Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion Cover Image

Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion

The United States and Canada


Phyllis G. Tortora (ed)

Berg Fashion Library

Table of contents

United States World War II Clothing Restrictions

Jennifer M. Mower and Elaine L. Pedersen

Encyclopedia entry

DOI: 10.2752/BEWDF/EDch3811

August 2012


In April 1942, four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the War Production Board issued Limitation Order 85 in order to conserve fabric needed for the war effort. The purpose of the order was to ensure that no major style changes in women’s wear would occur during the war. However, consumer apparel continued to be marketed throughout the war, though often the marketing efforts were patriotic. For example, The New York Times, 19 August 1942, reported that New York fashion designer Jane Engel had expanded her Madison Avenue store in 1942, enabling her to feature “bright-colored L-85 costume suits and a group of ‘furlough’ dinner gowns and evening dresses.” Extant wartime garments were examined to evaluate their adherence to the order. From the examination it appears that the orders were either not that limiting or were not followed. Extant garments had style details that stretched the limits of the L-85 order or were in violation. Manufacturers, retailers, and designers advertised the availability of these wartime styles. This, coupled with the fact that a clothing economist reported consumers were spending more than they had in the 1930s on apparel and other goods, suggests that there was not much conservation of fabric and other dress materials. This was confirmed by an analysis of extant wartime garments.

A review of wartime home front literature reveals at least two themes—sacrifice and opportunity. These patriotic themes are also evident in oral histories from the time period and popular media including federal propaganda posters, retail materials, manufacturers’ advertisements and displays, popular songs, film, and so forth. But underlying these sources is an indication that not all consumers—or businesses for that matter—conformed to federal expectations of thrift and making do. The development of rationing and price controls illustrate the need to prevent hoarding and rioting by wartime consumers and also bribery and purchasing inventory on the black market; such acts are examples of misbehavior by wartime retailers, manufacturers, and consumers.

Consumer Misbehavior

According to marketing scholars, consumer misbehavior occurs when consumers act in a disturbing manner by disobeying norms that generally apply to consumption situations. It can hurt the customers themselves, other customers, or the retailer. Fullerton and Punj explain that misbehavior sometimes results from unsatisfied desires. In other words, consumers are dissatisfied when they go to a store expecting to purchase a particular product that has been advertised or promoted in some way to them (for instance by advertisements, displays, word of mouth, or other means) and the retailer fails to fulfill this expectation due to stock-outs.

There has been increased attention and focus on understanding and predicting customers’ behavior. In 2011, Lennon, Johnson, and Lee looked at consumers’ behavior on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving). They found that narcissistic personality traits were an indicator of misbehavior. The amount of effort consumers spent gathering information about their Black Friday purchase via promotions increased their likelihood of some act of misbehavior when the product was no longer in stock.

Nancy Albers-Miller has investigated why consumers purchase illicit goods and found that peer pressure was a factor. She also found that consumers were generally less likely to purchase illicit goods when shopping alone, and that many consumers considered purchasing counterfeit products but drew the line at stolen merchandise. Huang, Lin, and Wen have determined that customers are more likely to stop patronizing a restaurant and engage in negative word of mouth about the organization when other customers misbehave and employees fail to do anything to stop it.

The formal exploration of historical consumer misbehavior is somewhat limited. Phillips, Alexander, and Shaw have studied shoplifting by customers in grocery stores and supermarkets in the United Kingdom between 1950 and 1970, the strategies that retailers developed to prevent theft, and the perceptions of the consumers. Elaine Abelson has researched the rising phenomenon of shoplifting among Victorian women and attributed it to the culture of consumption and the visual merchandising strategies of the retailers, which tempted women to steal. Susan Porter Benson’s research has focused on the tenuous relationship that developed between saleswomen and female customers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: class differences between staff and customer sometimes led to conflict.

The concept of consumer misbehavior is typically used to discuss contemporary issues, but it can help shed light on wartime home front life in the United States.

Wartime Consumer Behavior and Federal Agencies

In the total war situation of World War II, while men joined the armed services, both men and women joined the workforce to produce munitions, ships, aircraft, and other goods needed for the war. Despite the fact that many Americans had more money to spend on consumer goods, civilians were expected to make temporary changes in their daily lives as consumers of food, clothing, leisure, recreation, and transportation in order to achieve a victory and to defend democracy. In 1942 the author Caroline F. Ware urged her mostly female audience to be wary of “wasteful spending, [to] shop carefully, [and] prefer utility over frills.” Ware argued that victory abroad began at home with educated consumers and all “possible resources” devoted to the war effort. The Consumers’ Victory Pledge, written by the consumer division of the Office of Price Administration (OPA), stated:

As a consumer, in the total defense of democracy, I will do my part to make my home, my community, my country ready, efficient and strong.

I will buy carefully.

I will take good care of the things I have.

I will waste nothing.

However, these “calls for sacrifice” came during a period of “rising prosperity.” Though there was much talk of sacrifice, there was little deprivation in the United States during the war.

After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the federal government, the military, and the American people recognized that the nation was in a state of emergency, and that the United States needed to radically change military objectives. The OPA was established in April 1941 and the War Production Board (WPB; created to handle the domestic problems of war production) in January 1942; these agencies were put in charge of economic mobilization.

President Roosevelt appointed former Sears Roebuck vice president, Donald M. Nelson, as chairman of the WPB. The WPB allocated “strategic materials” for civilian use and managed the manufacture of civilian goods. Rationing of tires began in 1941; sugar, coffee, and gasoline were rationed through stamps, and rationing expanded to include shoes and food items like oils/fats, meats, and cheese. In April 1942, restrictions expanded to the textile industry (covering fibers, facilities, and labor). Certain dye colors were also restricted, because the chemicals were needed for the war effort. In addition to fibers and dyes, metal used for closures (zippers, hooks and eyes, and buttons) was also restricted.

New Orleans, Louisiana, March 1943. Line at the Rationing Board during World War II.Photograph by John Vachon/Wikimedia Commons,

As a result the WPB was focused on diverting civilian production of goods to the production of goods necessary for war, without creating panic and disrupting the domestic status quo. The WPB’s initial act to regulate domestic production for the war effort was their issuance of the general preference order P-1 on 12 March 1941. P-orders assigned “preference ratings” for materials needed to manufacture industrial equipment and goods needed for the war. Almost immediately, problems emerged which required additional policies, so the series of orders issued a few weeks later, M-orders, limited civilian use of specific materials. By the summer of 1941 it became clear that certain materials needed to be reserved for the war effort, so L-orders (limitation orders) suspended or limited the use of specified materials altogether. The first L-order was issued on 30 August 1941.

Politicians, consumers, and workers alike recognized that without the ability to purchase goods at affordable prices, consumers could not afford to make purchases and businesses would fail to yield a profit. During the war, the OPA was used to tame inflation and preserve purchasing power through price controls and rationing. It managed rents in strategic defense areas and rationed consumer goods by issuing ration books. Despite these controls, inflation continued to be a problem. Food and clothing were most affected. According to Meg Jacobs, the average cost of purchases in department stores rose 400 percent between 1940 and 1944. As the war came to a close, the OPA retained support from the labor force and consumers. However, this strength influenced an opposition movement among business, farmers, and other producers who did not want to see OPA’s powers extended beyond the war. In their resistance to OPA regulations, businessmen turned to the WPB for help, since this agency had the power to influence the availability of commodities. The two agencies deviated primarily over the production of lower-end commodities. After Roosevelt issued the “Hold the Line” order on 8 April 1943, manufacturers started producing higher-end products to yield greater profits.

Rationing, Shortages, and the Black Market

War is usually talked about in terms of sacrifice, so we asked thirty female respondents who were in their teens and twenties during the war about what they felt like they sacrificed. For those whose husbands, friends, and family were overseas, they were scared they would not return home; this potential loss was seen as the greatest sacrifice. Beyond the temporary or permanent loss of husband, friends, and family, a select group of women interviewed in 2010 and 2011 did not recall making any real sacrifices during the war. They mentioned that tires and gasoline, some foodstuffs and shoes were rationed, but that they made do with what was available. One woman alluded to purchasing things like steak and tires through illicit means (without the appropriate ration stamps, on the black market).

Some of the women remembered making do with what was available during the Depression; others who had been younger during the Depression appeared not to observe many differences between before and during the war. The women also discussed the abilities of their mothers to be “a fantastic manager” and remembered the problem of having growing feet and shoe rationing, the continual re-heeling of shoes, and family members sharing ration stamps—one woman’s father had shared his stamps so she could buy shoes for her wedding.

Shortages of shoes were not the only thing the women recalled: stockings were difficult to get all over the country because silk and then nylon were in limited supply. In February 1942 nylon was taken from the civilian consumer market, and the fiber reserved for military use. If a woman received silk stockings she would “treasure them.” One could take stockings with runs in them to hosiery departments and have them repaired. Many women went bare-legged or wore cotton or rayon hose, both of which stretched and were not very attractive.

The difficulty in finding stockings led to the development of leg makeup and other products that simulated the look of stockings. Some women may have turned to the black market—purchasing products without the required stamps and usually above the set price. In March 1944, McCall’s magazine ran “Your War Guide to Daily Living.” It reported:

Some of the women who wear black market nylon stockings salve their consciences with the notion that they’re probably pre-war nylons which might as well be worn as not. The fact is that black market nylons are made of yarn intended for and illegally diverted from military uses; technical experts have analyzed some of them and they should know.

The author cautions consumers that even when nylon is back on the market for civilian use, it will likely be for hairbrushes and truck tires before stockings.

Advertisement for Grayson’s in Portland, Oregon. Oregonian, 25 October 1942: 7.

Nylon Riots, Panic Buying, and Counterfeit Stamps

When it became clear that the United States was headed to war, the fear of rationing and restrictions on consumer products sent some consumers into a panic, causing them to hoard and panic buy; retailers were similarly alarmed. On 22 December 1941, Time reported in an article called “Panic Buying” that a variety of goods that were black had been purchased, probably with the intent of blacking out windows to foil potential bombing runs. On 30 March 1942, Earl W. Elhart, Women’s Wear Daily’s editor of the retail page, sarcastically explained to Time magazine in “Business: Promotion of Hoarding” that:

It is gratifying to note that hoarding is going on at an unprecedented rate. Previous experience has shown that to get hoarding well organized you should proceed with a maximum of secrecy … Retailers begin to do their part of the job so that consumers can also cooperate in the hoarding drive … like promoting ageless fashions, [which] persuade their customers to buy now what they won’t need for months.

Newspapers and magazines were filled with examples of wartime violations. On 18 March 1942, a report in Time stated there was not much cheating but that consumers were stockpiling sugar; on 13 April 1946, the New York Times revealed in “Convicted in the OPA Bribe Case” that three former OPA executives had been charged with taking bribes from a soft drink distributor for sugar. Retailers transitioned from caring about profit and loss, dollars and cents to the number of ration points required, and so bribery, counterfeit stamps, and other pricing violations were inevitable.

As the war came to a close in the summer of 1945, consumers were looking forward to being able to spend some money. Manufacturers and retailers were also anticipating a change in consumption patterns. The National Association of Hosiery Manufacturers announced in “Facts & Figures” in Time on 22 October 1945 that by early November, retailers would have “‘reasonable’ quantities of nylon stockings.” However, nylon stockings were still hard to obtain even six months after the war had ended because Du Pont kept the supply of nylon low to keep demand high. The New York Times disclosed that the police had been called in to keep the peace at the Weinstein department store in San Francisco on 12 April 1946, when Weinstein’s had 10,000 pairs of nylon stockings on sale and over 15,000 customers appeared.

Retail Violations

OPA and WPB records, housed at the National Archives at College Park, MD, provide evidence of counterfeit shoe stamps. In a letter to all District II enforcement agents, Herbert D. David stated that tighter shoe rationing influenced the demand for “counterfeits by retailers.” In 1945, Julius Roth, the chief of the apparel and industrial materials enforcement division for District II, divulged that it had been difficult to comply with the “requirements … set forth in the OPA Manual.” He discussed the large number of violations and therefore fines that had been issued for violations of the maximum price regulation.

While retailers understood that the U.S. government hoped to monitor and curb civilian consumption for the war, many retailers had rapidly purchased consumer goods early in the war, often using short-term bank loans, in order to fill their stockrooms. For example, on 30 March 1942, Time reported in “Inventory Boom” that “Manhattan’s R.H. Macy & Co. … borrowed $5,000,000” to pay their suppliers and “leased a five-story warehouse” to store all the merchandise. Retailers obviously wanted to unload this merchandise and used advertisements to promote wartime sales.

In January 1945, Donald Montgomery of the United Auto Workers’ Congress of Industrial Organizations (UAW-CIO) wrote to Chester A. Bowles, an administrator of the OPA in Washington, DC, about a possible violation made by the mail order retailer Montgomery Ward. Montgomery (no relation) stated that consumers were paying increased prices. This had occurred when Montgomery Ward & Company moved their goods from Chicago to other mail-order houses, where higher prices were charged for many of the items in the 1944–1945 fall and winter catalogs. Montgomery estimated that this affected at least 250,000 customers, and that each was overcharged by as much as US$2 per order. According to Montgomery, the mail-order retailer explained that customers had been transferred due to shortages of labor, because the many war plants in Chicago had affected their service.

Suit (left-hand image) and matching coat (ca. 1945).Courtesy of the School of Design and Human Environment, Textiles and Clothing Collection. Photograph by Kari Lutcavich.

Apparel Manufacture Violations

Civilians feared that all consumer items would become rationed and/or difficult to find during the war years. These fears, whether rational or not, led to panic buying and the hoarding of consumer goods, including apparel. On 20 April, 1942, Time reported in “In the Stretch” that sales of men’s victory suits had increased as much as 300 percent. Four months after Pearl Harbor, the WPB issued L-order 85 in order to conserve fabric needed for the war effort. The purpose of the order was to ensure that no major style changes in women’s wear would occur during the war. While there were regulations restricting material usage and style change, consumer apparel continued to be marketed throughout the war, though often the marketing efforts were patriotic. According to a New York Times article of 1942, New York fashion designer Jane Engel, who had expanded her Madison Avenue store in 1942 in order to display her L-85 garments and furlough formal apparel, was an example of the focus on consumer apparel. Manufacturers, retailers, and designers advertised the availability of these wartime styles. This, coupled with the fact that consumers were spending more than they had been on apparel and other goods, suggests that there was not much conservation of fabric and other dress materials.

Manufacturers and retailers would be penalized with fines or jail time if caught making or selling civilian apparel that violated the federal restrictions on dress. Kathy Peiss discusses the sale of zoot suits, a men’s wartime style considered unpatriotic due to the excessive fabric used to manufacture the style. Retailers and tailors caught selling the zoot suit faced prosecution, jail, and fines of US$10,000. The regulations were difficult to enforce, however, and the sale of zoot suits continued.

So why did retailers and manufacturers violate the federal limitation orders on dress? Perhaps because they thought they needed to use up existing fabric inventories or because they did not think they would be caught due to the difficulty of enforcing the regulations. In his autobiography Stanley Marcus, the co-owner of Neiman-Marcus and head of the women’s and children’s sections of the clothing division of the WPB, recalled that it was difficult to convince some committee members that shortages were a possibility. Many believed they would always be able to locate fabric.

Jennifer Mower and Elaine Pedersen have examined forty-six extant wartime garments to evaluate adherence to the order and concluded that that the order was not always followed, orders were not that limiting, and additional restrictions could have been made to save even more materials. Eleven garments violated the L-85 order through length, hem circumference, closures (such as zippers), and other style details (for example cuff and sleeve style). Among the garments was a suit with matching box coat; the donor indicated that this ensemble was purchased as a “going-away suit for a wedding.” It is not known whether the coat was purchased separately or as a single unit, but under the limitation order retailers were prohibited to sell a suit with a matching coat at a single unit price. According to Frank Walton, the limitation orders were not incorporated into apparel patterns until 1943, and the women we interviewed about their wartime apparel consumption indicated that they reused patterns, shared patterns, or made their own patterns to sew their own clothing, and may or may not have known about the apparel regulations or cared to adhere to them. Therefore, homemade clothing often violated the length and/or sweep (hem circumference) of the L-85 order.

An Open Letter to Hoarders

Leon Henderson, the director of the Division of Civilian Supply of the WPB, wrote that:

Wars make heroes—and hoarders. This war is no exception … But on the home front, all too often, the courage and self-sacrifice of our soldiers and sailors have been countered by the fear and the greed of hoarders and profiteers … Appeals based on patriotism or the need for self-sacrifice make no impression on him. Only the force of law can curb him, and the law is doing it. Actions are—and will continue to be—brought against profiteers under the Price Control Act of 1942.

Misbehavior by consumers, retailers, and manufacturers was rampant enough to necessitate legislation. The U.S. government needed to regulate civilian consumption during the war in order to keep up production of war products. Consumers were bombarded with messages like “Make do and mend,” “Use it up—wear it out,” and “Do with less—so they’ll have enough.” Combined with advertisements that promoted spending, these relayed a mixed message to consumers—who had money in their pockets to spend on clothing and other non-durable items due to massive federal spending in the defense industries. These conflicting messages may have created feelings of ambivalence in consumers, retailers, and manufacturers alike. If consumers are ambivalent or uncertain about their situation as consumers to begin with, and are then met with stock-outs or limited availability of products, this will further agitate them and may lead to aggression. Misbehavior such as purchasing goods on the black market, riots, and hoarding was therefore common during World War II.

References and Further Reading

Find in Library Abelson S. When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Find in Library Albers-Miller Nancy. ““Consumer Misbehavior: Why People Buy Illicit Goods”.” Journal of Consumer Marketing 16, no. 3 (1999): 273–287.

Find in Library Anderson A., and J. Brad Bushman. ““Human Aggression”.” Annual Review Psychology 53 (2002): 27–51.

Find in Library Benson Porter. Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890–1940. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Find in Library Blum M. V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture During World War II. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Find in Library Bureau of Demobilization, Civilian Production Administration. The Facilities and Construction Program of the War Production Board and Predecessor Agencies: May 1940 to May 1945, by R. C. McGrane. Historical Reports on War Administration: War Production Board, special study no. 19 (Washington, DC, 5 April 1946).

Find in Library Casdorph D. Let the Good Times Roll: Life at Home in America During World War II. New York: Paragon House, 1989.

Convicted in OPA Bribe Case.” The New York Times, 13 April 1946: 5.

David Herbert. Letter to All District Enforcement Agents (Region II). National Archives 126: Records relating to field enforcement units concerned with apparel (1944–46).

Facts and Figures.” Time, 22 October 1945: 86.

Find in Library Farrell-Beck Jane, and Jean Parsons. 20th-Century Dress in the United States. New York: Fairchild Publications, 2007.

Find in Library Fullerton A., and Girish Punj. ““The Unintended Consequences of the Culture of Consumption: An Historical-Theoretical Analysis of Consumer Misbehavior”.” Consumption Markets & Culture 1, no. 4 (1998): 393–423.

Find in Library Harris C., and Kate L. Reynolds. ““The Consequences of Dysfunctional Customer Behavior”.” Journal of Service Research 6 (2003): 144–161.

Find in Library Henderson Leon. ““An Open Letter to Hoarders”.” Look, 19 May 1941: 20.

Find in Library Horowitz Daniel. The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939–1979. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004.

Find in Library Huang Wen-Hsien, Yin-Ching Lin, and Yu-Chia Wen. ““Attributions and Outcomes of Customer Misbehavior”.” Journal of Business Psychology 25 (2010): 151–161.

Inventory Boom.” Time, 30 March 1942: 63.

In the Stretch.” Time, 20 April 1942: 17.

Find in Library Jacobs Meg. Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Find in Library ““Jane Engel Expands Shop: Fabric Manipulation Features Fall Costumes on New Floor”.” New York Times, 19 August 1942: 22.

Find in Library Kyrk Hazel. “Consumers and the War.” In Consumer Problems in Wartime, edited by Kenneth Dameron, 22–33. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1944.

Find in Library Lennon J., Kim K. P. Johnson, and Jaeha Lee. ““A Perfect Storm for Consumer Misbehavior: Shopping on Black Friday”.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 29, no. 2 (2011): 119–134.

Find in Library Marcus Stanley. Minding the Store: A Memoir. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1974.

Montgomery Donald. Letter to Chester A. Bowles. National Archives 127: Records relating to “selected cases” (1943–45).

Find in Library Mower M., and Elaine L. Pedersen. ““Pretty and Patriotic: Women’s Consumption of Apparel in World War II”.” Dress 39, no. 1 (2013): 37–54.

Find in Library Novick D., M. Anshen, and W. C. Truppner. Wartime Production Controls. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949.

Panic Buying.” Time, 22 December 1941: 34.

Find in Library Peiss Kathy. Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style. Philadelphia: Philadelphia University Press, 2011.

Find in Library Phillips Simon, Andrew Alexander, and Gareth Shaw. ““Consumer Misbehavior: The Rise of Self-Service Grocery Retailing and Shoplifting in the United Kingdom c. 1950–1970”.” Journal of Macromarketing 25, no. 1 (2005): 66–75.

Promotion of Hoarding.” Time, 30 March 1942: 63.

Store Impounds Nylons: Sale in San Francisco Concealed in Interest of Safety.” New York Times, 13 April 1946: 13.

Sugar Books.” Time, 18 May 1942: 17.

Find in Library Walton W. Thread of Victory. New York: Fairchild Publishing, 1945.

Find in Library Ware F. The Consumer Goes to War: A Guide to Victory on the Home Front. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1942.

Find in Library Winakor Geitel. ““The Decline in Expenditures for Clothing Relative to Total Consumer Spending, 1929–1986”.” Home Economics Research Journal 17, no. 3 (March 1989): 195–215.

Your War Guide to Daily Living.” McCall’s, March 1944.