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Clothing Choices, 1941 and Today


There's much being written (Cheap and A Year Without "Made in China" are two recent examples) these days about the ethics behind the quality and quantity of what we buy and consume--including clothing.  So when I came upon this 1941 wardrobe survey in Design for Living, I wanted to share it. 

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Design for Living: The Magazine for Young Moderns was launched in September 1941 and offered its readership of college women features on fashion, careers, food, etiquette and dating, wartime work, and campus life. The Campus Poll pictured here appeared in the magazine's very first issue, and it caught my eye both for its graphic presentation and for the details it reveals about what  the "Miss Average College Girl" owns and wears. Revealing that the average young woman spent $240.33 a year on clothes in September 1941, it further reports that "the sweater is still old faithful, and that a college girl spends 75% of her waking hours in the sweater skirt ensemble." There is no differentiation between handmade clothing and purchased items in this survey, but I suspect that some of these women's wardrobes included items that they made themselves (and there are articles elsewhere in Design for Living about sewing for oneself).

I like knowing that these students maintained a "uniform" of a sort, and I suspect that many of us do today as well.  And speaking of uniforms, The Uniform Project is one of a handful of intriguing and inspiring creative projects by artists whose work encourages us to consider fashion without consumption and to question how buying or making one's own clothes alters the conversation about creativity and stewardship. Another thought-provoking and interesting project that I can't get enough of is MakeShift. And I was recently tipped off to The Great American Apparel Diet. Do you have a favorite wardrobe consumption/creation project that you follow?  And whether you make your own clothes or buy them readymade, do you set limits or define parameters for what goes into your wardrobe? 


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boyfriends: staple or accessory?

I find it amusing that they apparently consider boyfriends a wardrobe item.

I think that refers to a type

I think that refers to a type of sweater.


Read the fine print-- it jokes about how a boyfriend is the accessory every girl wants on her arm.

Not if you read the copy.

Not if you read the copy. There is a boyfriend sweater, but it isn't what is being referred to.

The article says...

"Though he's not exactly an article of clothing..."

favorite wardrobeconsumption/creation project

As an effort to avoid sweatshop labor, cheap imported clothing, and the idiocy that is the fashion industry I decided to make my own clothes. A couple of years ago I fashioned a basic wardrobe of dresses, with the plan to wear them for a semester, documenting the experience. I thought of it at the time as more or less an art project...I was curious about the effect of clothing on the personality of the wearer, and of the physical effects of continual wear on the cloth. Recently I've returned to wearing these self-made clothes. It feels more like me. When I put on a pair of jeans, or a factory made sweater, it now somehow feels wrong to me. I honestly have come to a place where I'm more comfortable in my rather plain unsophisticated handmade clothing than I am in clothing that is industry produced. My limits/parameters I wear dresses. Long ones. I want as simple a wardrobe as possible and there are places I go where pants on women are not considered polite or acceptable. I have never found a place where a woman would be considered rude or immodest in a long dress with sleeves. I use natural fabrics. Cotton mostly, some wool, some linen. I don't like man-made fibers. To me they feel creepy. Color-I wear blues, greens, browns primarily. I prefer subtle plaids or stripes because we have a large Amish population where I live and I do a number of things that aren't appropriate for an Amish woman. I don't want to sully their reputation so I make an effort not to wear their sort of solid-fabric dresses, or bonnets. No zippers, because I do my own sewing and I hate putting in zippers. I can do it, but I don't want to, so I designed my dresses to slip over my head. No interlocked know that 4 thread overcasting stitch that is the hallmark of cheaply mass-produced clothing? Yuck. I finish my seams the old fashioned way, flat-felled or 'french' seams, raw edges encased so they won't fray. No fabrics that need a lot of ironing. No fun to do, uses electricity. I prefer cottons like homespun that are thick enough to look ok right off the clothesline. I have better things to do than iron. Clothesline. Indoor clothes racks. I don't put my handmade clothes in a dryer. All that lint is your clothes wearing out people! No pantyhose, no high heels, no bust-exaggerating bras, no thong panties. Those things are nutty. I wear "boring" undies and flat shoes. I do have a weakness for colorful socks, I buy the thin summer weight ones and knit the heavy winter ones. What I want to do, but have not been able to do, is use cloth that is made here. It bothers me that I can seldom find cloth that doesn't come from halfway around the world.

on that last point

The above poster mentions something that often keeps me from increasing my sewing -- much of the time the fabric is coming from the same countries as the sweatshop clothes. It would be nice to know that you're not supporting the same issues in that. It'd also be nice to live somewhere with a fabric store that actually carried decent things beyond quilting fabrics.

$240 a year

It's worth noting that $240 in 1941 is equal to about $3,500 today, at least according to the inflation calculator at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Lotsa Money

Yeah, I thought that sounded like a lot. I may spend that much ($240) on clothing in a year now, in the 2000s.

Who went to college in 1941

I agree - I don't know many students at the community college where I work that can afford to spend $3,500 on clothes today. It's important to note that the vast majority of the women who went to college in the 1940s were from affluent families.

$240 a year

I agree that college women were frequently more affluent then than now. But it's also likely that the clothes purchased back then were intended to be worn for many years, not just for one or two seasons like today. (Hence the sweater-and-skirt uniform -- aside from hemlines, that could be adjusted if needed, a few of each item would last a girl the whole way through college.)

Agree with the poster who

Agree with the poster who notes that women attending college at this time were affluent, and that they were most likely buying clothes to last. College students today may be spending less money on clothing, but I bet it's the rare college student who is buying clothing intended for the working world. I bought TONS of clothes from vintage/used stores in both college and graduate school, but had almost nothing to wear to work when I graduated. Something tells me the Smith girl of 1941 wouldn't have had that problem.


Anonymous -- it's pretty easy to buy vintage fabric on eBay and Etsy. It's narrower, so you need more of it, but a lot of it was made in mills in the US and UK.


It would be great if you put up more of the magazine since it's such a fascinating look into the past.

vintage fabric

Just a warning: If your fabric is truly vintage, it is most likely very fragile. I inherited a trunk of beautiful fabric from a great aunt. I foolishly ruined a creation by machine washing it (on gentle...not gentle enough)

Vintage fabric

I found some vintage fabric at a thrift store and made up a skirt. I wore it once and the seams ripped out due to the fragility of the fabric and according to the look of the fabric i'd say it was no more than 30 years old. If I need fabric I'll buy fresh fabric and figure that at least I wasn't paying to enslave someone to sew it too. There aren't to many options unless you learn to Shear, spin and weave.

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