Leisure Time Pursuits


The war sees a change in the types of fabrics used to manufacture clothing. Traditional materials such as wool, cotton, and silk are diverted to make uniforms and other war materials, and new synthetic fibers and blends come onto the market, such as rayon and nylon. These materials need to be looked after in a completely different way and, as well as pushing the “Make Do and Mend” message, the British Ministry of Information also publishes booklets on how not to ruin your new, scarce clothing.

Men’s Fashions


There are few changes in the way civilian men dress throughout the war. The basic outfit of a three-piece suit, a shirt (with detachable collar in a variety of styles), a tie, and a hat remains the same, although the waistcoat of a suit is often replaced with a pullover or cardigan as the war goes on. The colors used are predominantly sober so that the suit can be worn for a variety of purposes, and because the chemicals needed for brighter dyes are redirected to the war effort. Ties, frequently knitted or crocheted, are the only splash of color besides the ever popular Fair Isle jumpers.

Suit jackets have square, padded shoulders, wide lapels, and a rounded cut at the front lower edge. The British Utility Suit and the American Victory Suit are both made from synthetic blends and stick faithfully to austerity guidelines. For casual wear there is the sports jacket or the windjammer, usually a leather or suede waist-length jacket, fastened with a zip or poppers, and with elasticated welts at the cuffs and waistband.

Men’s overcoats are large and thick for warmth, fasten with a belt, and have a collar. They are usually worn with a “choker”, a short fabric scarf of either rayon, silk, or cotton. The alternative to an overcoat is the trenchcoat-style mackintosh.


Trousers are high-waisted to keep the back warm and have button-fastening flies, with additional buttons to attach elastic braces to. Very few trousers have belt loops. Although turn-ups are officially banned after 1941/42, tailors have a tendency to cut trousers too long in the leg, forcing them to be turned up, as cutting off the excess material is classed as terribly wasteful and is distinctly frowned upon. Shirts can only be worn collarless when undertaking hard manual labour, or lounging at home.

It is most disreputable to be seen out without a hat. In Britain, the favorite styles are the trilby and the flat cap, and in America the fedora and homburg. As the war progresses, the crowns and brims get smaller and the felt coarser, but hats are never rationed.

If serving in the forces, men have their uniforms. Industrial workers of both sexes wear overalls, often over their suit or dress. These overalls can be boilersuits, bib-and-braces, or long overcoats, none of which are rationed. Shoes are rationed, and as rubber and leather are in short supply, alternative materials such as wood and cork are used for the soles, and cloth for the uppers. Leather spectator-style shoes and brogues become increasingly rare as time goes by. Wellington boots, properly known as galoshes in this time period, need to be looked after carefully as replacements are hard to come by.

When it comes to hairstyles, a variation on the British military’s “short back and sides” cut is most common. The long hair on top must be kept under control with a variety of lotions and potions, such as brilliantine or Brylcreem. Brylcreem becomes so associated with the RAF that its pilots are sarcastically referred to as the Brylcreem Boys. Younger men tend to be clean-shaven whilst those who serve, or have served, in the military have mustaches. Only sailors, tramps, and academics have beards. Shaving soap is not rationed in order that men can maintain socially acceptable levels of hirsuteness—if they can get hold of razor blades, which are scarce in Britain by 1942.

Women’s Fashions


Military styles are popular in the run-up to war, with military jackets, brass buttons, and epaulettes all commonly seen. Wide shoulders and narrow waists are the “in” thing. At the start of the conflict, it is highly unusual and utterly scandalous to see a woman in “slacks”, although as more and more women become involved in war work and stockings disappear, this changes dramatically. Women’s slacks fasten at the side with buttons, and if not worn for work are usually paired with a jumper of some sort. Skirts hang just below the knee, usually with only a single pleat to conserve fabric. Two-piece suits are popular, as the jacket and skirt can be worn together, or separately to give different looks. Simple base garments are dressed up with accessories to ring the changes, and puffed sleeves are de rigueur on everything. Men’s wardrobes are raided for clothing to adapt, or to wear outright.

Fashion is largely dictated by two sources: Paris and Hollywood. After the Fall of France, many Parisian fashion houses close down, although some work for the German occupiers. With Paris Fashion Week gone, New York sets up Press Week in 1943, giving American designers a chance to move to the fore.

Despite the Nazi Party’s best efforts to exert control on women’s fashions in Germany before the war, most women continue to dress as they please, refusing to adopt either the Trachtenkleidung folk costume, or organizational uniforms. Once fabric shortages begin in Germany, even after joining one of the many auxiliary services in operation, such uniforms are often non-existent and membership is denoted purely by an armband.

An iconic piece of clothing, at least in Britain, is the pinny: an apron or pinafore that goes over clothes to protect them whilst working. Coupled with a headscarf and rollers, this is the archetypal look of the working-class British housewife. Most women adopt men’s working clothes when in factories, or working the land, both for practicality and warmth. In Germany, the wearing of trousers by women outside work causes a major scandal and is made illegal in certain areas, although by 1944 Heinrich Himmler insists that charges should not be brought against ladies flouting this rule.

As with men’s titfers, women’s hats are not subject to rationing, although headscarves are because of their fabric requirements. Turbans and headscarves are popular as work wear, as they protect the hair from dirt and becoming entangled in machinery. They also become more common as the price of women’s hats escalates as materials run short. Snoods (crocheted or knitted hair nets) are also very popular for controlling long hair, as they can be worn for both day and evening, with a little dressing up. Berets are considered to be very stylish, too. The heels on women’s shoes in Britain are limited to a height of two inches, and in America, one inch, with wedge heels making their first appearance.

Women’s hairstyles also change as the war progresses, with new careers and shortages of shampoo and cosmetic products, such as setting lotion, all playing a role in moving to more practical, yet oddly still glamorous, hair-dos. Everyone who can afford one has a permanent wave. Short hair is fashionable if serving in the women’s auxiliary forces.

Even if a woman has long hair, it is usually worn up during the day. Celebrities are recruited to promote the use of certain styles, including film actress Veronica Lake. Famous for her much copied, draped-over-one-eye, peeka-boo look, Lake is brought in to convince young women to use the victory roll, a voluptuously-coiled hairstyle supposedly named after fighter pilots’ celebratory maneuvers, largely to prevent workplace accidents. Elaborate quiffs are standard at the start of the war, although by 1944 a sleeker, “flat top” style is introduced that does away with all the complicated curls and high-rise hair.

By the 1930s, the use of make-up is no longer seen as particularly tawdry or tarty, except in Nazi Germany. A well-groomed girl uses face powder, rouge, lipstick, and mascara, if she can get them. Nail varnish disappears by 1943, and lipstick becomes increasingly hard to come by, partly due to a shortage of ingredients but also because of the cost as a result of various luxury item taxes. Leg make-up, proprietary and home-made, also becomes popular as stockings become notoriously scarce, and women increasingly wear socks as an alternative. Women are encouraged to take great care over their appearance by the powers that be, in order to maintain male morale…


Putting on a Show

Maintaining morale is essential during times of national strife and radio, newspapers, magazines, and the cinema all have a role to play in lifting a nation’s spirits whilst at the same time carefully juggling the need to keep the populace informed of current events.

Hot to Trot

Dancing is one of the two most popular pastimes in Britain during the war, although the rather staid foxtrot is gradually replaced with more exotic dances from the United States, brought over by the newly-arrived troops. One of the most popular with young Americans, and later their British counterparts, is the Lindy Hop which first appears around 1935. Allegedly named after aviator Charles Lindbergh, it develops from earlier African-American dance styles. The Hop manages to maintain its prominence throughout the war even with the advent of later dances, such as the Jitterbug. The Swing Era also begins around the same time, with “big band” music reaching the height of its popularity as the war progresses.


Instrumental Big Band music aside, Allied songs during the war fall roughly into three main categories: wistful and romantic love-songs, uplifting and stirring patriotic anthems, and light-hearted or bizarre comedic ditties. Frequently the same song is covered by numerous artists on both sides of the Atlantic, and all countries have their own particular favorites. In America, Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, and Benny Goodman are household names, whereas in Britain, Gracie Fields, Vera Lynn, George Formby, and Joe Loss are more familiar. In France, Édith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, and Tino Rossi entertain those living under the occupation, while Josephine Baker keeps watch for the Allies.

Germany, however, has far more conventional tastes in music, at least officially. Hitler hates jazz, and the socially approved music of the Third Reich includes works by Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Carl Orff, although Swedish songstress Zarah Leander is a favorite of the German soldiers.

The Silver Screen

“Going to the pictures” is the other main recreational activity in wartime Britain besides dancing, as even the few people who had access to the British Broadcasting Corporation’s fledgling television service before the war have nothing else to watch now that the service has been suspended. Although cinemas, theaters, and other live “entertainments” are closed with the declaration of war in Britain, they reopen a scant two weeks later.


The cinema is very popular in America too, with audience numbers doubling between 1940 and 1942. Germany also boasts a very vibrant film industry, even though many of its brightest stars have fled to America to escape persecution and repressive government interference. Mobile cinemas take the latest releases out into Germany’s rural areas to spread the National Socialist message far and wide.

Movies are indeed an excellent means of getting your message across and are frequently used for propaganda purposes. Historical and famous literary characters, such as Sherlock Holmes and the Saint, are roped in to bolster morale and denigrate the enemy. Patriotic films underlining duty and honor, both civilian and military, become more numerous as the conflict escalates, as do escapist movies.

The Germans are particularly fond of romantic musical comedies, with Die grosse Liebe being the highest-grossing movie ever made by the Third Reich, whereas in America, horror films and film noir become increasingly prominent. Despite being under German control after the Fall of France, the French movie industry still manages to make some thinly veiled propaganda movies of its own, such as Les Enfants du Paradis.

Crystal Clear

Without television, most people get their news from one of four sources: gossip, the cinema, newspapers, or the radio, and most often from a combination of them all. The radio is also a significant weapon in the battle to maintain a nation’s mood, with light music, entertainment, and comedy programming as equally important as the news. It can also be educational: every morning, the BBC runs a program called “Kitchen Front” to help people make the most of their rations.


Radio can also be harnessed for propaganda purposes, and both the Axis and the Allies make use of this fact throughout the war, some more successfully than others. In September 1939, Lord Haw Haw begins broadcasting from Germany to Great Britain and America in his program “Germany Calling”. The alias, used by many broadcasters, is most often used to refer to William Joyce, an Irish-American fascist. Britain runs its own propaganda radio programs, with “black” radio stations taken care of by the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), and in particular Denis Sefton Delmer. The BBC, however, is not involved in any underhanded propaganda dissemination in order to ensure that its international reputation for trustworthiness is not compromised.

Loose Lips

Censorship of the press is an unwelcome concept when countries claim to be fighting for freedom. In Britain, the Ministry of Information takes on press censorship as soon as war is declared, preventing the publication or broadcast of any news item that could damage public morale, although the BBC is allowed to self-censor its radio broadcasts and refrains from commenting on news items.

As early as 1938, the United States passes laws preventing the unauthorized photography, sketching, and mapping of military bases. President Roosevelt, reluctant to use the powers of press censorship available to him, only insists that stories must be accurate and incapable of helping the enemy. The censoring of mail and communications begins in the United States in December 1941 with the passing of the first War Powers Act, and in January 1942 the Office of Censorship issues its first Voluntary Code, enabling the American press to self-censor.

Although American censorship is predominantly self-imposed, there are certain areas that are off-limits. Broadcasting about the weather is a very contentious topic, as it is feared it could give away vital strategic information to an enemy planning a raid, and half of all Code violations involve the weather. “Man in the street” broadcasts are also banned in an attempt to prevent enemy agents using them to pass messages to each other, even though this leads to a loss in advertising revenue for the radio stations. Something else that is discouraged is the playing of specifically timed musical requests and lost-and-found advertisements, as they are also good ways for enemy spies to communicate.

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, tightly controls the dissemination of information within Germany and its occupied territories through a variety of media. Listening to foreign radio stations, or reading foreign newspapers, is severely punished. The German people, though, grow disillusioned with patently false news reports as the war progresses, becoming increasingly aware that the press in general is just another cog in Goebbels’ unrelenting propaganda machine.


Suggested Viewing

The following movies are recommended for their atmosphere, story content, costume and set design, or all of the above!

Lost Horizon (1937)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Casablanca (1942)
Black Narcissus (1946)
She (1965)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The Keep (1983)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Leisure Time Pursuits

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