Many people are aware that, during World War II, such products as silk, leather, rubber, and nylon were needed for the war effort. In the 1940s, the silk was needed for parachutes.
Wool and Linen Needed for the War Effort, 1918
World War I apparently caused different shortages – of linen and wool. Vast numbers of silk parachutes were not yet needed; war planes were still a new idea. During the First World War, the wool was needed for uniforms, and the linen was needed for airplanes.
An editorial article, “The Green Peace of Summer,” which appeared in Delineator magazine in July of 1918, contrasted the way the war was experienced in the United States with its much greater impact in Europe. It also refers to the substitution of silk dresses for wool and linen, which may explain why silk dresses for daytime were so popular in the late teens and early twenties.
The War in Europe, Seen from America
“To-day [July, 1918] the green peace of our summer… fills us with… amazement, viewing it, as we all must do, against the somber background of the war. Over there gardens and fields and meadows are torn and gutted by giant shells…. Our world still goes about its business little changed outwardly for all the tragedy of the battle-fields abroad.
“There are many reasons why the war has not made as great and immediate a change in our lives as it has done abroad. So many of our men are left, so many even of draft age have been excused because of dependents and because of war industries, that no revolution of work and life has taken place here comparable to what has happened in England and France. Of course, we have our women street-car conductors. In every country this has been the profession that women have turned to first.
“… In these serious times, clothes have become a serious subject…. We study clothes as we have never studied them before…. We jump at the chance to save a bit of material by following the vogue of the sleeveless blouse and the sleeveless coat…. We [gladly] wear gingham and calico. We wear them in place of linen, knowing that there is little linen left in the world and that it is being used for new wings for our avions.” — Delineator editorial, July 1918
Before aluminum was widely used, airplane wings were a framework covered with stiffened cloth canvas. You can see a bit of cloth-covered wing in the upper right of this photograph, taken in the early 1920s:
“But it is part of the spirit of the times that we see, not that we are deprived of linen, but that we have gained something gay and charming in the revival of gingham, that the difference in price between cotton and linen means many thrift stamps and comforts for the Red Cross.
Dresses Made of Silk Instead of Wool Serge
“We are enchanted with the substitution of silk and satin for our old friend serge, and the disappearance of fine woolens from the shops becomes not a hardship but an endowment policy, for whereas old clothes used to give us rather an abused feeling, we now find ourselves quite rich with an out-of-date French serge or fine gabardine that can be remodeled.”
A Remade Dress, First World War Era
This beaded dress in cinnamon brown wool is hard to date precisely, because it shows signs of having been remodeled as well as shortened. The hem was turned up several inches, which suggests that it was originally from the early 1910s.
Some of the fabric (perhaps formerly a belt?) was used — rather crudely — to fill in the neckline, but it was hand-stitched in place with rotting thread and had to be removed.
The quality of the wool, the overall condition, and the lovely soutache and beading trim made it a prime candidate for remaking during the war years. If anyone can supply more detective work, please share! [I no longer know the whereabouts of the dress.]