1940s Fashion Guide

The Starlet Vintage 1940s Fashion Guide

The origins of the 1940s look

World War Two’s ramifications reached from the rationing of fabrics to the new roles women filled in the workplace, so fashion needed to follow suit.

The silhouette of the decade had feminine curves through the torso, but with masculine padded shoulders. The need to economise on fabric usage meant for shorter hemlines and more modest cuts - that also had to cater to more practical demands in the workplace.

Trends of the decade included patriotic prints, plenty of plaid, button down blouses, wide legged trousers, workwear – including jeans and overalls. Shoes were generally peep-toe heels, loafers, Oxfords and wedge sandals. It was during the 1940s that the two-piece bikini first dipped a toe in British waters. The practical aspect of the era meant that head wear served a higher purpose. Hats, turbans, headscarves and snoods helped to help hair practically stowed during shifts in the factory. Underneath it all, women of the 1940s wore a bra, girdle, panties and slips, as in spite of rising to meet the practical needs of the country, the 1940s woman was also expected to confirm to the shape of the era.

1940s Dresses

Hemlines rose from the 1930s mid-calf length, to knee-length during the 1940s, when rationing created a shortage of fabrics.

The wartime zeitgeist leaked masculine influence into womenswear, and while the bodices of dresses affected a feminine, fitted finesse, the shoulders imparted a more masculine look. Embracing this masculine essence meant shoulders both puffed up in gathers, and extended past the natural line of the shoulder, making for a boxy neckline and square shoulders.

Wartime dresses incorporated a range of necklines. The 1940s saw the inclusion of sweetheart, slit, square, keyhole, shirring, wraps and v necks, almost all of which were high, and where button fastenings were present the buttons fastened all the way to the collar. It was not the vogue to put décolletage on show during the day, but by evening, spaghetti straps and halter necks revealed shoulders, but still very little cleavage.

Dress fabrics included traditional cotton, and also started to include the cutting-edge man-made fibre, Rayon.

1940s Suits

Women’s call to the workplace called for fitting attire, and so the suit came into its own during the 1940. The popular two-piece Victory or Utility suit was made from heavier fabrics, and its versatile mix-and-match nature allowed for a greater sense of styling freedom at a time when clothes were in such short supply.

The 1940s suit jacket generally matched the skirt, but this wasn’t imperative. The silhouette mirrored that of the 1940s dress, with wide shoulders, tailored waist and a wider hem that came to mid-hip length.

1940s Skirts

Skirts were worn with blouses. They completed the Victory suit when worn with a jacket. The A-line knee-length cut afforded a practical, feminine shape, that was prudent on fabric usage during the war years, but pleats and more flared lines became more popular after the war.

1940s Blouses

A fashionable blouse of the 1940s could be long or short sleeved, in solid or patterned fabrics, and almost always had a slight puff to the shoulder. The neckline of the 1940s blouse was either a Peter Pan or V-neck collar. Long-sleeved styles had dainty fitted cuffs.

1940s Coats

The trends in 1940s women’s coats was equally utilitarian, with simple boxy lines, button fastenings, and narrow sleeves. The popular knee-length line followed the practical aspirations of women’s fashion.

1940s Trousers

Prior to the 1940s, trousers had been reserved for menswear, but during this inaugural decade, when women took over more practical roles in the workplace, women started to wear trousers. The tailoring followed similar principles to men’s trousers, with high waists, full legs and wide cuffs.

1940s Overalls

Where the demands of the workplace required womens fashion trends to lean on more practical influences, overalls and coveralls became a popular and are still an icon of 1940s fashion. Rosie the Riveter was the cultural icon responsible for inspiring women to fulfil their professional duties in a sturdy set of overalls.

1940s Shoes

While women’s shoes in the 1940s were relatively plain (Oxfords, saddle shoes and loafers), the materials were an imaginative answer to the war’s dominion over leather. In response to the shortage, shoes were instead made from reptile skins, heavy fabrics like velvet and even from wood.

The main trend was for short wide heels during the early 1940s, and then thinner heeled “pumps” later in the decade. Alternative trends included the wedge or wedgie, which could also incorporate the popular peep-toe feature.

1940s Swimwear

1940s swimming costumes carried the demure torch of the era, with low leg lines and covered cleavages, but the decade saw the first two-piece costumes being worn (albeit, with very high waist lines, and equally low leg lines), and the overall styling wasn’t without its efforts to enhance. Padded busts and adjustable shoulder straps provided a flattering fit and form.

1940s Stocking and Lingerie

To “achieve” the desirable physique of the 1940s, women employed underwear to persuade their bodies into the desired shape. Girdles pulled in the waist, while full fitting bras with ample back coverage encouraged a rounded shaped bosom. Slips were worn to provide a smooth foundation for dresses and suits.

Higher hemlines meant visible legs. With the recent invention of Nylon silk stockings were replaced with this newer fibre, but both silk and nylon were required by the war, so stockings were in short supply. To imitate the slightly darker shade of stockings, women would tan their legs with tea and draw lines up the backs of their legs to imitate seams. 1940s stockings came to thigh length and were help up by garters.

1940s Accessories

During the 1940s, headwear was popular and diverse. The trade-mark hats of the 1940s included the beret, the turban, the fedora and small hats with flat brims and decorative veils.

In factories women needed a way of keeping their hair safely out of machinery. The solution was the snood (a crocheted or knitted bag that gathered hair at the nape of the neck) and the hair scarf – again, as sported by Rosie the Riveter.

Hair was styled into fashionable Victory roles, and women adorned their 1940s waves with real and fabric flowers.

Gloves were also an essential part of a semi-formal and formal ensemble. During the Forties, gloves were a gauntlet mid-arm length, and were most frequently found in neutral colours.

1940s Jewellery

Jewellery played an important role in women’s fashion during the 1940s. Where rationing stripped away so much scope for creativity, jewellery was a viable means of animating an outfit. Big brooches, chunky earrings, bold beads and the ever-popular pearl all helped to enhance the otherwise austere look.

1940s Handbags

Women’s diverse roles during this decade called for a practical means of carrying all that might be required in the course of a working day. Day bags were inspired by military styles. Satchels were worn across the body or over the shoulder, so they could be safely worn when riding a bike. More feminine styles included a flat envelope purse, with a scalloped treatment being iconic of the era.

1940s Make up

The 1940s make-up look included shaped and pencilled eyebrows, curled lashes with mascara coated top lashes, tridot rouge, painted lips – with an emphasis on the top lip – and a pan cake or light liquid foundation.