Shoes for Service: 1940’s Wartime Oxfords

During the second World War, over 400,000 women served in the US military, and nearly half a million women served in the British military. In fact, women served in the military all over the world, and in resistance forces too! Allied military servicewomen served in branches like the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), the Marines, and the Army Nurse Corps. Many more joined volunteer services like Women’s Land Army (WLA), Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), and Women’s Ordnance Workers (WOWs).

These servicewomen and volunteers needed uniforms, and with uniforms came shoe regulations. In Great Britain, the CC41 utility logo was found on shoes, furniture, clothing and textiles, signifying that these items met rationing requirements set by the Board of Trade.

CC41 logo seen in an approved pair of 1940’s shoes from the Museum of Cornish Life.

Wartime limitations impacted basically every aspect of the fashion industry, including footwear. Materials like wool and leather were strictly rationed and restricted. Garments for both service members and civilians were practical and streamlined in appearance and function. For example, mix-and-match washable separates (like skirt suits) for civilians saved time and money. Likewise, skirt suits for servicewomen were practically designed to allow for function first while still maintaining a smart and put-together appearance.

Marine Corps Women Reservists in uniform at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, October 16, 1943. The three servicewomen in this picture are all from Indigenous American backgrounds: (from left to right) Minnie Spotted-Wolf (Blackfoot), Celia Mix (Potawatomi), and Viola Eastman (Chippewa). Minnie Spotted-Wolf was the first Indigenous Native American woman to enlist in the U.S Marine Corps. Minnie is wearing issued service oxfords, while Violet appears to be wearing service issued pumps. Photo is from the National Archives at the Smithsonian Museum.

Lots of women’s military and volunteer branch uniforms had a “menswear” inspired silhouette, with fitted jackets with padded shoulders that were sometimes belted at the waist, collared shirts and ties, matching skirts, plain stockings, and leather oxfords. Service shoes needed to be sturdy and long lasting, and could not impede the wearer’s range of movement. Hence, service shoes had low and wide heels, usually measuring about 1.5 inches in height. Brown, cordovan, or black oxfords were commonly paired with khaki, brown, green and blue uniforms, while some lighter colored summer uniforms were paired with white oxfords.

Then-Captain (later Major) Charity Adams drilling her company at the first W.A.A.C. training center in Fort Des Moines, Iowa, in 1943. Major Adams lead the famous SixTripleEight Battalion overseas two years later in 1945.

Some branches, like the Women’s Land Army, had uniforms with breeches instead of skirt suits. WLA uniforms would be worn with a pair of boots, close in appearance to our Bessie Aviator Boots, or leather service oxfords.

Women’s Land Army members in England, from Wikimedia Commons. These ladies are wearing oxfords as opposed to boots.

By the start of 1943, Americans needed to use government-issued coupons to buy leather shoes. Civilians initially received three coupons a year, and as domestic supplies of leather decreased as the war went on, rationing reduced the number of annual shoe coupons to two. To make production more efficient and streamlined, shoe leather was only produced in six colors.  Service members would receive shoes as part of their issued uniforms, usually two pairs a year.

It was also possible to purchase shoes that were approved for service from retailers. Quality, comfort, and lasting power were heavily emphasized in shoe advertisements throughout the 1940s. Servicewomen and civilians alike needed assurance that their footwear would last, and that they would be able to keep their minds on the task at hand.  The shape of service oxfords was influenced by these priorities as well. The low Cuban-style heels, round and roomy toe boxes, and orthopaedic designs helped maximize comfort and the preservation of foot health.

Some military issue oxfords featured light broguing detail, as can be found in our Claire Oxfords. Most were simple in their design, with no broguing or frills (like Jane Oxfords). In addition to service oxfords, specifically marketed ‘nurse-type’ oxfords were popular during the 1940’s as well. Can you guess what set these types of shoes apart? That’s right- white colors and perforations! Like service oxfords in general, nurse-type shoes prioritized comfort, foot health, and versatility. Because white was commonly used for nursing uniforms, nursing shoes had to come in white shades. Stylish perforation detailing was functional as well as fashionable, as they were meant to let the foot breathe more during long days on one’s feet.

“Make do and mend” was the mantra for shoe care in the 1940’s. Service members were required to keep their shoes polished, and the more carefully leather shoes were maintained, the longer they lasted. This rings true today! The more carefully shoes are maintained, the more use you will get from them (this is not our way of subtly encouraging regular shoe maintenance) (okay, yes it is).

This WWII USMCWR servicewoman is giving her oxfords their nightly polish. Yay, maintenance!

Oxfords like the ones worn for WWII service remained incredibly popular after the war ended. They were worn regularly through the 1960s, and we think they are just as versatile and subtly stylish today.

Our Jazz Standards pre-order features two styles that are accurate to 1940’s service shoes. Jane Oxfords are a carefully reconstructed, simple service-style oxford, based closely on a 1930s Derby lace-up in the London College of Fashion Shoe Collection and cross-referenced with lots of other 1940s plain “regulation” oxfords. Bellevue Oxfords are a reproduction perforated oxford, based on the style that was oh so popular with nursing uniforms. Bellevue and Jane are each CC41 compliant for reenactment as well. Both styles are available for $20/€20 off full price with no cap on sizes or colors through Friday, June 24 in both our US and EU stores.

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