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  • Writer's pictureLonda

WW2: Fashion Designers Live On – Part 6

Concluding my visit to how WW2 affected fashion…enjoy information about the designers of the time.  Everything set in italics is quoted from the thesis by Meghann Madison that you can read HERE in its entirety.

Designers that Made an Impact during the War – continued

Before WWII began most of the famous designers had design houses in Paris, France. Paris was the fashion capital of the world and created couture, or custom-made, clothing for the most prominent figures in society.

Coca Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli were covered in Part 5 of this Series found HERE. 

These designers had a huge impact on fashion leading up to WW2 and after Paris was occupied by the Nazis. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883- 1971) Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973), Adrian (1903-1959), Mainbocher (1890-1976), Arnold Lever, and Edith Head (1897-1981). Their importance lie in the fact that they contributed to women’s wear during the war by influencing the looks of the “working class” woman by the textiles they wore and the imagination that adorned their heads in the work of millinery- one of the few places extravagances could live. They not only dressed the masses but created some of the most beautiful garments for the stars of Hollywood. These designers helped bridge the gap between the ever disseminating classes and reflected in clothing the rise of the middle class during WWII.


Adrian, born Adrian Adolph Greenburg (1903-1959), was a combination of an influential Hollywood designer before WWII and a custom dress designer during WWII. In his early career he designed for Broadway and then worked for Cecile B. DeMille’s private film production company.

In his early career, he designed for Broadway and then worked for Cecile B. DeMille’s private film production company.He moved to Los Angeles with DeMille’s company and joined MGM as Chief Costume Designer in 1928. There he influenced fashion around the world by creating and popularizing some of the most memorable costume designs in history.

New Corsetry

In fashion, the 1930’s brought the invention of a women’s corset that was made of rubber and silk, with little or no boning. (see fig. 31) This allowed women to complete the look of the time by having soft curves and flattened breasts without being as uncomfortable as they were in previous years with stiff boning.


These corsets also allowed women to wear the new bias cut dresses created by Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975), which gently wrapped around the figure showing off its curves.


Backless dresses were also introduced in the 1930’s, being attributed to Hollywood designer Adrian who designed the dresses for Greta Garbo, which required the aforementioned rubber and silk corset because it tended to have the deep back to accommodate such dresses.


Perhaps his most popular look created in the 1930’s was the Letty Lynton dress designed for Joan Crawford in 1932.  The design, which emphasized Crawford’s naturally broad shoulders, has been widely credited with setting the vogue for the shoulder pad…”

He is most well-known for his designs in The Wizard of Oz (1939), including the ruby slippers. In 1941 Adrian left MGM and began his own line of custom made dresses. “In January, 1942, his first collection was shown at the May Company department store in Los Angeles. Unsuccessful at first, Adrian held another show the following month and was soon selling his designs in department stores across the USA. His ready to wear line carried the “Adrian Original” label and his couture clothing was labeled “Adrian Custom”. To remain exclusive, he allowed only one store in each city to sell his collections” (Zappitelli). His contribution during the war was important because it lent a sense of glamour to the rationed streamlined look of WWII women’s clothing.

His women’s suits were well tailored, with eye-catching fabric inserts which made it more appealing to the mass number of women who were entering the professional workforce due to the war; they could look feminine and business-like at the same time. Adrian’s popularity during the 1930’s was extremely helpful to his sales in the 1940’s. He died unexpectedly in 1959 of a heart attack.



Mainbocher (pronounced MAIN-BAWKER, as opposed to a French pronunciation), originally named Main Rousseau Bocher, made a name for himself in Paris before the war even though he is American. Born in Connecticut, he stayed in France after serving in WWI and worked for Harper’s Bazaar, afterward becoming the editor of French VOGUE magazine.

Mainbocher’s contribution to fashion during WWII was significant. His line consisted only of haute couture fashion, or completely custom made clothing, whereas other designers had a ready-to-wear line as well. His line catered to the social elite both in Paris and New York.

However, he did design the uniforms for the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) in 1942, which was tailored and strong, while still showing the curves of the women wearing the uniforms. In addition to the regular uniform, Mainbocher created a summer version of the WAVES uniform in gray so the women would stay cooler. The uniform was also adopted by the SPARS (Women’s Reserve of the Coast Guard). These uniforms were considered the best and sharpest looking uniforms in the military for women and were touted as so when recruiting women for service.

WAVES Uniform

Mainbocher continued to find success throughout the war with the social elite and even designed the new women’s U.S.M.C. (United States Marine Corps) uniform in 1952. After the war, Mainbocher stayed in New York and worked until he closed his doors in 1971.

Edith Head

Born as Edith Posener, she became known professionally as Edith Head after her marriage to Charles Head in 1923. Although they divorced in 1936, she retained her name.

She began working for Paramount Pictures in 1923 by deception. Applying for a design assistant position, she was hired as just that for the costume department of Paramount Pictures by using another’s sketches in the interview. She did eventually learn to draw under the guidance of her boss Howard Greer who was said to have found her deception “hilarious”. 

She would work for Paramount Pictures for 44 years before moving to Universal Pictures in 1967, where she worked until her death in 1981. During her time at Paramount, Head was renowned for coming in under budget and on time with her designs, as well as making her leading men and ladies happy.

When the U.S. entered the war and the studios went to work creating both realistic and escapist films, Head was indispensable as a designer who saved the studio money and still managed to have beautiful costumes. Recycling of costumes was not new to Head; she was extremely familiar with the inventory of the Paramount costume warehouse. For pre-war productions she would pull a large amount of stock from the warehouse and make changes to the existing clothing for the supporting characters, bit players, and extras.

This way of working became imperative during the war. With rationing of new materials in effect, Head had a whole warehouse of costumes and pre-war un-rationed bolts of fabric to choose from for new costumes that had more panache.

One of the films she costumed during the war was I Married a Witch starring Veronica Lake and Frederic March. (see fig. 37) The black evening dress Lake wears in the end of the film is a great example of the simplicity of the new war-time silhouette.  Using material not readily available to the public any longer capitalized on Lake’s sexy onscreen persona, inspired women to maintain their own beauty at home.

Edith Head black dress for Veronica Lake

Edith Head would continue to create costumes at Paramount for future classic films such as Blue Hawaii, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Givenchy designed the gowns for this film), and This Property is Condemned.

Her strong understanding of the human figure, especially women, helped to create some of the most beautiful and practical costumes in recent history.

The designers leading up to and during WWII were designers of imagination, ingenuity, and innovation. Taking the circumstances of the war they not only created beautiful garments, but created practical and iconic ones as well. Their designs have become a standard by which designers today look to for inspiration; their designs are always being recycled into new and exciting fashions. The uniforms designed brought grace and dignity to the women who wore them, while the civilian clothes worn were as beautiful as they were practical.

This concludes the intriguing look at fashion and WW2.  I certainly have enjoyed it, and hope you have as well.  I am still awaiting some remembrances from my Aunt (early 90’s) and when I receive that, I will add another post.


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