At War in the World: Women’s suit jackets of the 1940s

This Katniss is from the Mockingjay sequence of the trilogy: This Katniss is openly and actively knocking down the state, “ruining” Panem and the Capitol. This is a Katniss bent on destruction and resurrection. She’s dressed for war. Deliberate, planned war.


The designers for the third and fourth Hunger Games installments, Kurt and Bart, come out of the gay nightclub scene in late 1980s. That era was its own war zone of the AIDS epidemic, a dystopian New York City, and an anti-gay culture. Kurt and Bart sold a small line of clothing at Patricia Fields’ store in the late punk era, worked on Pee Wee’s Playhouse– you get the picture. Hard-working, creative, and also discursive. By that I mean, these are designers who have their antennae out and are quick to reference other work. In an interview with Hypebeast, Kurt and Bart discuss the historical references and influences for the Mockingjay designs: “We looked at austerity measures in the UK during wartime, the rationing of materials including pleats and buttons, creating unisex clothing that spoke to utility as much as purpose. The real parallel design story were the costumes of the tactical military force, which was something we hadn’t designed before. We looked at a lot of historical and contemporary high performance tactical gear but we also looked to fashion.” For more from this interview, read the Hypebeast interview by Gavin Yeung.

Katniss has a tactical-defense costume designed with a nod towards the wartime practicality of women’s civilian clothing from WWII. Katniss, then, bears the markers of sports and war. A front chest plate, dipped low on one side to aid her archery activities; black knit legging pants with gaiters from the knee to ankles; a mock-turtleneck shoulder pad assembly strapped on under the chest plates anchoring. There’s a left hip pad as well. It’s a clever, thoughtful costume that while a bit bulky must have made Jennifer Lawrence feel badass.

While Kurt and Bart point to military forces, the tactical aspect of Katniss’s soft armor is lifted directly from American football padding — in particular, contemporary football padding.


This set of shoulder pads goes for $159.95 from the aptly named TAG (Team Athletic Goods) company, and the style is the swimmingly named “Battle Gear II Hybrid Multi-Position Shoulder Pad”. Exactly. There we see the articulated shell-like shoulder pads, although the designers of Katniss’s battle gear had some playing around to do.

Football gear, like any other human-produced thing, has a history. Shoulder pads in American football emerge remarkably early, just before the first World War. antique-football-leather-shoulder-pads

This leather and wool shoulder pad set dates roughly from the 1910s (for more about football gear, see Sports Memorabilia Museum‘s great rundown of artifacts). Like many male sports in the decade or two before the first World War, like tug-of-war, fencing, and ball throwing, football was preparing young men for battle. So using the articulated padding of the shoulder makes sense in Katniss’ universe where teens are “reaped” and forced into the battle of the Hunger Games.

But I also see in Katniss’s outfit World War II, and in particular, the articulated jacket seaming of the women’s suit jacket popular for most of the 1940s.

Let’s start with the kinds of jackets women sewed for themselves — this is working backwards, because we’re going to end up with the higher-end clothes in a second. But these jackets are pretty much what women wore in the 1940s and into the very early 1950s: tailored jackets with a waistline created either through the line and seaming (as in the Butterick pattern to the left) or cinched by a belt (as in the Simplicity glove-handy gals to the right). Broad shouldered, princess seaming, and the detailing on the shoulders. You can see the ways that the articulated padding of defensive gear is gestured to: the square boxes placed on the shoulders of the gals to the left, and the pointed military-styled detailing on the shoulders of the right-hand jackets.

Lilli Ann was a label created by Adolph Schuman in 1933; the company was in business until 2000. Vintage Fashion Guild has a short corporate bio for you, if you want. Lilli Ann jackets in the 1940s to 1950s were astounding works of art for the everyday gal — moderately priced if you had the money, structured inside and out, and the detailing was both brassy and bold, in the most 1940s way. These were demure jackets for showoff women.

These two Lilli Ann jackets (left from etsy seller DecoDollsVintage out of California; the “flipper” pepum jacket from random pinterest) point to the military overtones of the ultra-feminine shapes of the Lilli Ann jackets.

This (non-Lilli Ann, according to the dealer and it sure doesn’t look Lilli Ann) 1940s jacket is closer to Katniss’s soft armor than it might appear at first.


A better look: this jacket from TwoRavensVintage is green and black (army colors!), according to the seller. It’s the detailing that is so amazing here: the angled pockets slice across the lower shoulder (if you shrug your shoulder in towards your chest you can see how smart this pocket placement is). The hip pockets, likewise angled, are actually strips of fabric folded in at an angle and anchored at the lower end with a non-functional button. Here’s a closeup of that work from TwoRavensVintage.


The chest pockets and the strip detailing at the hips give the jacket an articulated look: If you draw an hourglass shape in the air you’ve just traced the connections between the two sets of pockets.

At first glance, this jacket from Lilli Ann from the late 1950s and early 1960s looks more akin to Effie Trinket’s effluence than Katniss’s anger. But once you start noticing articulated shoulders, the relationship to Katniss’s warrior outfit make more sense. The jacket in center is a feat of the imagination made material. An armored guard for the arm, while the torso is encased in a series of radiating soft pleats that somehow manages to function as a jacket front. Any good seamstress knows the “jacket” is, in this case, not the external pleating and panel of buttons, but the interior lining, which is giving the fabrication its shape. That is partly why Katniss’s outfit (seen here on the Barbie version) seems so alike: what constitutes Katniss’s clothing here? She has an underlayer, a skin of stretched fabric, and then, layered on top are the segments of her armor, each articulating the body part underneath. Lilli Ann’s jacket has a similar dissonance: there isn’t really a jacket there — or rather, there’s a gesture toward a “jacket” through the shape and functionality, but the designer has successfully made a non-jacket jacket. And Lilli Ann, while daring in styling, was never the avant-garde choice.

Despite the 1960s pillbox, the Lilli Ann jacket is born from the dna pool of the 1940s designs. Even better is this dress from the same label, dating from the 1970s.


From Etsy seller JunoandPearlVintage, the 1940s articulated shoulders are wedded to the 1950s cocktail dress layered collar (more on that in a later post), stuck onto a more typical peplumed jacket, and voila! You have a perfect 1970s jacket for your post-women’s lib career gal, armored to her pretty teeth. Katniss’s Mockingjay outfit, then, has its roots in the armored clothing of two wartimes: World War II and later, the women’s liberation war of women moving into the workplace in the 1970s.



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