Abstract: Apparel Price Control during World War II: How Uncle Sam Won the War, Battled Business, and Changed the Way America Dressed

Samuel Milner


This paper argues that shortages of low-priced apparel and a trend toward more expensive styles of clothing during World War II developed not as the result of changing fashion tastes among consumers but directly in response to the federal price controls of the Office of Price Administration (OPA). Beginning with the price freeze of the General Maximum Price Regulation in April 1942, the OPA issued several controls that sought to prevent apparel firms from exceeding their base period prices. As the costs of textile and labor inputs continued to increase, low-priced manufacturers of such items as women's dresses and coats faced difficulties in sustaining their production. In contrast, firms with higher price ceilings, especially new entrants that could claim exemptions from restrictions imposed on established sellers, continued to expand. Pricing formulas for certain items, most notably men's sport shirts, also created incentives to produce goods unwanted by consumers. By the end of the war, the apparel market reflected the reactions of manufacturers to the constraints of the OPA and not consumer demand, demonstrating the importance of price controls in structuring the wartime civilian economy.