War and Social Upheaval: The Impact on Boy's Clothing--World War II (1939-45)

Figure 1.--

World War II also had an enormous impact on boys' fashions. Quite a range of fashion shifts occurred during and after World War II. Some of the major changes included: an increasing shift to casual dress, less elaborate fashions, the disappearance of knickers, short pants began to be worn as summer attire, American boys stop wearing kneesocks and long stockings, American Scouts and Cubs begin wearing long pants, "T" shirts and jeans became a mainstay of American boyhood, short hair styles become popular for boys in America after the War. Some of these fashions changes are clearly traceable to the War. HBC can not, however, always connect changes changes that occurred during the War as an impact of the War. That may be, however, as the full ramifications of the War are yet to be assessed. Many of the changes were most pronounced in America, and only began appearing in Europe during the 1950s.

Fashion Trends in Different Countries

Clothing and fashions trends varied from country. Fashion was essentially put on hold for the War. The clothes that were worn were influenced by military uniforms and itilitarian influences. In many countries chidren wore what ever they are their parents could find. Many were in rags by the end of the War. Shoes in particular were scarce. HBC can clear deliniate changes in American fashions and relate many of those changes to the War. HBC is less sure, however, as to just how the War affected other countries such as France. Major changes occured in French and other European fashions, often more on the 1950s and 60s than immediately after the War. The impact of the War is thus more difficult to access.


American children were not exposed to World War II like children in Europe and Asia. There were, however, major changes inn fashion that occurred in America during and as a result of the War. Major changes were made in the Boy Scout uniform during the War. The commitment of American mothers to the industrial workforce reinforced the trend toward casual styles like "T" shirts and jeans. This style was further established because of the tendency for many GIs to wear "T"shirts and fatigues. The short GI hair cut was then after the War adopted by boys who wanted to look like dad.


Large numbers of GIs beginnng in 1942 wre stantioned in England. Many asctually lived with English families. Many were surprised to see relatively old boys wearing short pants and kneesocks. One HBC contributor remendrs a GI commenting on his short pants.


French boys during World War II still commonly wore smocks and berets. By the 1950s they had begun to view smocks as girlish and the beret as an oldfashioned. I'm not sure just how the War affected these changing attitudes. A French contributor believes that World War II did not have a major influence on French boys' clothing. He reports that the beret, for example, was worn well after the War especially in the countryside. Its disappearance as boys' wear only began in the mid-1950s. Interestingly as the beret disaoppeared as French boys' wear, it became very popular with Scouts. Not omly did French Scouts wear thde beret, but Scouts all over the world began adopting the beret. There is some variables that are difficult to assess here. The beret that virtually disappered as boys' wear is the civilian beret. The Scout beret is a military style. Colors can change with the different Scout units. The traditionnal French beret is an adult style that boys also wore. The true change in France was that boys less commonly wore adult styles. Another important change is that gradually boys began to change pants types based on seasonality. Short pants became casual warm waeather clothes. Long trousers became dtress and cold weater clothes. Short pants were no longer cvond\sidered to be a boys' style worn all year round. The short hair styles that became popular in America (crew and butch cuts) did not bdecome popular French styles. It is clear that there were major cahnges in French boys clothing beginning in the mid-1950s, it is not clear, however, just what precipitated these changes.


As Germany was occupied in 1945 and American servicemen stationed in Germany, the Germans were extensively exposed to American fashions. It is perhaps no accident that German boys were some of the first European boys to widely wear long pants. The change did not takde place immediately. In fact, quite old German boys wore shirt pants in the late 1940s and edraly 50s--in part because the difficult economic circumstances meant that many families delayed purcahses like suits and other clothes for their children until absoloutely necessary.


Italy is one of the most fashion concious European countries. Clothing shortages casused the Fascist Government to authorize the production of long pants only for boys over 15 years of age. Taky was also the location of bitter fighting during 1943 and 1944. HBC unfortunately, however, has no Italian contributoes to help understand fashion trends there.


Japan has a defeated country was exposed to the West as never before. While tradition remained strong, many foreign fashions and styles were imported. One of these was the short pants commonly worb by French and Italian boys. The Japanese adopted a style of very short pants for boys, which continued to be worn until the mid 1990s.


One Yugoslav school boy remembers, "My most poignant impressions of the war were a bunch of sixteen boys who joined our middle school class, sometimes in November 1941. These were escapees from Bosnia, who lost their parents during the early pogrom of Serbs in the months from April 1941. Their heads were shaven and they had some flimsy uniforms. They were joyful and played with us, but at some moment if somebody mentioned parents, they would stop playing and start crying. Every town in Serbia has taken on a group of "izbeglicas" - refugees - and even Sokobanja, a small town, of 2500, was supporting a hundred or so. I have lost track of what happened to them." [Prof. Drasko Jovanovic ]

Fashion Changes

HBC has noted several changes in boys' fashions during and after World War II. The following is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but only what HBC has noted to date. The following is the list with some preliminary musings that require much more thought an asessment. While many changes took place during and immediately after the War, it is not altogether clear how the war brought them about. Some of the changes were the continuation of long time trends such as the shift toward casual fashions and life styles.

Casual dress

The American trend clearly observable during the 1930s toward casual clothes continued during and after the War years. American boys, unless they went to a private school. no longer dressed up for school. Suits became much less common. The War was a powerful contributor to the new more casual dress standards. Women in America and Britain were recruited in war industrie. They simply did not have the time and energy to dress themselves and their children as they had done previously. Rationing in Britain further reduced formal dress. It was in America, however, that this trend was most observable. It is interesting that trend occured while washing was becoming a much more manageable problem for women. At the turn of the 20th century women had neither washing machines or washing detergents. Muuch less effective washing crystals were used along with a demanding need to heat the water and churn the clothes and then wring them out. The elablrate formal outfits at the same time presented a huge weekly task to wash. The well to do could afford help. The average woman had to do it herself, often with the help of her daughters--devoting at least an entire day of back breaking labor to the family wash. By the 1940s, modern detergents and washing machines as well as the less formal clothes had significAntly reduced the amount of time devoted to washing.

Less elaborate fashions

Related to the the increasing popularity of casual dress was a simplicity of styles. This was not, of course, limited to boys clothing, but an American boy might spend the entire summer dressed in just "T" shorts and short pants or jeans and tennis shoes. Compare this to the elaborate outfits of boys in the late 19th and 20th century. Again the War was a powerful contributor to this trend as women occupied with War work had last time. In Britain, rationing maent taht elaboprate fashions were simply not available.

Knickers disappear

Knickers were worn in both America and Europe, but much more common in America. They were, however, declining in popularity by the late 1930s. The decline was especially notable during World War II. Many boys still wore knickers in 1940 and 41, by 1945, however, they were notably less common. Even the American Boy Scouts and Cubs dropped them. Knickers did not disappear entirely until the early 1950s, but by the end of the War they were no longer a dominate style for boys. HBC is not yet sure why this occurred or if it was simply coincidental with the War years rather than caused by the War. It could be that without dad at home, nothers could not as easily enforce an unpopular dress code. It may be that the impracticality of knickers was part of the shift to simplier dress styles.

Short pants decline as boys wear

Short pants in the early 20th century were adopted as a practical garment for boys. They were not seen as seasonal garments, but rather a style for boys--no matter what the weather. Boys increasingly wanted to wear long pants. American boys in the 1940s that continued to werar short pants began wearing them during the summer as warm weather casual clothes rather than all year round. This was not the case in Britain, although some German boys did wear shorts in the summer and longs in the winter. Again while this trend in America became more widespread during the War, HBC is not yet sure that it was caused or incouraged by the War.

American boys stop wearing kneesocks and long stockings

Almost every American boy in the 1930s had kneesocks which he wore with his knickers. A much smaller number of mostly younger boys still wore long stockings. There was a dramatic change during the War years. By 1945 far fewer boys were wearing knickers and thus they no longedr needed kneesocks. They did not entirely dissappear. Some boy still wore knickers into the early 1950s. Some boys wore short pamts suits with kneesocks. By 1945, however, most American boys were no longer wearing kneesocks and by the 1950s had begiun to view them as girls clothes. While coincident with the War, HBC is not yet sure what brought about this change.

American Scouts and Cubs begin wearing long pants

American Scouts and Cubs mostly wore knickers, unlike Scouts and Cubs in other countries who modtly wore short pants. American Scouts wore short pants at canps and jamborees, but otherwise mostly kniclers. Scouts in 194? and Cubs in 194? were authorized to wear long pants and in a remarkably short period the shift was made--an indicator of the unpopularity of knickers. HBC is unsure about just why this change ocurred at the time. The change was, however, coincident with the War. The change also occurred at the same time that James West retirred as Chief Scout.

"T" shirts and jeans become popular

American boys can be seen wearing "T"-shirts anf jeans in the 1930s and early 1940s. Again it was probably related to the overall trend toward casual clothes. The style became even more established. American GI's commonly wore "T" shirts and fatigues, the stretch for children's clothes was obvious when dad returned home. Previously the wealthy had set fashions. The shift to "T"-shorts and jeans appear to be a fashion trend established by working and middle class Americans. By the late 1940s, "T"-shirts and jeans were a mainstay for the American boy.

Short hair styles appear

American boys in the 1930s and eraly 1940s wore short hair styles, but not crew cuts or butch cuts. Fathers spent the War wearing short GI cuts. Short cut, limited maintenance hair cuts made a lot of sence in battle field conditions. They were easy to care for and easy to keep clean. As a result, many continued wearing them when they returned home. By the early 1950s, crew cuts and butches were worn by large numbers of American boys. These short hair styles for boys, however, were not as popular in Europe.

Cultural influences

Many formely closed or isolated socities had little exposure to fopreign fashions. The War changed that. The War resulted in one of the most extensive movement of people in human history. Entire populations were uprooted. The Soviets first moved the Chechens and Baltic nationalities to Siberia and Russians into the Baltics. Later the Germans and Poles were moved west. Americans from every state found themselves first in England and Italy and eventually throughout Western Europe and in Asia from Burma to Guadacanal. This not only exposed Americans to foreign countries, but people in these countries to Americans. American jeans and bibble gum appeared in the most remore recesses of the world. This was not only true for Americans, but many other countries as well. Japanese mothers, for example, adopted European styles for their sons.


The War required such a gargantian national effort on the part of the principal combatents that it was necessary that everybody did what was in their power to support the war effort. The most prominent way most countries accomplished this was by rationing. Rationing was a method used by the government to ensure that everybody was able to receive equal amounts of raw materials. This way, enough material was used for the war effort, but the public could still have access to these items. To circumvent rationing and price controls, World War II black marketeers traded in clothing and liquor in Britain and meat, sugar, and gasoline in the United States.


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Created: June 25, 2000
Last updated: July 31, 2002