1940’s Fashion History with Pictures

1940’s Fashion History

The 1940’s were defined by a clean and slim silhouette with a somewhat military feel. Jackets, blouses, sweaters and skirts were short and close-fitting, all unadorned and with the requisite sharp shoulder pads. Long sleeves were out, dresses were casual, and pants and ‘playsuits’ became everyday attire.

fourties womens fashion

Before World War II, Paris was the epicenter of fashion. All of the new styles originated there. Anonymous American designers simply copied the looks coming from France for their wealthy clientele or for stores. The 1930’s will be remembered for their glamour, despite the Depression. Hollywood starlets were clothed in long, draped and flowing gowns made of satin, crepe, silk and velvet. Dresses and gowns began to be bias cut, meaning the fabric was cut diagonally, allowing it to cling to curves. Coco Chanel brought the day suit into fashion, with a fitted jacket and a long skirt. Fur was the most wanted luxury item.

But after Germany took over Paris in 1940, many of the designers closed their fashion houses, some fleeing the country. Those that did stay didn’t see their styles leave the country. The rest of the world was left to come up with their own styles. New York took over, creating a look that was dominated by the war going on across the ocean.

A lot of the materials normally used for clothing became scarce during the war. Wool was used to make uniforms and coats for the soldiers. Leather was needed for their boots. Silk, normally used to make dresses, undergarments and stockings, was turned into parachutes and waterproof maps. Metal and various chemicals were needed to make just about everything for the war effort.

1940's silk stockings

A Woman Donating her Silk Stockings to the War Effort

Civilian clothing had to resort to using new materials. Nylon, created by DuPont and introduced in 1938, replaced silk for women’s items until it began to be used for the same purposes as silk for the war. American cotton began to take over as a casual fabric of choice. Wool blends were introduced to save wool for military uses, and the synthetic fabric rayon became the most widely used fabric of the time. A softer, silkier version was used for day dresses, and a thick version replaced wool for suits and coats. ‘Vinylite’ could be used instead of leather, and other forms of plastic were used for all kinds of applications.

1940's dupount nylon ad

Aside from breakthroughs in man-made materials, fashions of the day were most affected by the governmental clothing restrictions put in place for the duration of the war. The very silhouette that dominated the ’40’s was a casualty of war. In Britain and elsewhere in Europe, ration coupons for clothing were given out on top of the restrictions, and they didn’t go far. The United States avoided the coupons by putting strict rules in place for manufacturers. The only clothing item that was rationed were leather shoes starting in 1943, and they were only available in black, white, navy and brown.


1940's rationing line womens dress

Ladies waiting in line for rationing coupons

The United States Production Board put into place ‘Limitation Orders,’ order L-85 governing women’s clothes, which were in effect until 1946. These restrictions were much less severe than in Europe, but still greatly limited what clothing was to look like. The length and width of blouses, skirts and dresses was restricted, as was sleeve length and hip width. The amount of pockets, buttons, pleats and seams was dictated, and most decorations were not allowed. This came to be known as the ‘no fabric on fabric’ rule. The colors of fabrics were set each season to conserve chemicals, so only a handful of patriotically named hues were available. The heels on shoes could only be 1 ½ inches high.

All of this interference resulted in a slim, uncluttered look. Skirts were shorter and tighter than anyone was used to, and shirts and jackets were plain and practical. As the prices of clothes soared due to the shortages, they had to last longer and go further. Pieces were extremely well-tailored and the styles started to work for a multitude of occasions. Although evening-wear was still made and worn, people began to dress more casually in restaurants and theaters. Versatile separates and sportswear took over, and women began to wear pants as a safety precaution in the factories they were working in.

Home sewing became popular. In Europe fabric could be had for fewer coupons than a ready-made garment. In the United States, pattern sales skyrocketed. Citizens were encouraged to mend old clothes, recycle old fabrics into new garments and combine dresses to make new ones. Pamphlets with titles like ‘Make and Mend,’ and ‘Make It Do Until Victory’ showed women how to fix and care for their clothes to make them last, and to make them from other household items like blankets and curtains.

make do and mend

make do and mend

The plain and functional styles lasted throughout the war. When U.S. restrictions were lifted in 1945 and ’46, women continued to wear their war-time garb. Colors did return to wardrobes, softer and brighter, and skirts got a little bit longer and flouncy. In 1947, Paris designer Christian Dior showed his debut collection, soon to be dubbed the ‘New Look,’ which was the total opposite of the severe styles of the war. The silhouette was soft, an extreme hourglass figure achieved with a corset and bust and hip padding, and the skirts were enormous confections of fabric.

1940's womens fashion dress

The New Look didn’t take off in the United States. Women felt that Parisian designers had acted as though no war had taken place, while they sacrificed their wardrobes for the war effort. However, most were also ready for a change. As soldiers came back, women stopped working and returned to new homes and cars in the suburbs. The economy prospered, and clothing manufacture became cheaper and easier thanks to new methods devised for the war. New York and California remained in the fashion game, and American designers started to be known by name. Eventually women adopted the New Look that would become the style of the ’50s.


You have just read a section from the 1940’s Style Guide: The Complete Illustrated Guide to 1940’s Fashion for Women. To read more pick up a copy of the book today!

1940's dress

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