IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: Outfitting the 40’s

When audiences step into our theatre for It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, they’ll be stepping back in time to 1946. And boy, are the folks on the radio lookin’ sharp.

Nael Nacer, Celeste Oliva, Joel Colodner, Veronika Duerr, and Jason Bowen. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Check out these renderings, or design artwork, of the women’s costumes:

womens renderings combined
Renderings by A. Lee Viliesis

They’re from the brilliant A. Lee Viliesis (who we’re lucky enough to have as our Costume Shop Manager all season long.)

When I asked Lee to explain where she found inspiration, I was first bowled over by her enthusiasm—then amazed by how interesting the story is.

Here’s why:


In the early 1940’s, America was at war. Resources were scarce, materials were rationed, and as a result, women’s clothing took on a trimmer, sleeker look:

early 40s dress sm
The trimmer early 40’s look

BUT, while American fashion was slimming down, French fashion was blossoming out. One man (his name was Lucien Lelong) managed to convince Third Reich officials to  keep thousands of French garment workers employed through the German occupation. The result? 20 French fashion houses stayed open, and a whole new look evolved, with curvaceous lines, billowing skirts, and extravagant use of fabric.

The hottest designer of this new trend? Christian Dior. His “New Look” would take the world by storm in 1947. You know those big, poofy skirts that were ubiquitous in the 50’s? This is where they came from.

late 40s dress sm
Dior’s “New Look” of 1947

So where do our costumes at MRT fit in? Well, we’re in 1946. The War is over, but it’s still recent. The austerity measures are gone—but we’re still a year away from the seismic fashion shifts to come when the New Look explodes out of France and takes over the world. So our women’s look is right in between: on the brink of a big change in the fashion landscape.

skirt has some poof
Skirt has some poof – but not too much poof.

But here’s what’s really interesting: before the 40’s, fashion styles changed very, very slowly. After the 40’s, styles changed quickly—at least once a decade. (These days, fashion goes through cycles of mere months.) So this moment in time represents a change not just in what people wore, but in how they thought about what they wore.

As for menswear… well, it hasn’t changed quite as much. But snazzy nonetheless.

men combined small
More snazzy renderings by A. Lee Viliesis

Can’t get enough? Neither can we. Come see It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, for a fabulous night at a golden age radio broadcast:

We can’t wait to welcome you to the 1940’s in Lowell!


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