Personal heroes come in many forms. Ultimately, they display a multitude of qualities solely dependent on what’s determined by the perceiver. The reliance on another to declare the affirmation of a hero’s status is inherent to its function. Paradoxically, the selflessness, bravery, and vulnerability that being a hero entails often yields the validation required for its existence. The cohort born between 1901-1927 produced a generation of what many consider great American heroes, and would later be dubbed by journalist, Tom Brokaw, as The Greatest Generation. America’s involvement in World War II (one of the deadliest in history) paved the way for a larger worldwide cultural shift. The years that preceded the summer of 1945 would foundationally transform the world’s human rights standards, technological advancements, and broader consumerism, forever.
The effects of the war were felt far and wide including in all of the U.S. states. The short supply of certain materials coupled with the military need for vast production and accelerated technology led to innovative solutions for soldiers and consumers alike. At the time, Britain was developing an advanced computer, allowing allies to gather military intelligence from Germany. Across the pond, America was helping to produce the first synthetic rubber, supplied to troops for use in boots and tires - the descendant of which we still use today for many items ranging from rubber bands to surgical gloves. This period generated some figurative cultural “heroes'' as well. Johnson & Johnson created Duct Tape to support war efforts. M&Ms became the staple candy of American troops, one which would ship overseas without melting. General Dwight D. Eisenhower famously requested the materials for 10 bottling plants be sent abroad by Coca-Cola. This provided 5 billion Cokes to troops and infiltrated local economies, setting the company up for global success.
On the fashion front the impact of WWII was monumental. In the U.S., the banning of Japanese silk after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the rationing of materials such as wool, led to the development of synthetic fabrics like rayon and nylon. Additionally, civilians wanted to dress like their heroes. Utilitarian elements in clothing and accessories swept the world through various sartorial trends. In 1941 the U.S. Army and Navy standardized a joint pair of sunglasses which defines the classic aviator style we wear today. The An6531 or “flying sunglasses comfort cable,” used by soldiers in the legendary Battle of The Bulge (one Winston Churchill called “the greatest American battle of the war,” and is considered the turning point towards Germany's surrender) deeply impacted the way we adopted military style at home. After the war, with the sales of army surplus supplies growing, aviators became even more popular. A Bausch and Lomb replica style was marketed and produced under their Ray Ban brand further enhancing their popularity. Europe saw a boom in style as well. When France reclaimed it’s sovereignty in 1945 it also reclaimed haute couture. Christian Dior introudcued a new silhouette for women who craved elegance and overt femininity after years of suffering from Nazi oppresion.
Eventually, during and after the war, every country would find heroes to embrace culturally that would help them to remember or help them to forget. Ironically, soldiers who left home fronts to defend their respective land would come back to a different place due to the onslaught of challenges and demands brought on by the war. The same Journalist who coined “The Greatest Generation,'' said that, “Heroes are people who rise to the occasion and slip quietly away.” But from sacrifice and bravery came transformation and a society rich with cultural revolution. Today, the standards we uphold, the stories we tell and the artifacts that surround them pay large tribute to our heroes’ great valor.
By Alexis Kanter
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