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The Influence of WWII on Women’s Fashion and Expression of Sexuality

Published onDec 01, 2022
The Influence of WWII on Women’s Fashion and Expression of Sexuality
An advertisement from the Eureka News Bulletin highlighting the shift in women's fashion from pre- to post- WWII.

Eureka News Bulletin | “War Fashions for Feminine Safety” | October 1942

On May 9, 1866, San Francisco’s leading newspaper gripped the city’s attention with its front-page story.1 Feminist dress reformer Eliza DeWolf appeared downtown the previous evening wearing men’s leather pants and boots. This so-called “tremendous sensation” sent the public into an outcry, as campaigns for DeWolf’s detainment took hold across the city.2 The police arrested her shortly thereafter on account of a provision enacted by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1883. In addition to criminalizing public nudity, lewd acts, and indecent exposure, the provision outlawed the act of any person appearing in public “in dress not belonging to his or her sex.” 3

Public outrage continued to escalate as more women like DeWolf appeared in public wearing traditionally “masculine” clothing. Law enforcement attempted to extinguish this trend by passing additional laws that criminalized cross-dressing, most notably the “three item rule.” According to this law, any woman that appeared in public wearing less than three articles of feminine clothing were subject to arrest. 4 Throughout the early twentieth century, New York, and a variety of other metropolitan cities, enacted such laws to target the queer community, namely lesbian women.

Pre-WWII Fashion Norms

During the early twentieth century, women’s fashion reflected the gender roles in society at the time. Excluded from all realms of the workforce, women were encouraged to stay home and be dutiful wives and mothers. The wardrobe of upper class women consisted of long dresses and form-fitting fabrics, appeasing to the sexual desires of their husbands. However, the tide shifted dramatically for women’s fashion when the U.S. entered World War II. 

Real-life Rosie the Riveters

With one in every three men serving in the military, women assumed working roles previously fulfilled by males. On top of managing their households, women took up civilian jobs in laboratories, factories, military auxiliaries, and power plants. 5 As a result, they started dressing in concordance with these high mobility jobs. As depicted in the magazine article from the 1945 issue of the Women’s Fashion Bulletin, loose and casual clothing replaced the form-fitting styles previously in vogue.6 Not only was there a new simplicity in fashion styles, but war-time restrictions of raw materials led to the popularization of man-made fibers. For the first time, women dressed in traditionally “masculine” fabrics, including khaki, denim, and leather. Pockets were added to women’s clothing for easy access to tools when working factory jobs, and women started pulling back their hair in loose and comfortable up-dos to optimize their productivity. Rosie the Riveter became the face of campaigns aimed to recruit female workers for military defense jobs, and represented women’s new found role in political, social, and economic spheres. Pictured in ads fashioning her iconic denim overall and red bandana look, Rosie also demonstrates the influence of WWII on women’s fashion; with more fabrics and clothing options available, women took factory clothing mandates and turned them into fashionable statements.

Few events in U.S. history have had as profound an impact on women’s autonomy as World War II. In the absence of their husbands, women were able to work with one another in collaborative environments previously unavailable to them. Despite the troubling circumstances, working in military defense industries contributed to a sense of camaraderie and empowerment among women. Their new-found sense of independence could not be more clearly evidenced than through the expressive fashion trends of the time.


The rise of androgynous clothing for women came at a particular benefit for the queer community and women who prefer expressing their sexuality through masculine attire. Prior to WWII, women were granted limited freedom to express their sexuality through fashion, as hyper-feminine styles were the norm. Although the U.S. underwent radical economic, political, and social challenges during the war, the resulting opportunities and modes of expression granted to women are not to be overlooked.

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