[Originally written April 2007]
In the last decade or so I've come to love a rather odd book genre: the mid-WWII-era sewing book. I first came across one of these in the local public library, and was utterly fascinated by a detailed chapter on all the tips and tricks of mending fabric. I took it home, noting at checkout that it hadn't been loaned out for years, and pored over its pages. Since then I've found and bought two similar books from the same era.
Those of you who know the dubious extent of my sewing skills probably have one very reasonable question: WHY? What is it about vintage sewing manuals that has you all hot and bothered, anyway?
Well, for one thing, I would like to become a better seamstress -- but that was only what initially drew my attention. The aspect of these books that continues to fascinate me is the snapshot they provide of a very particular point in American history. Title pages often contain verbiage indicating that the margins of these books have been set to government regulations, various figures are grouped together on a single page, and subheadings of chapters are printed in the margins -- all innovations designed to keep from wasting paper. There are chapters dedicated to making your own accessories in order to freshen up last year's outfit; these include projects like simple flat shoes and sandals, which can be made from scraps left over from other projects. There are chapters on darning, patching, mending, and turning worn shirt collars and cuffs, complete with little reminders that "Today ... so many things are doubly precious because they're irreplaceable." There are chapters on restyling old outfits, and ripping the seams of your out-of-date clothes to collect material for making "new" outfits. And the section on selecting the proper needle for hand sewing just comes right out and says it: "Due to wartime conditions some sizes may not be available." Reminders of war and the way it has changed everyday life are visible on nearly every page of these manuals.
Perhaps the most revealing chapters of these books are the ones which advise smart home sewers to get into the back of the closet and pull out Dad's civilian clothes. There are cute black-and-white photos or line drawings that show how the jackets, pants and shirts that Private Smith left behind can all be used as yardage to make outerwear and clothing for women and children. Nearly every book has basic instructions on how to remake a man's suit into a woman's suit. It's never stated outright, but the assumption is pretty clear: when Johnny comes marching home again, you can buy him a brand new suit -- but if he doesn't make it home, well, there's no point in letting his clothes hang in the closet unused.
This makes it sound as though these books are unbearably grim, but they are not. Often the accompanying text has a chatty -- nay, perky -- style to it, and the authors are usually upbeat and encouraging with their advice to the home sewer. The pith of their advice is, "Yes, times are hard, but there's no point in despairing over them. They won't be like this forever. In the meantime, since there is a war on, why not rise to the challenge and do something inspiring and clever even under these restrictions?"
This attitude -- ingenuity born of desperate circumstances -- certainly isn't unique to wartime or even to the West, but the attitude of strength and cheerfulness and hope with which people in privation draw on their own wit and industry to make beauty from limited resources is, I believe, uniquely Western. Our church calls this attitude "provident living." It can be seen in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, where her family finds ways to make something from nothing. It is visible in every soddie house and flour-sack dress and pieced quilt of the Westward migration. It can be seen in the humble pine pillars faux-painted to look like marble in the Mormon Tabernacle. Nearly every generation previous to World War II had to struggle to survive and thrive, but they did it willingly with the belief that things would get better.
A while ago I saw a bit of the UK reality-TV series "The 1940s House," in which several modern Britons lived under wartime conditions for several weeks. One of the things I remember vividly was the discussion of red lipstick. It seemed that all through World War II, Western women wore bright red lipstick. When their cosmetic supplies ran out, they bought it on the black market or found other ways to dye their lips scarlet. They called it "the red badge of courage." It was a way of whistling in the dark. (Remember, they didn't know how it was all going to end.) Along with the other well-known wartime trick -- painting a narrow black line down the backs of their calves to simulate the seam of long-vanished silk stockings -- it was a way of bringing a little glamour, beauty and normalcy into everyday life. It was a way of remembering, and reminding everyone else, of what the fighting was all about -- to preserve a culture. Not specifically a materialistic culture that could provide rouge and silk stockings and all the little luxuries of Western life (although we in the early 21st century would be fools and snobs to demean their very natural longings for the grace notes they were denied; how many of us now could go a month without access to chocolate?), but a culture that championed life, family, faith, everyday beauty, and the pursuit of whatever dream an individual desired. And that is exactly what fascinates me about these books, and why I like them so much -- they are unabashedly proud of Western culture, regard it as a joy, and never question the need to defend and preserve it.
Then, after the war was finally won, the same generation that made and read these books raised a bumper crop of children and lavished upon them every luxury they could afford. Free from the privation of their ancestors, free to enjoy every possible opportunity Western civilization had to offer, what did these children of privilege do with their lives? What did they learn about the beauty or value of Western culture, those who never suffered want in order to keep that culture alive, and who chose to see only the diseased aspects of the culture (and these diseases definitely do exist) as representative of all?
Sometimes I wonder if the West will do to itself, through affluence and indolence, what the Axis powers proved incapable of doing. I hope I'm wrong. I think the majority believe that Western culture is worth saving, and that the sneerers who leap to question the benefit of anything Western civilization has produced are a small but vocal minority who do not understand how richly they are blessed, how much was sacrificed to save their culture. I want to believe in that.