A Veteran’s Day Treat: Beauty as Duty at the MFA

Photo by Ashley Wood

War and fashion: the two topics seem hardly intertwined. And aside from the media’s continuous coverage of Michelle Obama’s wardrobe, it’s rare for fashion to ever tie in with politics. Fashion is supposed to be fun, light-hearted, and focused on aesthetics. But as the new Beauty as Duty exhibit at the MFA demonstrates, fashion used to be so much more than pretty prints and flattering hemlines. The exhibit focuses on fashion during WWII, and as curator Alex Huff suggests, at the time, fashion was a woman’s contribution to her country.

Vogue [magazine]emphasized the theme that beauty isn’t frivolous,” explains Huff. “It was your patriotic duty to look beautiful both for yourself and for the men at war.” In other words, being beautiful would lift both self morale as well as the morale of soldiers. Vogue wasn’t the only one to latch on to the idea – the British government seemed to find importance in stylish wears as well, and commissioned the first line of coupon-bought utility clothing to be designed by British couturiers.

Enter the era of slimmer, military-inspired dresses and man-made materials like rayon. Designers also began manufacturing colorful scarves for giving the same old outfit a new look and for wearing over unwashed hair as war rationing caused a shortage of basic necessities like shampoo.

These scarves became an iconic piece of war-time fashion and make up a prominent part of the exhibit. Printed with patriotic slogans, “victory” patterns, and war references, the scarves actually boosted morale during the war. While it seems ironic to print an aircraft carrier on a vibrant fashion accessory, incorporating serious war themes with colorful aesthetics became extremely popular for women in the 1940s.

“These scarves and dresses were a colorful response to those austerity measures and ultimately served as propaganda,” says Huff. “That spirit of individual sacrifice and rallying for the common good is one of the most intriguing things to me about this period in British history.”

$22, Beauty as Duty: Textiles on the Home Front in WWII Britain, showing through May 28, 2012; Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, 617-267-9300, mfa.org.