Visual Arts

"In the Mood" Brings World War II-Era Fashions to Phoenix Art Museum

"In the Mood" has transformed the Phoenix Art Museum's Ellman Gallery into a fashion time capsule from the 1940s, filled with authentic garments from the World War II era that range from Hollywood-inspired glamorous gowns to fashions made from salvaged materials to factory overalls and military uniforms.

A soundtrack with "Moonlight Serenade" by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" by the Andrews Sisters, and other hits of the era plays softly from the gallery's speakers. The scene is beyond charming, and the fashions include those of every kind of woman you might imagine from the '40s.

It's the glamorous gowns that command immediate attention — they're irresistible. More than 10 glamour-clad mannequins fill the main platform in the gallery. One dress is made with a loud, polka-dot print and features a huge bow on the hip. Another black gown is accessorized with a cape made of Somali leopard hide. And one outfit features a real fox stole (complete with the head and feet) draped over the shoulder.

My favorite is a dress by Adrian, a Hollywood designer who made his career dressing stars for MGM. This gown is a full-length rayon crepe robe. The fabric drapes loosely over the arms and creates flowing sleeves. The dress gathers at the bust and then falls beautifully to the floor. It's black with a simple floral print that features enormous, blush-colored blossoms — one covers the mannequin's entire back. There's a cute ladybug (it's the size of a credit card) on one of the petals.

It's a simple design. Because of wartime rationing, ruffles, extraneous pleats, and other fabric-consuming designs were avoided. Here, it's easy to see how prints were used to jazz up an outfit. It looks effortlessly glamorous. I wanted to rip the thing off the mannequin and throw it on.

Beauty and glamour were definitely in during the 1940s. After all, it was the woman's responsibility to look amazing. A quote from a 1942 issue of Harper's Bazaar, scrawled across the top of the exhibition's wall panel, sums it up nicely: "A woman's appearance is her declaration of her faith in life, her man, in victory."

What a world. It wasn't just a simple social pressure to be attractive; it was an American woman's duty.

Fueled by such patriotism, it was this era that defined American style for decades to come. Not to mention, Europe (and France, in particular) was war-torn. With Paris, the reigning capital of fashion, in disarray, American designers used the opportunity to achieve relevancy on an international platform.

But designers had their limitations, and PAM expertly emphasizes that these gorgeous fashions were born in a world where materials were scarce.

Across from the gowns is a display that shows the resourcefulness of the 1940s American woman with clothing made from reused parachute silk.

A torn, beige parachute is sprawled across the wall, creating a backdrop for mannequins wearing crème, ivory, and light pink bathrobes and dresses. One dress actually belonged to curator Dennita Sewell's mother, who bought the parachute fabric and the pattern with two of her friends. They managed to make their own high school graduation dresses from their joint purchase.

Mounted next to the parachute is a framed sewing pattern that shows how to cut out fabric pieces to create knickers, blouses, brassieres, and slips from parachute portions. Sure, they lack the glamour of the Hollywood designs, but the end products are soft and pretty. Besides, this part of the show is more about grit than glitz. Sacrifices were made for the benefit of the nation — and it was done with style.

Reusing silk is certainly commendable, but it's the display of women's worker outfits that really demands admiration. A simple setup shows cotton denim overalls. An understated white button-down shirt and a bright red bandanna, tied on top of the head, complete the outfit. It's Rosie the Riveter — the fictional character in American propaganda posters who worked in factories to assemble warplanes, munitions, and vehicles. The image of this strong American woman flexing her biceps and declaring, "We can do it!" is a favorite of young women today. She was expected to work all day, keep a home, and look great while she did it all. That's definitely something the contemporary American woman can relate to.

Speaking of admiration, the entire exhibition is scattered with authentic military uniforms. A few male mannequins don standard-issue Army, Navy, and aviation outfits. Their female counterparts wear tailored jackets and pencil skirt uniforms.

It's easy to see how the military designs had direct influence on civilian clothing. One ladies suit is made from a beautiful navy blue wool gabardine. The jacket's slim seams are lined with scarlet piping. The breast is decorated with a vertical row of non-functional buttons (the jacket's closure is a cinched, tied cord) and the slim skirt lacks pleats. It's accessorized with a bright red brooch, pinned to the left breast like a Medal of Honor.

No doubt, these civilian ladies deserved Medals of Honor. The fashions illustrate a generation of women who believed in their country. They rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty in the factory. They constructed their own dresses out of salvaged fabrics. Through it all, they still made it a priority to look smashing. And they did it for the U.S.A.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi