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Mainbocher WAVES Uniform and 1940s Blouse

The exhibition Fashion & Politics chronicles over 200 years of politics as expressed through fashion, addressing such recurring themes as nationalism, feminism, and the effects of being at war. 

This is a women’s navy uniform from the Second World War, 1941 to 1945. In these years of tremendous patriotism, many women demonstrated their commitment to the war effort by enlisting in women’s divisions of the military. Each service job taken by a woman was considered to be "releasing a man to fight." 

The women’s division of the Navy was called the WAVES, an acronym for "Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service." The stylish navy blue WAVES uniform seen here followed the fashionable lines of a 1940s suit—a slim, gored skirt and flattering, fitted jacket with padded shoulders, a rounded collar and pointed lapel. The gold buttons on this suit, as well as the embroidered stripes and star at the wrist, denote that it was worn by a WAVES officer.

These uniforms were designed by American-born couturier Mainbocher, a high-profile designer who had recently relocated his business from Paris to New York. Thus, a member of the WAVES was dressed in the very best fashion while proudly serving her country. 

Joan Angel, a woman who served in the WAVES, described her experiences in a 1943 autobiography. At the sight of herself in a newly tailored WAVES uniform, she exclaimed: "by heavens, I did look impressive! The suit was beautifully cut, trim and efficient-looking without being stiff and masculine. It was the kind of tailored outfit I might have bought in civilian life – but in navy blue, with the fouled-anchor embroidery on the collar… it gave me the bearing of a woman in whom great responsibilities were vested." 

A striking display of patriotism is also evident in the bright and bold print of this jaunty silk blouse, dated from around 1946. The print displays a crowded and energetic scene. Trees, planes, and city buildings are interspersed with the flags of the United States, Great Britain, and France. Standing out from the crowd are such recognizable monuments as the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. With flags waving triumphantly over the Allied countries, this blouse was perhaps emblematic of their victory in the Second World War. 

Wartime Fashions Video Transcript


Curator Jennifer Farley discusses fashions during wartime.

"The Most Fashionable Museum
in New York City."