1940s in Women’s Fashion
Explore 1940s Women’s Fashion
Written by Hannah Mae Webster
1940s fashion was unlike any other decade due to the deep influence of the Second World War. A more minimalistic approach emerged in women’s fashion offering a smart simplicity amongst struggles of rationing and disruptions in the fashion industry.
The Utility Clothing Scheme was introduced by the British Government in 1941. This scheme aimed to ensure quality of clothing whilst maintaining reasonable prices. Utility clothing was identified though a CC41 label. The scheme was introduced due to clothing shortages caused by the military demand for materials. This imbalance of supply and demand led to noticeable price increases and rationing was introduced for lots of clothing, highly limiting the number of pieces purchased. This restriction highlighted the need for durable, long-lasting clothing as items required the same number of coupons regardless of quality. The Utility scheme allowed women to purchase a high-quality piece that would generally last long enough to avoid regular replacement. Quality had always been important but compared to pre-war styles, clothing needed to last much longer and withstand damage.
The memorable slogan ‘Make Do and Mend’ originated from a booklet distributed by the British Ministry of Information that gave practical advice on how to maintain style in the difficult economic setting. This need for cheaper solutions inspired a generation of creative and practical women who were able to effectively repair clothing and make use of household items.
Key 40s Trends
Despite restrictions and limitations on fashion in the 1940s, revolutionary trends were still established, and the decade is still very memorable in fashion history.
Top 1940s women’s fashion trends of the 40s:
- The utility suit/victory suit: introduced in the 40s to reduce waste, the two-piece skirt suit was one of the greatest wartime trends due to its versatility and could be worn as daywear, workwear, or eveningwear,
- Padded shoulders: during the war, women gained a sense of empowerment as they had more practical roles. This had a direct influence on fashion as styles became less traditionally feminine and gained masculine elements, taking influence from military clothing. Padded shoulders were a strong trend, as previously in the 1930s, to create the illusion of a wider frame,
- Knee length/below the knee skirts: compared to calf length skirts and dresses of the 1930s, the 40s embraced a slightly shorter knee length style,
- Head scarves: a very popular trend was the headscarf which started as a practical accessory for working women and grew into an iconic fashion trend and symbol of women’s strength. The idea of keeping hair back further emphasized the release of some feminine beauty standards in replacement of practicality and comfort,
- High waisted pants: the key trouser shape of the 1940s were high waisted pants. Trousers were another trend triggered by wartime activities as they were practical and necessary for factory working women in the 1940s. Skirts and dresses were not suitable for this practical work due to the safety risk of getting caught in machinery whilst working. Wide leg trousers once again dismantled the typically feminine ideal of accentuated curves, although the hourglass figure was of course popular into the late 40s following the end of the war,
- Hats: berets, turbans, military hats, fascinators, pillbox hats, fedoras, and half hats were all popular styles of the 1940s,
- Neckline trends: popular 40s necklines included: keyhole, sweetheart, square, V-neck, round.
Dior’s ‘New Look’
“Without foundations, there can be no fashion”
Christian Dior’s 1947 post-war collection known as the ‘new look’, was exactly as the name implies, a look different from early 40s styles. His collection supposedly gained this name when Harper’s Bazaar fashion editor Carmel Snow commented, “It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian. Your dresses have such a new look”.
The 1947 collection featured hyper-feminine styles and accentuated hourglass silhouettes, which was considered controversial in some ways as many viewed it as a return to restrictive femininity in fashion. However, instead of using corsets and body-shaping devices, the French designer created the hourglass silhouette by padding and shaping the clothing itself. To achieve the hourglass figure, usually women wore girdles, corsets, and other foundation wear, but Dior built these shapes into his pieces.
‘The Bar Suit’ was arguably the most iconic and memorable ‘New Look’ creation as the jacket featured padded hips, a cinched waist, paired with a pleated black skirt, creating the illusion of a striking hourglass shape.
Dior’s addition of full skirts in his collection was another method of creating a shapely illusion, as the waist appeared small when compared to the full skirts and built-up hips.
Love Dior’s ‘New Look’? Check out our Alla Maxi Dress for the perfect ultra-feminine 1947 look.
The end of the war led to a greater abundance of materials that were previously very difficult to acquire, such as silk. Christian Dior’s 1947 collection was criticized by some people who described his designs as ‘wasteful’ due to the excessive amount of material used. However, this was Dior’s intention to disrupt styles introduced due to war restrictions and rationing and release luxurious new designs.
Dior said, “We were just emerging from a poverty-stricken, parsimonious era, obsessed with ration books and clothes coupons. It was only natural that my creations should take the form of a reaction against this dearth of imagination”.
Want to learn more about Dior’s ‘New Look’? Check out our article ‘Dior's 'New Look' – Romance or Reversal?
Other leading fashion designers that shaped the decade:
- Norman Hartnell
- Edward Molyneux
- Hardy Amies
- Philip Hulitar
- Jeanne Lanvin
- Claire McCardell
- Norman Norell
The Siren Suit
The appropriately named ‘Siren Suit’ was a one-piece romper suit that was designed to be easily put on and removed. They were originally designed to be used in air raid shelters and could be put on over other clothing quickly. Their purpose was to keep people warm during nighttime air-raids.
They were popularized by British prime minister Winston Churchill and became a useful addition to those experiencing air-raid sirens. The ‘Siren Suit’, although a highly practical piece, quickly became an unforgettable and innovative 1940s women’s fashion trend.
What influenced 1940s women’s fashion?
The Second World War had a major influence on fashion in terms of materials, prioritizing practical designs, and greater economic awareness. The influence of the French fashion scene was deeply affected as France was occupied by Germany and therefore divided from the UK and the US. The isolation of France during the war led to unique styles and trends due to the absence of external influence. French haute couture designers suffered as a result, as they no longer had the great exposure they once did. This triggered the closure of many French fashion houses including Chanel, Molyneux, Vionnet, Madame Gres, and Balenciaga. This unusual lack of French designers, reduced influence of Paris, the fashion capital, and milder rationing restrictions in the US cleared a path for American designers to be more dominant and successful during the Second World War.
Key 1940s fashion icons
One of the greatest film stars of the 40s, Rita Hayworth quickly became a timeless style icon. Her signature style and striking dyed red hair became the epitome of 1940s glamor. She popularized many 40s trends and wore stunning, figure-hugging gowns. she was even the face of makeup brand Max Factor, setting widespread beauty standards during the 40s. Rita Hayworth channeled a seductive femme fatale image especially through the role of Gilda in the 1946 film.
Some of Rita Hayworth’s best 1940s style moments:
Although Rita Hayworth was the embodiment of timeless glamor and powerful femininity, she also embraced casual wide leg pants as seen in this photograph of her during the 40s.
Photographed here in a white bikini. The modern ‘bikini’ was not introduced until 1946 so the swimwear trend was fairly new and revolutionary.
Rita Hayworth wore this stunning semi-sheer appliquéd gown in the 1942 film, ‘You Were Never Lovelier’.
Rita Hayworth wearing a two-piece embellished ensemble as a costume in the 1946 film, ‘Gilda’.
Rita Hayworth’s iconic bridal look at her 1949 wedding.
Another era-defining actress was Vivien Leigh, who reached popularity in the 40s after her Oscar winning performance as Scarlett O’hara in the 1939 film, ‘Gone with the Wind’.
Some of Vivien Leigh’s 40s style moments included:
‘Waterloo Bridge’, 1940
Bridal style, 1940
“I cannot let well enough alone. I get restless. I have to be doing different things. I am a very impatient person and headstrong. If I've made up my mind to do something, I can't be persuaded out of it.”
Want to inject some of Vivien Leigh’s style into your closet? Check out our Vivien Stain Blouse.
“I've reached a point in my life where it's the little things that matter. I'm no longer interested in doing what's expected of me. I was always a rebel and probably could have got much farther had I changed my attitude.”
As well as being an unforgettable 1940s film and style icon, Veronica Lake surprisingly had a very important impact on working women during the war. Veronica Lake’s iconic ‘peek-a-boo’ hairstyle became so popular that women started to copy the look, a look that came about accidentally when her hair fell over one eye during filming. However, the great influence of Lake and her hairstyle prompted a concern for working women who were now at greater risk of hair getting caught in factory machinery. Veronica Lake was prompted to change her style into a safer updo known as the ‘victory roll’, a style that drastically altered her established image and positively impacted many working women.
Other 40s style icons included:
- Ava Gardner
- Katharine Hepburn
- Bette Davis
- Marlene Dietrich
"There should be a little more quality in this life, a little more delicacy, a little more love and gentleness, and kindness.”
Popular 1940s dress and skirt styles included:
- Puff-sleeve dresses
- Sheath dresses
- Knee length dresses
- Peplum dresses
- Shirred dresses
- Sailor- inspired dresses
- Floral dresses
- Pinafore dresses
- Swing dresses
- A-line skirts
- Shirtwaist dresses
- Wrap dresses
- Full skirts
- Pleated skirts
Colors and Prints of the 40s
Popular colors included:
Classic colors such as navy, red, green, brown, black, yellow, and rose.
Other shades included mint green, teal, aqua, wine, lilac, and beige.
Popular prints included florals, polka dots, gingham, plaid, and pinstripes.
Popular 1940s accessories included:
- Fabric covered belts to match dresses,
- Tie belts made from fabric: fabric belts were a popular alternative to metal during the war in an attempt to save metal. As well as matching belts, contrasting styles were also common,
- Day gloves: made from leather, suede, and other soft fabrics,
- Evening gloves: white or ivory wrist-length gloves were popular,
- Silk stockings and seamless stockings,
- Headscarves with colorful prints that became brighter after the war ended,
- Fur stoles
- Jewelry: costume jewelry was a popular accessory trend as it was much cheaper than fine jewelry. There were shortages in popular jewelry materials such as cultured pearls, titanium, and other metals. Colorful, dramatic jewelry was common in the 40s with gold-plating, plastics, and sterling silver being popular. Charm bracelets were common in which women would slowly collect individual charms to complete the bracelet.
“I'd rather wear jewels in my hair than anywhere else. The face should have the advantage of this brilliance.”
Did you know?
Due to the restrictions of rationing, women became innovative and creative with making clothing. Cheese cloth, curtain net, butter muslin, and parachute silk, were all materials that were cost-effective, not wasteful, yet great options for clothing. Surprisingly, the idea of spinning dog fur into wool also became popular.
Popular 1940s footwear styles included:
- Saddle shoes
- Peep toe shoes
- Canvas shoes
- Sandals: (canvas, leather.)
- Oxford shoes
- Faux leather shoes
- Cut-out shoes
- Mary-Jane shoes
- Ankle strap shoes
- Platform shoes
40s Swimwear: A Brief History
Although two-piece swimsuits were present as early as the 1930s, featuring shorts and a halter-neck top, the modern, more revealing ‘bikini’ was introduced by French designer Louis Réard in 1946.
The ‘bikini’ debuted on July 5, at Paris's Piscine Molitor. The name was inspired by the nuclear tests that took place at the Bikini Atoll, a coral island in the Pacific Ocean. Former Parisian showgirl Micheline Bernardini modelled the daring new look that has remained one of the longest-lasting trends in fashion history.
Designer Jacques Heim introduced the ‘atome’, known as ‘the world’s smallest bathing suit’, a little prior to Réard’s design, but the ‘bikini’ was smaller, a fact that Louis Réard used as advantageous promotion.
“A bikini is not a bikini unless it can be pulled through a wedding ring.”
Micheline Bernardini modelling the ‘bikini’.
Marilyn Monroe wearing a bikini in 1948, around the time of her film debut.
In 1949, Charles L. Langs introduced adhesive bra-cups as swimwear. The development in swimwear design was extremely brave and shocking at the time, as it gave a topless illusion when viewed from behind. The idea was to allow women to tan evenly and eliminate strap lines. He boldly claimed that the cups would stay on even if jumping from a 10-foot diving board.
While both the bikini and the stick-on bra were criticized for their revealing nature, they were both highly telling of developing women’s liberation through fashion.
Did you know?
Hedy Lamarr, actress and fashion referred to by MGM as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world” was also an inventor. Lamarr and George Antheil worked together to develop a new communication technology with the aim of guiding torpedoes during the Second World War. The technology involved something known as ‘frequency hopping’. They gained a patent for the innovative system in 1942 yet it was not adopted by the Navy. The introduction of ‘frequency hopping’ acted as future foundations for the development of wi-fi, GPS, and Bluetooth. Lamarr was later referred to as the ‘mother of wi-fi’, a sometimes overlooked achievement.
“improving things comes naturally to me”
Eveningwear styles of the 1940s included:
- Grecian column dresses
- Semi-sheer dresses
- Tulle dresses
- Velvet dresses
- Taffeta dresses
- Jersey dresses
- Satin dresses
- Full skirted dresses
- Print included: plaid, floral, and stripes
- Sequined and embellished dresses
- Puffed sleeve dresses
- Wrap dresses
- Gown and a dinner jacket
- Skirt and top ensembles
- Evening accessories included: gloves, fur stoles, fur coats, and bold jewelry
Casual styles of the 1940s included:
- High-waisted trousers
- Denim jeans
- Knee length dresses
- A-line skirts
- Shirts and blouses
What was women’s fashion like in the 1940s?
During the war, 1940s women’s fashion was difficult to maintain due to restrictions, and therefore styles became more classic and timeless to accommodate for the lack of switching trends. Utility fashions were of course a key style for many women who were able to move the versatile suits between formal and casual settings. Previously feminine styles became more masculine due to the increased number of working women and demand for practical styles such as trousers. Following the end of the Second World War, excessive styles made a return marked by the introduction of Dior’s highly feminine 1947 ‘New Look’ collection.
What was popular 1940s women’s fashion?
Top 40s women’s fashion trends included:
- Wide leg trousers
- Puffed sleeves
- Knee-length dresses
- Shoulder pads
- Utility dresses
- A cinched in waist to create an hourglass shape
What influenced women’s fashion in the 1940s?
Shortages of materials caused women to adopt new innovative and creative methods and the adoption of practical roles changed restricting, hyper-feminine styles into practical, work-appropriate looks. Hollywood stars such as Rita Hayworth and Veronica Lake greatly influenced women’s fashion. Lake’s popularization of the ‘Victory Roll’ hairstyle was revolutionary and remains iconic.
How do I make a 1940s look?
- Take inspiration from the Utility Scheme and try to style a Victory Suit,
- A ‘Siren Suit’ is a great way to get an authentic 40s look by wearing a highly practical and innovative creation,
- If you are looking for a 1940s outfit that also fits in with modern styles, try a pair of high-waisted wide leg trousers. Style with a puffed sleeve blouse or a shirt,
- Find high quality materials when recreating an authentic 1940s look to replicate the popularity of durable, long-lasting pieces,
- Why not take inspiration from the late 40s and look at Dior’s ‘New Look’. Find garments with padded hips and cinched waists to accentuate and give the illusion of an hourglass shape,
- Hair and makeup must not be forgotten. Try an iconic ‘Victory Roll’ hairstyle, perhaps with a bold headscarf. You could also try a Veronica Lake inspired ‘peek-a-boo’ look by styling long hair over one eye. Thinner eyebrows and an accentuated Cupid’s bow are a great place to start in terms of makeup. Bright red was a popular lipstick shade.
“I remember the 1940s as a time when we were united in a way known only to that generation. We belonged to a common cause - the war.”