War—and little else—dominated people’s thoughts for most of the 1940s. Even Hollywood was preoccupied, its films serving as powerful propaganda and morale-boosting devices.

Some of the greatest stars of the day shipped out with the USO to entertain the troops; the pin-up girl became a phenomenon. Thousands of U.S. soldiers clamored for photos of Betty Grable, whose film studio had her legs insured for $1 million.

The hallmarks of fashion in the early 1940s included an austere silhouette with narrow hips, padded shoulders, and all manner of hats. The working-class look of icons such as Rosie the Riveter became chic, as women of all social standings joined the war effort. They kept things going at home, taking over the jobs—and the closets—of departing husbands and other male relatives. Class barriers fell and people dressed down. It was considered gauche to be showy during a time of shortage. Designers flexed their creative muscle—even creating beautifully decorated gas masks for eveningwear.

Overseas, leather was now restricted to military use, so shoe designers were forced to be increasingly clever. Every imaginable material was incorporated into shoes, but reptile skins and mesh were the most successful substitutes. Cork or wood-soled "Wedgies" were another staple. Trims and embellishments were, by necessity, kept to a minimum. Women everywhere used household items, including cellophane and pipe cleaners, to create festive shoe decorations.

Everything was recycled, giving rise to such clever advertising as Vogue’s “Make Do & Mend” campaign. Factories were converted from consumer goods production to military production. U.S. rationing rules limited the height of shoe heels to one inch and allowed for only six color choices; stockings were also unavailable. Magazines and beauty salons helped out by offering tips on how to paint legs with back seams and tans using makeup. This being unpractical as an ongoing ritual, ankle socks became increasingly popular.

In 1947, Christian Dior introduced the New Look, a return to classic femininity with a nipped waist and wide skirts. The accompanying shoe design would set the stage for the next decade…

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