Fashion and War

While fashionable may not be the first word that pops into someone’s mind to describe me, I have always harbored an interest in fashion.  It may have sprung from having older sisters who indulgently dressed me up in their prom formals and poodle skirts.  I loved donning their crinoline petticoats and felt like a little princess when they topped me off with a piece of their finery.  For an adoring 6-year old, nothing was better than having them fuss over me in all their 1950s glamour.  For many years they were my muses.  I wanted to be just like them and even took a few modeling classes and participated in a fashion show.

It has been many years since this photo was taken and I have danced through many fashion stages.  Seventies’ hippie, wannabe yuppie, a much too long dowdy mom stage, and then office chic.  And now while I am trying to find my retirement style, we find ourselves in the middle of the COVID 19 pandemic.  When a trip to the grocery store can put lives in danger, does fashion still matter?  This hideous disease is not only hurting our health, but our economy.  In Italy, so hard hit by COVID 19, the fashion industry is the second largest contributor to their national economy and I wonder about the long term effects.  COVID 19 is slowing almost everything down, including the production of consumer goods.  Could this put an end to fast fashion and usher in a return to small-batch beautiful goods, produced and sold by local skilled artisans?

World events have often effected fashion.  World War II certainly did.  In Julie Summers’s book, Fashion on the Ration: how World War 2 finally let women wear trousers, she illustrates how women’s style changed forever in the 1940s in Britain and beyond.  Women were taking up positions and performing services that had previously only been awarded to men.  I particularly liked the story about a grandmother’s response to her first air-raid:


 “I had lunch today with an old friend I hadn’t seen for a year. She was telling me about the reaction of her grandmother, who is over 80, to her first air-raid. It was a pretty hot one, and the family, huddled together in their shelter, were distinctly anxious about the old lady. As soon as it was over, someone rushed for the brandy, but Granny waved it away and, turning to one of her daughters, said with an air of great determination, ‘Dorothy, I must tell you that I am not going through this again without trousers.'”

World War II changed how my own mother dressed.  Before the war, my sister says mom usually wore the ubiquitous midwestern cotton housedress, always with an apron.  During the war she worked at U. S. Slicing Machine Company which like many U.S. plants converted temporarily to help make military parts.  The women wrapped their hair in colorful bandanas to prevent it getting caught in the machines.      

This, along with her coveralls, was also her uniform at the Kingsbury Ordinance Plant where she helped make bombs. The photo below, courtesy of LaPorte County Historical Society, shows some of the female employees who helped the war effort at Kingsbury.

A few years back I came across an article that stuck with me, Stitching History From the Holocaust.  A man in Milwaukee was cleaning out his mother’s basement and discovered an old box with an envelope inside.  The envelope was sealed with red wax, stamped with a swastika and marked “Inspected by the German Reich.”  What he ultimately discovered is the true story of a Prague couple in the 1930s and the unsuccessful efforts to save them from the Nazis.  Paul Strnad was a bank clerk in Prague and his wife, Hedwig, was a dress designer.  Inside the box was a letter written by Paul to his American cousin, Alvin Strnad, and some of Hedwig’s, known as Hedy, dress designs. The Strnads hoped Hedwig’s designs would be their ticket to safety in the United States.  Their efforts and those of their cousin in Milwaukee were sadly unsuccessful and they were transported to the Warsaw Ghetto.  Tragically, they either starved to death or were sent to a killing camp.

Paul and Hedwig Strnad

When Burton Strnad, the son of the now deceased Alvin, found the box, he donated the letter and Hedy’s designs to the Milwaukee Jewish Archives.  When the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee opened in 2008, it displayed the letter and dress designs as its centerpiece.  A visitor to the museum suggested making dresses from Hedy’s eight existing designs.  And they did. The dresses were created with painstaking attention to historical details, taking no short cuts.  If you have a few minutes to read the article, you won’t regret it.

When Mr. Smith’s parents married in 1947 his mother, Pat, made her own wedding gown.  Working with a very small budget, she answered a for sale ad in the newspaper and purchased a surplus parachute. Constructed of white nylon, it was large enough to supply fabric for her entire dress and was hers for less than $20. The result was certainly as lovely as anything she could have purchased in a store. And Pat being Pat, she used the leftover material to make a christening gown and bonnet worn by all eight of her children. At one point, her wedding dress was on display in the museum at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Fashion is as much a part of our history as war.  It morphs and changes as we struggle, grow and meet challenges.  It is inspiring, transformative and often just fun.  And sometimes it might make a little girl feel beautiful.

C’est la vie.

Pearls are always appropriate…

midweek musings…

I started my day this past Sunday the same way I start nearly every day when Mr. Smith is home.  He makes me a latte just how I like it – three pumps of vanilla syrup and a delicate dusting of cinnamon –  and I sit on my cushiony perch and sip it while checking email, etc.

Is it just me, or is your inbox exploding?  We may be social distancing, but there is no electronic distancing going on.  Dozens of retailers want to sell me just the right outfit to wear while “sheltering in place.”  And fashion/lifestyle blogs are currently full of advice on what to wear for video conferences or Facetiming friends or family.  Ultimately, I believe we must dress for ourselves as no one look is right for everyone.  I was in Washington D.C. last week, helping with the virus chaos of two parents working from home while trying to deal with three energetic boys who are out of school. The nine-year old twins exemplified the practice of dressing for yourself.  My grandsons and I went out each day for a long walk.  On one particular outing, Eli wore a dapper sport coat he had discovered at Nordstrom Rack and purchased with his own money while his brother, Henry, was happy to go out for his morning constitution still dressed in his dinosaur pajamas.  But big points for individuality and self-confidence. 

Personally, I find dressing up a bit can help make a gloomy situation a little better. When I woke up on Sunday, I put on my favorite caftan along with diamond studs and a string of pearls to defiantly face another day in a world derailed by COVID-19.  I may be wearing pearls instead of a sport coat, but I strutted around my little nest, just as confident as Eli, i.e., Mr. Cool.

C’est la vie.

Buy less, choose well… Vivienne Westwood

My life is about to change. I’m changing location and vocation, so this is a superb time to start transitioning my wardrobe. I have purged my existing closet of many fashion faux pas from my past and am ready to add some fun and reliable wardrobe pieces to perk up a closet full of safe neutral basics. Searching for the perfect transition wardrobe had me feeling like Goldilocks trying to find the perfect porridge. Not too dressy, not too casual, I want just right!


Online shopping is certainly easy (sometimes a little too easy!) but after ordering a couple of items which I thought would be perfect but had to be sent back, I decided to return to good ol’ brick and mortar. One of the benefits of having older sisters is that you can call them for just about anything! Jeanne has been a fashion muse of mine for many years, so it was natural to draft her into my shopping trip. She’s already abandoned the professional suit world, and while neither our styles nor bodies are identical, they are compatible. I trust her to tell me the truth and to push me to try on things I would have certainly passed by. To begin, I did a little research on the best stores for “women of a certain age” and we made a plan.

Be ready to spend A LOT of time in the dressing room!


Up early, we ate an energizing breakfast to sustain us on our mission. I made sure to dress in easy off/on clothing with minimal jewelry and we were off in search of clothing that would make me look and feel good. Earlier when discussing what stores we wanted to explore, I mentioned that I thought we could bypass Talbots. Talbots was my go-to store for many years for office-appropriate wear but their latest catalogs did not inspire me. It seemed there were lots of pastel scallops on items and I sensed they might make me feel dowdy or little girly. The same day I told her we could bypass Talbots, I received a Talbots email featuring a new linen collection! I was disappointed that many things in their linen collection weren’t available in the store, however, luckily I did score three great pairs of pants. These included a pair of summery coral colored chinos, something I never would have picked out. The pants were not my choice of color, but my pushy sister insisted I try them. They looked great which goes to show you need to try on things that are outside your comfort zone.

Stepping outside your comfort zone means you’ll probably end up trying on a few clunkers. I tried on this dress just to make my sister shut up!


I tried on a few tops, but didn’t purchase any even though my sister noted how great she thought this one looked on me:

While the blouse didn’t call my name, I think I’ll get lots of wear out of the pants I purchased.

Our next stop was Chico’s. I have never purchased anything at Chico’s, however with my change in lifestyle, we decided to give them a try and I’m glad we did. Along with a couple of cute casual tops, I came away with this fabulous linen shirt. The tag says “no iron”. We shall see.


In the past, Ann Taylor has also been a perpetual go-to for me. That seems to be changing or maybe their buyers have changed viewpoint. Anyway, I was able to find a great basic white linen tee-shirt.


At this point we broke for lunch of yummy lettuce wraps and fueled with coffee to continue.


Our next stop was J Jill. While not a huge fan in the past, the last few years I have been more and more drawn to their styles. I still need to keep in mind that the item must be flattering to me and not too shapeless or oversized. I was thrilled to find chocolate brown (they call Kona) linen pants and soft v-neck matching sweater that I believe will be a dependable addition to my wardrobe throughout the summer into fall. The pull-on flat front style of the linen pants has just a little stretch in them making them extremely kind to my 63-year-old middle!

Thanks, J Jill!

Our next stop was across the parking lot to the youthful Anthropologie. Many of their colorful boho-chic choices remind me of high school years when I rocked a bathing suit made out of bandanas! While admiring many of their lovely choices, in the past I tended to invest more money in sensible work wear. When we walked into Anthropologie, Jeanne was immediately drawn to some blowy, fabulous palazzo pants and I made a beeline towards a more tailored pair of ivory slacks with chic buttons all down one side (very Frenchy). I hadn’t worn anything like either of them before, but decided they were both worth a try. I loved (and bought!) both.

Anthropologie palazzo pants with J Jill linen sweater.


It was a great day and I have no buyer’s remorse.

  1. A shopping buddy with a view you trust is a great thing. Be open to their comments and take them seriously.
  2. “Casual” doesn’t mean cheap. I was looking for quality items that would hold up over time. Be sure and check the sales in the better shops. You can always add a bit of spark with more fun, trendy, affordable accessories. Some of the new plastic earrings are very cool and you never know where you’ll find them.
  3. Don’t look at sizes, look at the fit. Try on! Try on! Try on!
  4. It’s worth your time to come up with a wardrobe that makes you feel marvelous.

C’est la vie.