Something I’ve always been fascinated with is how fashion adapts to its circumstances throughout time. It’s never as black and white as people think; never solely about trends and the vogue but often takes its form out of necessity. The Great Depression, Women’s Lib and the World Wars all had a profound effect on fashion and what better film to discuss this effect than the ultimate WW2 drama Mrs. Miniver (1942).
The film started production at MGM in 1941 while much of Europe was at War. America was still struggling to remain neutral and many believe that Mrs. Miniver was created to help ease the country into the idea of entering the fight. Half way through filming, however, America did officially enter and Mrs. Miniver became an act of propaganda for all Allied Forces.
Set in England, the film follows a typical middle class family as it moves through the moments of impending War and it’s inevitable arrival. It’s main purpose was to show how hard times can affect ordinary people and how strong those ordinary people can be when needed. It is a beautifully heartfelt presentation of the great sense of the comradery that War can create despite the difficulties forced upon us.
One such difficulty was the lessened availability of materials for clothing and other household needs. It was seen as a small sacrifice to make if those materials could go to a greater cause and help win the War. Nevertheless, women did struggle to clothe themselves and their families and as a result, Wartime fashion was largely modest and understated; at least in comparison to previous decades and the outburst of colour after the war in the 1950s.
Mrs. Miniver does a wonderful job of presenting the transition from the more elaborate outfits of the 1930s to those more modest and conservative during the War and it begins with one of the most memorable outfits in the film.
Greer Garson plays the title role of Kay Miniver. She has a somewhat typical English family of a husband (Clem – played by Walter Pidgeon), a son in late adolescence (Vin – played by Ricard Ney) and two smaller children, a daughter and and son (Judy and Toby – played by Clare Sandars and Christopher Severn). Her husband is doing well at his job as an architect and they are all living quite comfortably within their means. Like all of us, however, they dream of bigger and better things as Clem covets a new car and Kay battles her conscience on whether or not to buy a new hat. Both parties, of course, decide to buy them and worry about the other’s reaction later.
Kay’s outfit as she goes shopping has loads of lovely but nonetheless excess material. She wears an exquisitely tailored suit with a flourish of string detail at the neck and a large, scalloped picture hat. The War had not yet begun and women were still preoccupied with pastimes like shopping and fashion, soon to seem frivolous.
The hat that Kay buys represents these “unnecessary” frivolities.
Another extravagant dress is worn by Kay at a dance held at the town sailing club. Vin’s love interest Carol Beldon, played by Teresa Wright, also wears a beautiful gown. The party scene is designed to present England’s effort to keep up a sense of normality in the face of imminent trouble and so the women wear their finest silks and glittering organzas.
For the rest of the film though, the ladies are seen in somewhat less extravagant clothing, only sometimes displaying small adornments, and the men seem to repeat the same suits. Being Hollywood though, it was accepted, and in fact expected, that the women wear something different in every scene in order to keep things interesting however no “big name” designer was hired for the film. Robert Kalloch was assigned to design only the gowns and, as there was no need for any other lavish creations, the rest of the clothing went uncredited.
Women wore modest suits during the day to show respect for the world “situation” and this is reflected in many of the outfits of Kay and Carol.
Modest outfits are also worn at night and only small accessories are seen, if at all, as in the dinner party wear Vin proposes to Carol.
The only time, during the War in the film, that we see the ladies in any sort of finery is if there’s a special occasion. At one point, the whole town gathers for the annual flower show, a proud tradition in the Belham community. Kay wears a polkadot dress and another large picture hat with netted detail, mirroring that which we saw before the War. It’s another attempt to preserve a much needed sense of normality. On another occasion, Carol comes home from her honeymoon after marrying Vin. She sports a very extravagant hat indeed! Something clearly only worn for something as special as her honeymoon. Most likely her “going away” outfit.
But at no other time are the outfits more conservative than in the bomb-shelter sequences when Clem and Kay Miniver are protecting their family from the terrifying air raids. Always remaining calm and collected for the sake of their children, they keep the proverbial British “stiff upper lip” by reading them the story of Alice in Wonderland. Their clothing reflects these grave moments and their efforts to stay positive.
Even the dressing gown that Kay wears as she fights off a Nazi intruder in her home is simple and unassuming and one that would have been a staple item in the average English woman’s wardrobe.
Though some have criticised Mrs. Miniver for it’s tones of propaganda, in a time of great fear and uncertainty, propaganda such as this was much needed and welcomed and did great things for the War effort. The film was set for special release but President Roosevelt was adamant that it be released as soon as it was ready in order to been seen by the general public as soon as possible. Winston Churchill has even been quoted as saying that Mrs. Miniver did more for the War Effort than a flotilla of battle ships!
Greer Garson herself said: “I like to think that it had something to do with dispelling the last traces of isolationism in America. I don’t blame people for not wanting to get into a war… but of course it was not [just] a skirmish over in Europe, it was a global war and it would have affected America disastrously anyhow; if the freedom loving countries had been overcome in Europe, America would have been next.”
The clothing in Mrs. Miniver is a wonderful representation of Wartime fashion during WW2 and the hardships that were endured under the Blitz. Although a Hollywood version, the sacrifices that were made by women in terms of clothing is presented in as much “truth” as was possible and everyone involved in the film’s making was wholly respectful to it’s cause and humbled by it’s meaning. As a result of the film’s effort to reflect true-to-life situations and the ripple effect of a moral boost that it caused throughout the world, no Wartime drama in the history of film is as much loved and remembered today as Mrs. Miniver.
Below you can watch a rare interview with Greer Garson in 1985 as she reflects on her time as Mrs. Miniver