Fashion Then And Now

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Ahhh, September. For some people, it's a time to bemoan the end of late nights and lazy days. But for me it's a time of fresh starts, full schedules, and new clothes.

I suspect that the ritual of back-to-school shopping - picking out a new pair of jeans, a cozy oversized sweater, or stylish leather boots - inspired my current love of fashion.

And it probably had something to do with my interest in "Designing Women: American Style 1940-1960," a fashion exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., the oldest museum in America.

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The exhibit tells the story of how department-store buyers and fashion designers worked together to redefine American style after World War II. Women, who had picked up the slack in wartime factories, wanted clothes that allowed them more freedom of movement.

"Before the 1930s, women wore tight-fitting suits and clothes that shaped the body," says Carol Dean Krute, costume and textiles curator of the Wadsworth Museum. "Then the war came, and women were saying, 'We're not little dolls anymore. We want practical clothes.' "

Ms. Krute also observes that the idea of "separates," like Elizabeth Phelps's apricot coat, skirt, shirt, and belt, helped revolutionize fashion.

As a working woman, I appreciate these strides toward more practical fashions. Colors and styles may have changed, but the more-relaxed attitude these women fought for has lasted right into the '90s. Much like the women of the 1940s, women today still want casual and stylish clothes for work and play.

The little black dress, often written about as the garment for every season, worn with a jacket to work, clearly grew out of yesterday's look. Claire McCardell's green silk dress with a matching leather belt, on view in the exhibit, demonstrates this. It served the same purpose in 1945. "It was unfitted, one-size fits all. You could belt it or leave it undone," says Krute.

The idea of mix-and-match, the use of snaps, and reversible clothing was revolutionary back then, says Susan Hood, of the Atheneum. "These designers laid the groundwork for everyone else today. You can even see it in clothes from European designers like Armani."

These pioneers of the 1940s even laid the groundwork for today's schoolchildren. These days, as kids return to classrooms, they are benefiting from a more-relaxed style of dress than ever before.

"Cargo" pants or skirts (with side pockets), sneakers, and boot-cut jeans are wardrobe staples for this year's back-to-school season. Cargo pants, by the way, originated in the 1940s, when paratroopers wore them in battle.

Krute sums up: "This is where the clothes we wear now come from."

* 'Designing Women: American Style 1940-1960' is at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., through Feb. 6. For more information visit www.hartnet.org/wadsworth

Comments? Send them to parneyl@ csps.com. Lisa Leigh Parney is a writer/ editor for the Arts & Leisure section.

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