas […] I hope Vogue will feel it can publish these pictures.” It did. As Edna Woolman Chase, editor-in-chief of American Vogue, wrote in her autobiography: “We hesitated a long time and held many conferences about whether or not to publish them. In the end we did, and it seemed right.”
Now: In the Vogue tradition of reporting on the real-life concerns of women, Vogue.com commissioned The New Responders: The Grocery Workers, a story which spoke to and photographed the young women who are facing the public and keeping food stores open and running in New York. The compassionate insight into the experiences of people on the frontline in every store, written by journalist Estelle Tang and photographer Sinna Nasseri stands as a 2020 pandemic documentary, paralleling the reporting that Lee Miller did of women putting themselves in harm’s way during the second world war.
- When designers collaborate to save resources
Then: While London was being blitzed and fabric supplies were rationed, the British government assembled a group of top London couturiers to design jointly under the anonymous Utility Apparel Order with the deco-logo CC41 (meaning Civilian Clothing order 1941). The designers who stepped up were Elspeth Champcommunal, a former editor of British Vogue who had become a designer at Worth London, Hardy Amies, Digby Morton, Bianca Mosca, Victor Stiebel and Edward Molyneux, who had dressed Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich in Paris.
In retrospect, their plan effectively pioneered a creative prototype for today: a minimalist, sustainable wardrobe made on ingeniously spare lines. Voguedeclared: “If women must buy less, then they will buy better.” Utility patterns included knee-length, broad-shouldered dresses, skirt suits and trousers — the classic wartime style that has inspired designers such as Miuccia Pradaforever after. Standardised shoes with heavy soles were provided for women who were walking and cycling to save money and avoid public transport. Exactly as we’re doing now.
Now: What is more relevant than “Buy less, but better” now? The ingenuity of wartime resourcefulness is a forerunner of today’s responsibly active designers who are channelling their creativity into zero-waste strategies. In 2020, innumerable designers are reusing their own deadstock materials and left-over fabric scraps to produce beautiful things — a positive momentum that is certain to go further at a time when Italian fabric mills have been on hiatus.
Even more radically, could the second world war Utility method of designers pooling their creativity to make better, more interesting clothes also be starting to happen again? Signals of an avant-garde movement towards a less ego-competitive way of thinking have already emerged in 2020 in Milan and London. Miuccia Prada has teamed up with Raf Simons as co-creative director of Prada; Phoebe English asked London designer friends to donate their deadstock materials to make her own collection, crediting the collective at her show. Voilà: sharing, co-operation and resource saving as the way ahead.
- Make do and mend
Then: Women let nothing stand between them and looking fashionable: brides got married in parachute silk dresses; frocks were made from blackout materials; print blouses from headscarves; and if you didn’t have stockings, you drew a ‘seam’ up the back of your legs. Meanwhile, the need to be inventive with the clothes you already owned raised the skills of reinventing and mending to the status of do-it-yourself arts. In 1943, the British Ministry of Information issued Make Do and Mend, a handbook of instructions for remaking new clothes from worn pieces, combatting moths, energy-saving laundering and decorative templates for unravelling wool sweaters for reknitting, darning and patchworking. “Pool your equipment and ideas! Start a sewing party where you can pool your scissors, pins, piece-bags, dressmakers’ dummies and sewing machines.” Almost every woman knew how to sew. It meant that the whole generation — teenagers in the 1960s — grew up knowing how to run-up dresses for a Saturday night out.
Now: During these pandemic days of self-isolation, the culture of mending, upcycling and repurposing is hugely on the upswing. Crafting at-home videos showing how-to techniques of embroidery, knitting, sewing and darning on YouTube and Instagram are becoming both a way of passing time meditatively and of empowering a new generation to realise we can make and fix things with our own hands. Lessons learned today will surely fan out into the future: appreciation of the value of what we already own, respect for the time-consuming expertise of craftspeople, and the raising of children who will always remember days spent playing with creative projects at home. None of this time will go to waste.
- When we need to wear masks
Then: Lee Miller’s 1941 surreal photograph of women volunteer fire-watchers wearing protective metal visors and goggles is an emblem of the London blitz. In 1939, gas masks had already been issued to civilians in Britain and France, in case Germany resorted to chemical warfare. It never happened, but women were soon making a point of style out of the requirement to carry gas mask bags at all times. In France, before the occupation, newspaper headlines declared “Women in Paris will not Forsake Fashion in War!” True to form, Parisiennes had begun toting leather or satin-covered gas-mask boxes to match their outfits, while milliner Jeanne Lanvin came up with a chic haute couture cylindrical shoulder-strap bag for her customers.
Now: The widespread wearing of face masks presciently turned up on Marine Serre’s runway in late February. “The hardest part is keeping calm in the eye of the storm,” she told Vogue Runway’s Mark Holgate — a comment which referred as much to the climate emergency as coronavirus. In Europe and the US, people have been playing catch-up with the populations of South Korea, China and Japan, where wearing face masks has long been a social norm as both a health precaution, and a guard against air pollution. During weeks of confused advice from western authorities, young designers were quick to respond, making their own and sharing patterns across the internet. The creative explosion is utilising colourful upcycled fabrics people have around their homes: crucially, safety demands that they must be washable after every use, and you must not touch your face while wearing them.
Since the French Academy of Medicine and the American Centers for Disease Control both confirmed that masks should be worn when people leave their homes, they’ve swiftly become a regular part of life (always with the proviso that the public shouldn’t divert supplies from frontline workers). It’s arguable that the emergence of face-mask wearing was brewing long before this pandemic, however: it’s been there among anti-surveillance protest groups, in Drill music culture, and the wearing of respirator masks by urban cyclists everywhere.
- Turbans make a stand
Then: Girls and women turned the necessity to cover into a high style — and in Paris, a wildly subversive fashion statement during the war effort. “During the occupation, Parisiennes did everything they could to insult German officers’ wives simply by wearing the exact opposite of whatever they wore,” explains British milliner Stephen Jones. “So girls started signalling their resistance to the neat-hatted German women on the streets by winding tea towels and dishcloths into evermore towering turbans, hopefully the most extreme and vulgar they could arrange. It was hats as rebellion.” Seeing the girls on the streets inspired the milliner Madame Paulette, who became famous for her gigantic swathed turbans of the 1940s. Meanwhile, there was pragmatism at work. Rosie the Riveter posters, showing a factory girl wearing her hair tied up in a handkerchief, advertised a safety-first fashion for women workers in the US.
Now: The semiotics of cultural diversity have catapulted turbans and head-wraps to the forefront of fashion in 2020. Milestone covers of British Vogue— Adwoa Aboah in a Stephen Jones for Marc Jacobs turban on editor-in-chief Edward Enninful’s debut edition; Rihanna, wearing a durag on the current May 2020 issue — have celebrated the uplifting shift. Behind the fashion lies the influence of modest-wear, the rich symbolism of African tribal heritage, and style radiating upwards and outwards from city communities, an awareness — new to establishment fashion — that brings matters around cultural appropriation into the forum. In times of enforced separation from hair colourists and Zoom calls, though, are the arts of hair-line concealing head-wrapping about to take on a whole new popular twist?
- The shoe renewed
Then: Ever wondered where the wedge heel came from? The design came to Salvatore Ferragamo in a lightbulb moment in the dark hours of the war in Italy. When leather and metal had been commandeered by the military, Ferragamo solved the problem by sculpting soles from cork and adapting commonplace, unconsidered materials such as cellophane wrappers to weave uppers. With such ingenuity from a leading master shoemaker, the result was instantly perceived as glamorously desirable high fashion; never a ‘poor’ alternative. Ferragamo’s wedges made women all over Europe feel good about clumping through the war in thick soles, which were often improvised from wood.
Now: Today’s avant garde young shoe designers are treating overlooked and discarded existing materials as their opportunity to change aesthetics, while preventing waste. The leader in the field is Helen Kirkum, who began ‘Remastering’ trainers at the Royal College of Art in 2016, building a business in which she unpicks sneakers from the London charity store Traid, and collages the components together to make new ones. “I want to value the beauty of scuffs, stains and wear and tear by highlighting and treasuring it,” says Kirkum. “I love the idea of the embedded memories and stories living on.” Ancuta Sarca is following in her footsteps, in a different way: hybridising vintage kitten heels and uppers cut from deadstock Nike trainers.
—BY SARAH MOWER
Photo via VOGUE.