History Nebraska Blog

The Textile Industry Goes to War

Bette (left) and Lois Rathburn of Lincoln in dresses typical of the 1940s celebrate the end of World War II. NSHS R234-173

Bette (left) and Lois Rathburn of Lincoln in dresses typical of the 1940s celebrate the end of World War II. NSHS R234-173

How did the 1930s and 1940s affect feminine fashions? Muriel R. Wilkins, who attended high school in Washington County, Nebraska, during the late 1930s, decades later recalled the effect that World War II had upon her clothing styles and that of other young women of that era. Wilkins had learned to sew and crochet as a child and developed a lifelong interest in fashion.

“The principal fabrics for better dresses in the late 1930s as I was in the last years of high school,” she said, “were rayon, linen and cotton. Cotton was rather sheer in summer. I liked percale, seersucker, dimity or organdy. Linen was used in more expensive clothing, came in different weights and ironed up crisp and tailored well.” Wilkins recalled that most fabrics wrinkled if the wearer sat down or it was a warm day.

In the early 1940s as the United States became involved in World War II, women rediscovered their sewing talents. One unusual fabric in the 1940s came from chicken feed companies, which sold their products in percale sacks in attractive prints as a promotion to farm wives. Wilkins recalled: “The chicken feed made the fabric very smelly so they had to be pre-soaked before laundering and sometimes were processed several times to become suitable for sewing.”

Learn more here about the way World War II affected women’s fashions and the types of dress materials available to them. Two special issues of Nebraska History dealing with the war (Winter 1991 and Summer/Fall 1995) are on the Nebraska State Historical Society’s website.

— Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor for Research and Publications

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