Textile Industry Goes to War: Women’s Clothing in the 1930s and 1940s

Muriel R. Wilkins, who attended high school in Washington County during the late 1930s, in 1980 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 1930’s 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. Most fabrics wrinkled if you sat down or it was a warm day so we were very careful if we were dressed up. In winter the heavier rayons were available in many fabrics; crepes, mat[e]lasses and ribbed as well as wool suiting and cotton and silk velvets. I was able to earn enough to clothe myself my [by] this time and still did some sewing but had more ready-made clothing. We did have several women who for $2 or $3 would make up your material as you desired. Mrs. Kemper, wife of the C&NW depot agent was best in town as she could make a dress in your size from just a picture in a magazine so she was most popular.

“In the early 1940’s as we became involved in WW2, the textile industry went to war also and we found our sewing talents put back to work for a while. One unusual source of fabric in the 40’s was the ‘feed sack’ which chicken feed companies used as a promotion to farm wives, putting their product in 100 lb. percale sacks in attractive prints. These were used by these homemakers, depending upon the print, for pajamas, dresses, sheets (sewn together), tablecloths or dishtowels. They even made quilts from these muslins and percales and they served the family need for many years afterward. 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. One could purchase these from farm wives for a small amount by the homemaker in the city and much exchanging took place to get enough fabric to finish a project.

“During the war we had access to newer fabric-parachute nylon that my brother in the Air Force brought home. He also brought home pieces of raw silk, a nubby soft fabric, which made sturdy clothes for children. Some small amount of nylon became available for hosiery and was much desired as it was very sheer and durable. If you were lucky and found a source of supply, you had to be ready with an explanation as the soldiers would use them to get favors from the ladies and an unending supply of nylons might give rise to questions. The civilian supply was rationed out by the storekeepers to their regular customers for several years and not too plentiful so our ability to mend [hose] still came in very handy.”

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

NSHS R234-173 

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