Fashion History of the 1940s

Since the start of WW2, the fashion world was turned upside down.

It had already seen a huge change from the glamorous, decadent designs worn in the 1920s to depression era 1930s. Once the early 1940s hit, the war would cause strict regulations on fabric usage, and certain fabrics such as silk were banned. Limitation orders such as L-85 restricted the usage of wool (since it was needed for military clothing). Nylon was invented in 1938, and replaced silk for stockings. Rayon; a silky and easily draped fabric replaced silk for apparel construction. It remained popular for much of the 1940s. Designs were stifled as well, as the goal was to keep fashion stable, to avoid current clothing from becoming “obsolete”. Women were encouraged to “Make do and mend”.

The hemline was forced to be much shorter than the previous years, falling right below knees. The silhouette was wide shoulders, thanks to shoulder pads, a narrow waist, and a slightly A-line shaped skirt. This would dominate much of women’s fashion  until a designer named Christian Dior invented a new look- a post war silhouette.

In Europe, rationing coupons were enforced for many things including clothing and fabric.

In the United States, clothing restrictions were lifted on VE day, but the rations remained in place in Britain for three years afterwards.

Popular Wartime Looks

There were several varieties of design elements for women in the early 1940s. The restrictions dictated how garments were designed . Common styles included:

  • Pinafore dresses
  • Pleats, and waist tucks (as shown below)
  • Separates that included a blazer and pleated skirt
  • Dirndl dresses; especially when paired with peasant tops
  • Nautical themed playsuits, swimwear, militant/patriotic prints and colors
  • Plaid skirts and jackets
  • Soft gathers
  • A line skirts
  • Peplums

Menswear included wide leg trousers, and three piece suits were still very common. Wide lapels, and tweed suits were also vastly seen. Swing and jazz music inspired many mens designs of the 30s and the 40s. The “zoot suit”was soon thought of as a waste of fabric due to the exaggerated cut. We also see a lot more choices for casual wear for men in the 1940s.

V is for Victory

During the war, both the veterans fighting it and those left on the home-front had different but important roles to play. Women were rallied to join the workforce more than ever. “Rosie the Riveter” was used as a poster girl for ladies to step up to do her man’s job while he was away. Although women’s wages were still much lower- it was now applauded to get your hands dirty and keep the nation running. Jeans and denim overalls were widely accepted as workwear.

Families were encouraged to plant gardens to prevent a food shortage. These were referred to as “Victory Gardens”. You could find the Letter “V” on brooches, appliques, and even fabric prints. Women styled their hair in large curls that were pinned on either side of their head- called “Victory Rolls”.

As the styles remained stable, more women were sewing their own clothing to save money. Many of the dresses would require less than four yards of fabric(as seen below).

The Pin-up Era

Betty Grable’s famous pinup poster from 1943

The true era of pinups is the 1940s. These “dames” would be dressed in swimwear, or flouncy dresses and dolled up with red lips, curled hair and high heels. Posters and calendars inspired lonely soldiers across seas. Vargas girls, or other similar artwork often adored the nose of WW2 aircraft-hence calling it nose art. The “pinup” style of fashion, hair and makeup is something that you can still see a major influence of. Subtle sex appeal that came across as flirty but leaving much to be imagined-something that sort of faded away once Marilyn Monroe debuted in Playboy!

Margie Stewart- 1943- the Army’s only official Pinup Girl
The stunning Ava Gardner

Accessories and Beauty Trends


It was said that “Hats were one of the casualties of war”. Hats were still worn, but with women joining the work force; scarves and snoods were soon replacing them in most American women’s wardrobe. Turbans were THE hat of the 1940s according to Vogue magazine.

Hairstyles were really the star …with so many versatile looks. I find hairstyles of the 1940s quite fascinating-often tedious- but real art compared to modern styles.

Must have staples could include-

  • brooches-often large and loud
  • saddle shoes
  • pumps, slingbacks, strappy wedges, peep toe heels
  • pearls
  • charm bracelets
  • silk flowers or ribbons to add to hairstyles
  • snoods, scarves, or turbans to cover hair sets
  • leg makeup or seamed stockings
  • face powder, red lipstick, bright rouge
  • Corde handbags, or other simple small bags

Post War Fashion

Christian Dior’s New Look

After the war, restrictions on clothing manufacturing eventually were lifted and it seemed the world was ready for a change. Employing top designers made men and women more elaborately dressed. In 1947, Christian Dior’s Corolla Collection became the talk of the fashion industry and was dubbed “the New Look“. The silhouette was a full skirt with a nipped in waist. The hemlines were much longer and protested against by groups of women across the country. The government warned against fabric waste. Not only was yardage of fabric increased; but the amount of detailing and expensive trims increased. Beading, pleats, ruffles and shirring was seen more and more as the 1950s approached.

American designer Claire McCardell utilized the “ballet shoe” as a versatile style staple of dress shoe that is still widely available in stores today. Her designs all throughout the 1940s were chic and wearable-worth researching if you enjoy the looks of this decade.

Fashions returned to a more formal, dressy look. For men and women alike, there were lasting changes in wardrobe. Menswear shifted to the usage of more fabric in the jackets. Larger, deeper pockets and a wider and broader cut, along with cuffs. Sport coats were often roomier and more comfortable.

From Sears catalogue

Western wear was also becoming more popular at the end of the decade-especially for children and men. California style beachwear started to reign in swimsuits styles. In 1946, the bikini was born.

We can see the look of the 1950s as the decade closes.

From Claire McCardell circa 1950

A truly inspirational decade

Interested in experimenting with 1940s hair or makeup? I recommend a hair tutorial like this or this. Setting your hair with pillow rollers, or even using hot rollers will do. I am NOT a hair expert or stylist! Having had short hair so long, I honestly have never played with these styles until recently. But it’s still fun to learn and practice. For cosmetics, Besame brand has endless authentic choices for lips, eyes, and cheeks. Try this rouge for a very rosy, pinup look! My favorite shade of bright red from 1941 is this Victory Red. For a deeper red, you may like Red Velvet.

photo by Sumikofoto Photography
I am not a beauty expert but I do enjoy leopard and red lips any day of the week.
Red lipstick is Victory Red by Besame.

Interested in trying some 40s inspired clothing? If you can sew, I recommend trying to find some vintage patterns and beautiful linen, rayon, or wool fabrics. If not, there are several reproduction brands that do a decent job at recreating the look. 

An affordable outfit for a true 40s vibe would include an A line skirt, pleated skirt, or 3/4 circle skirt, button up pleated blouse, a cardigan or blazer jacket and a pair of oxfords or pumps. All of these basics you can find at a thrift shop and pair with a few vintage accessories-easy cheap outfit!

I hope that you found this piece informative (and maybe a little inspiring!). I think it brings hope into today’s issues to look back and see how much the nation grew stronger through hardship.

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