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Fashion History: Women's Clothing in the 1940s

Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.

Shorter hemlines, simple lines, and longer hair typified women's fashions in this image from 1943.

Shorter hemlines, simple lines, and longer hair typified women's fashions in this image from 1943.

Hallmarks of 1940s Fashion

  • Shorter hemlines
  • Simple lines due to rationed materials
  • Longer hair styles
  • Shoulder pads
  • Emphasis on the legs

The Impact of World War II on Fashion

One might say that women's fashions of the 1940s were dictated by Adolf Hitler. The German invasion of Poland in September 1939 set the tone for everything that happened in the next decade. And as fashion follows social trends and the events of the world economy, World War II necessitated changes in clothing styles and fashion design.

Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, by which time Germany had invaded Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia, and Greece. The world was at war, and haute couture took a back seat to global conflict.

It may be hard for people today to visualize the impact of World War II on the day-to-day lives of women in America and much of the rest of the world. Without going too much into the suffering wrought by a world at war, suffice it to say that the war effected everything, even for those living in countries where the war was not actually fought. The whole world changed, and so did ladies' fashions!

The military affected clothing styles in the US and Europe, and many women's garments took on a military look that underscored the significance of the war. Women everywhere had to make do with less.

Rationing Coupon Books from the United Kingdom

Rationing Coupon Books from the United Kingdom

Simple dress made of rayon following utility standards (1943).

Simple dress made of rayon following utility standards (1943).

Wartime Women's Fashion

In order to supply the war effort, fabric was rationed. Nylon and wool were both needed by the military and Japanese silk was banned in the USA after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Rayon, the new semisynthetic fabric made from wood pulp and other plant materials became the material most often used for the creation of ladies' clothing during the War.

The Coupon System

By June 1941, with Britain under attack by the Nazis, cloth rationing resulted in a coupon system. Adults in Britain received 66 clothing coupons per year, reduced to 36 coupons by 1945. Supplies were limited and prices were high. Many governments placed restrictions on the use of fabrics and other materials used to make clothing as they were needed by the military.

Utility Jumpsuits

While London was bombed, people also feared a gas attack as the Germans had used gas against the Allies in World War I. London's Harvey Nichols fashionable store offered gas protection suits of pure oiled silk in a variety of colors. Many women owned Utility Jumpsuits which one could put on quickly when the sirens blew. The jumpsuit, a new innovation, was warm and comfortable and featured pockets for papers and valuables.

Female Worker Wearing Blue Jeans (1942)

Female Worker Wearing Blue Jeans (1942)

Paris Lost Its Influence Over Fashion

Paris lost its leadership role in the world of fashion. Couture houses that were still open drew disapproval from people in the Allied countries who resented the fact that some of the top designers appeared to work in cooperation with occupational forces. And when the rest of the world was scrimping, Paris offered superfluous use of fabrics, including cuffs, dolmen sleeves, nonfunctional buttons, draped fabric, and pocket flaps.

Coco Chanel, the famous fashion designer, closed down her fashion studio during the war years but was sharply criticized for her relationship with a high ranking Nazi official. Chanel also supported the detested Vichy regime and called the French Resistance criminals.

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Paris did, however, come up with one interesting mode of showing their clothing: Le Theatre de la Mode, or the Theater of Fashion which compromised 200 two foot tall dolls dressed in Parisian designed clothing.

New York Emerged as a Fashion Leader

What with the hardships of war and general disapproval of Paris, the fashion industry moved to New York with the American look. Claire McCardell, for example, made use of fabrics that were not in demand by the military. Materials like cotton denim, jersey, striped mattress ticking, gingham, and calico were functional and comfortable and shown for every day wear.

"War wise" dressing became the fashion trend with both drab and patriotic colors like air force blue, cadet blue, flag red, black, browns, greens, tan, and gray flannel. As wool was used for soldiers' blankets, fabric designers came up with wool blends made of recycled wool and rayon. Rayon was the fabric of choice. It was versatile; comfortable, did not shrink or crease, and could be produced in either light or heavy weights.

Fabric restrictions put a new emphasis on legs. (Pictured is the actress Paulette Goddard.)

Fabric restrictions put a new emphasis on legs. (Pictured is the actress Paulette Goddard.)

Hemlines Went Up

Both Britain and the United States put official restrictions on the use of the materials used in the production of garments. The L-85 Order mandated by the War Production Board in the United States specified the amount of fabric that could be used to create a garment. Hems rose with fabric restrictions. The order also restricted the number of pleats and trimmings as well as jacket and trouser lengths. The metal used for zippers was needed by the military and buttons were limited - useful only, not for ornamentation.

Women brought up during the austerity of the Great depression made do by recycling, making coats and jackets out of old blankets. Winter wear moved away from the use of wool and incorporated velveteen and corduroy for cold weather suits and dresses.

Short, Boxy, and Even Glitzy

Less fabric meant lean styles, with narrow hip lines and a trim over all appearance. Short and boxy was the fashion style of the day, out of necessity.

Oddly enough, sequins, unnecessary for the war effort, popped up in sweaters to add a note of glitz. And although Hollywood still depicted glamorous stars, the female stars portrayed a new kind of elegance. In the 1945 movie Mildred Pierce, Joan Crawford appears as a struggling single mother who dresses for success in attractive yet rather severe styles. In The Big Sleep (1946) Lauren Bacall appears sexy and glamorous in slacks and many fashion designs of the day.

Legs Were "In"

Shorter skirts placed an emphasis on women's legs. Legs were 'in,' and the famous pin-up of Betty Grable looking over her shoulder in a swim suit is a great example of the importance of legs.

Other Fashion Aspects of the 1940s

  • Hair was worn long and curled at the ends for a soft, feminine look. Beauty salons were expensive and women saved money by having their hair cut less often. As so many women enlisted in the military or took factory jobs, it was easy to tie long hair back for safety. Then, the long hair could be worn down for casual or dress occasions. Women often knit or crocheted snoods which were an attractive combination of a hair net and a veil.
  • Girdles were out as the rubber was needed for the war effort. Skirts and dresses were often fitted with adjustable waistlines. But it wasn't hard to be thin when food was rationed.
  • The fabric used in the manufacturer of swim suits was also reduced causing the disappearance of the little skirt flap so popular on one piece suits. Fabric reduction was responsible for bare midriffs and the introduction of the 2 piece swim suit. The bikini made its debut in 1946.
  • Shoe heels were lower and shoe designers thought to add interest with the introduction of the wedge shoe. Many women wore flat heeled shoes for safety and comfort in the workplace. T-straps and open toed shoes looked lovely and saved on shoe leather.
  • Pants became a staple of women who worked in factories and soon gained widespread acceptance for casual wear and for work at home in the garden. The actress Katherine Hepburn helped make trousers a popular garment for women as she appeared in several movies wearing elegant, wide legged trousers.
  • Stockings formerly made of silk were made out of nylon but when the military began to use nylon, many women used tan make up on their legs and drew a line up the back to simulate seams. Bobby socks became popular among the younger set.
  • Shoulder pads became popular to highlight the masculine, military look. They also added an interest to the shape of the slim silhouette.
  • Corsages made of fresh flowers like orchids and gardinias were worn to snazz up a plain black dress. Many women also owned corsages made of artificial flowers or gathered netting.
  • Headwear changed as hats became smaller. Snoods were glorified hairnets that could be purchased or crocheted at home, worn to cover limp or unstyled hair.

After the War

The end of World War II did not immediately change the fashion industry. Clothing rations and fabric restrictions endured for years as the economy changed slowly from a war economy toward peace.

A new world consciousness emerged as Americans became aware of other places. Tropical prints became popular and featured exotic florals such as palm fronds and hibiscus blooms.

The colors and styles of Mexico and Latin America brought new colors like terra-cotta and turquoise to women who craved brightness and fun. Peasant blouses and skirts offered a soft, cool femininity for warm weather inspired by the popular artist Frida Kahlo.

Dior's New Look offered an hour glass figure

Dior's New Look offered an hour glass figure

The New Look

In February of 1947, Christian Dior introduced his New Look, a style that shocked and outrages some and thrilled others.

Hemlines lengthened in skirts and dresses now created with tons of fabric. Wide hats and tight nipped in waistlines gave women an almost antebellum look. The new female silhouette gave women an hour glass figure and a new, feminine extravagance so long denied.

The copious amounts of fabric used for skirts was viewed by many women as an insult to those still suffering the restrictions and effects of the war. Few women could afford the glamorous New Look when they could barely afford to put food on the table. Some saw Dior's New Look as a means to increase the profits of the textile manufacturers who backed the famous clothing designer.

Yet Dior's new silhouette was not without approval. Sick of the privations and restrictions of war, many women found the flowing, feminine style to be very appealing and the New Look eventually won out, to influence women's fashion well into the next decade.

For Further Reading

Encylopedia of Clothing and Fashion; edited by Valerie Steele; Scribner Library

Series: Fashions of a Decade, the 1940s by Patricia Baker

Costume and Styles: The Evolution of Fashion From Early Egypt to the Present by Henny Harald Hansen; E. P. Dutton & Co.

Fashion in the 1940s by Jayne Shrimpton

Everyday Fashions of the 1940s as Pictured in Sears Catalogs by JoAnne Olian

The American Look Sportswear, Fashion, and the Image of Women in 1930s and 1940s New York by Rebecca Arnold

1940s Style Guide The Complete Illustrated Guide to 1940s Fashion for Men and Women by Debbie L. Sessions

Blueprints of Fashion Home Sewing Patterns of the 1940s by Wade Laboissonniere


Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on September 20, 2019:

Hi Jo - the main thing to remember is that World War 2 effected Europe's people more than the people in the USA. Though there was rationing in the United States, European countries suffered bombings, invasions, as well as the closings of shops and garment businesses. Look online for photos of the Netherlands in the 1940s for some clues.

Jo on September 18, 2019:

I know I’m quite late to this article, but I’m working on costumes for a play set in the 1940’s. Would the clothing styles and trends in the Netherlands be similar to America? Thank you for your help and this very insightful article!

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on September 25, 2017:

Hi Katie - you don't have to live in the 40s to dress like that. I bet you could walk down the street in a 1940s style dress and the only looks you'd get would be looks of admiration. The simplicity is classic. Thank you!

Katie on September 20, 2017:

I loved this article. It was truly insight and factual yet it had a fantastic lightness to it. Do you think that the 40s was the best era for fashion? That's my opinion. I love the 40s and I wish I would have grown up during them. Thanks for reading!

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on February 23, 2017:

Hi Angelena , back then? Not really so long ago in the grand scheme of things! They had factories!

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on December 17, 2013:

Reader V - thanks for the interesting comment! Well I hear about all kinds of stuff and you think that you can find it all on the internet when, sadly, that is not always the case. I'd like to see a pair of these too. What a creative way to approach rationing!

ReaderV on December 14, 2013:

Wonderful article, I enjoyed it. I'm actually looking for information about the WW2 era shoe called a "Coupon Shoe" My Grandmother would talk about WW2 and what they did on the Homefront to get by. She had a pair of these shoes. Tonight, I was watching a British T.V. show about the war and a group of women were talking about the same Coupon Shoes. They were also known as 3 in 1 shoes because they had a spike heel inside a thick daytime heel as well as having a cute little bow that could be removed or worn on the shoe. Thus, the 3 in 1 effect. I just want to know what the shoe actually looked like. Thanks!

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on September 21, 2013:

caramella-fashion - thanks!

a-drifter - thank you! I thought about your last sentence while I was writing this. During the long war in Iraq and Afganistan, thinking of the financial cost to our country and the support, I wondered how people would respond to government restrictions on clothing. People would have a fit!

Nicole Imparato from Chicago, IL on September 18, 2013:

It is beyond fascinating to see the 'why' behind the progression of fashion. Who would have thought that so much of the design aesthetic was out of necessity, not revolutionary design? A read that had me calling my mother over to ask her if she or her mother ever knew any of these thrilling little details. I greatly appreciate this hub!

I hope this is taken as a true compliment, I am brand new to HP and this is the very first hub I clicked on and actually read all the way through! No skimming! Thanks for the quick fashion history lesson!

"Both Britain and the United States put official restrictions on the use of the materials used in the production of garments."

^^^ just taking a moment to imagine what ghastly occurrences might arise if something like that were tried today...

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on April 04, 2011:

oldbooklover - we were just talking about the garments of the Middle Ages. Back then, you had a shirt (tunic) and it lasted your entire life! Imagine that! They were so durable and well made! Of course they didn't wash them a lot either. My mother used to say that hand washing made things really last.

oldbooklover on April 03, 2011:

Thanks Dolores,

I miss the good quality wool fabrics. They wore for years without losing their shape, and had wonderful textures, like Irish Tweed and the Scots Tweeds.

I also regret the super-fine cotton 'lawn' for blouses. And washable silks. Garment makers used to boast, 'It washes like a silk handkerchief.' Now most supposedly washable items aren't colorfast, 40 years ago that was rare.

But there is new interest in the odder animal-based fabrics. I recently saw an item about the wool from New Zealand's merino sheep being used for sports wear, as it doesn't hold sweat or smell and can be worn for ages without washing.

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on March 09, 2011:

doit - thank you. I started off just looking at pictures from the 1930's, decided to do up a hub on that time, then moved to the 1940's. Next, I moved further back in history. Reading about fashions of a particular period, I wound up reading about the history and events of each fashion era. Time consuming, but interesting. (Have not read Hemingway for some time)

doitrightnow from San Juan, PR on March 09, 2011:

Good detail about how that was the period when Paris lost its stranglehold on world fashion. Just finished "A Movable Feast" by Hemingway, and he talks about the fact that Paris during that period of time between the two world wars was an intellectual wasteland, howbeit one where the shop windows were full of so many beautiful things that "it was the worst place in the world to be hungry."

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on November 12, 2010:

Rebecca - buttons were needed for buttons on uniforms I guess. I can't imagine how it would go down if the government told us how many buttons we could have on our jackets these days.

vintagedancer - glad you enjoyed my 1940's fashion hub!

Rebecca E. from Canada on November 10, 2010:

love this hub, and I didn't know about buttons, really buttons were needed? I could see the metal zippers, but buttons, must be missing something!

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