1940s Fashion Styles

1940s and Renaissance

Women's Fashion

Most women wore skirts at or near knee-length, with simply-cut blouses or shirts and square-shouldered jackets. Popular magazines and pattern companies advised women on how to remake men's suits into smart outfits, since the men were in uniform and the cloth would otherwise sit unused. Eisenhower jackets became popular in this period. Influenced by the military, these jackets were bloused at the chest and fitted at the waist with a belt. The combination of neat blouses and sensibly tailored suits became the distinctive attire of the working woman, college girl, and young society matron. The main sort of dress in the 1940s included features such as an hour glass shape figure, broad shoulders, nipped in high waist tops and A line skirts that came down to just at the knee. Many different celebrities who embraced this type of style such as Joan CrawfordGinger RogersBarbara Stanwyck, and Ava Gardner. Even though daywear dresses were influenced by the war, evening dresses remained glamorous. Later in the decade evening dresses mostly featured a fitted bodice with the dress firmly held at the waist. The bodice was either plain or most times princess bodice which revealed the shoulders, neck, and in the case of strapless dresses, they revealed the upper chest. Regarding the back of the dresses, low backs were the trend of the decade!

Women wearing shirt dresses

The shirtwaist dress, an all-purpose garment, also emerged during the 1930s. The shirtwaist dress was worn for all occasions, besides those that were extremely formal, and were modest in design. The dress could either have long or short sleeves, a modest neckline and skirt that fell below the knee. The bust was rounded but not particularly emphasized and the waistline was often belted in its normal position. Pockets were both functional and used for decoration and were accompanied by buttons down the front, around the sides or up the back of the dress. These dresses often were accompanied by coordination coats, which were made out of contrasting fabric but lined with the dress fabric. The jacket was often constructed in a boxy fashion and had wide lapels, wide shoulders and numerous pockets. The dress and coat combination created an overall effect of sensibility, modesty and girl next door lifestyle that contrasted the very popular, second-skin like style of the bias-cut evening gown.

1940s coats and jackets screamed “masculinity”, with coats sporting hoods and deep pockets, inspired by Schiaparelli’s ‘cash and carry’ line of 1939 and the Cape Coat below. Broad shoulders and mannish lines were the order of the day in 1940s fashion. The gabardine raincoat, belted single breasted coats and double breasted coats. Capes were common for both girls and older women and in America, sporty ski jackets were a favourite. 

As the decade developed the overall silhouette was rather slim and long. Women looked elegant with their knee-long skirts and heels that gave a longer impression. Christian Dior’s ground-breaking New Look silhouette featuring gorgeous full skirts and waist-cinching jackets. The New Look in the summer 1947 emphasized the bust, waist and hips reasserting female sexuality. The style had fuller skirts with crinoline used with petticoats and netting. The garments moved with ease and were worn with bustiers. Even though it was a restriction on fabrics, the dresses of the 1940s were quite flowy.

Women's undergarments became the soul of fashion in the 1940s because it maintained the critical hourglass shape with smooth lines. Clothes became utilitarian. Women working in factories first wore men's pants but over time, factories began to make pants a garment to count on and was often worn with a blouse or defined jumpers, often knitted. Blouses had a similar style to the men’s, commonly in bright colors and sometimes with a matching blazer. With matching pants, blazers and blouses, women embraced a masculine fashion. Clothes that were more functional and suitable for work.

Woman wearing 1940s pants

Throughout the post-war period, a tailored, feminine look was prized and accessories such as gloves and pearls were popular. Tailored suits had fitted jackets with peplums, usually worn with a long, narrow pencil skirt. Day dresses had fitted bodices and full skirts, with jewel or low-cut necklines or Peter Pan collars. Shirt dresses, with a shirt-like bodice, were popular, as were halter-top sundresses. Skirts were narrow or very full, held out with petticoatspoodle skirts were a brief fad. Ball gowns (full-skirted gown for white tie occasions) were longer than ankle-length dresses (called "ballerina length"), reaching the floor and worn to balls (as they are today). Cocktail dresses, "smarter than a day dress but not as formal as a dinner or evening dress" were worn for early-evening parties. Short shrugs and bolero jackets, often made to match low-cut dresses, were worn.

Bridal fashion in the 1940s can effectively be divided into two sections; wartime and post-war. Wartime rations meant that wedding dresses in the early ’40s were simple, practical, and often borrowed. After the war, although rationing was still in place, gowns gradually became more detailed once again. Even Queen Elizabeth had to use ration coupons to buy the fabric for her 1947 wedding dress!

1940s swimwear covered more than it does today but was working its way to being less modest than it had the decade before. Separate two pieces were slowly gaining popularity as a precursor to the bikini and were closed with either buttons, or metal zippers at the back. 1940s one pieces bathing costumes also had an interesting little addition, and something to look out for if you’re searching for a 40s bathing costume.

Other notable fashion trends in this period include the introduction of the ensemble (matching dresses or skirts and coats) and the handkerchief skirt, which had many panels, insets, pleats or gathers. The clutch coat was fashionable in this period as well; it had to be held shut as there was no fastening.

Men's Fashion

Shirts, Coats, Jackets and Pants

Shirts appeared first in European dress in the seventeenth century as a kind of underwear, designed to protect expensive waistcoats and frock coats from sweat and soil. By the early eighteenth century, shirts had assumed importance as garments in their own right. In the 1930’s and 40's the shirt with the fixed collar revived and it has been with us ever since. Ten years later during the 1950s the shirt brought a more rockabilly vibe. Ten years later the nylon shirt was introduced and during the same period of time the more daring short sleeve shirt became high fashion. In the 1960’s the chest pocket was introduced as a consequence of the vest under the suit jacket becoming more and more uncommon.