Credit: We Can Do It “Rosie the Riveter” Poster on Wiki Commons
Considering 1940s fashion is usually described as being that of drab colors, functional cuts and all-around limited creativity due to wartime restrictions and military style, you probably think I’m crazy to call the ’40s an era that “rocked.”
But you see, that’s exactly what the ’40s was all about: It rocked a woman’s closet because the war literally stopped the trends, and she had to make due with the limited inspiration and fabric available as World War II raged.
Not only did designers stop designing from 1939 to 1945, but the government set limits on how much nylon, wool and other materials a woman could purchase to make her clothing.
It was the absence of designers and these wartime restrictions that forced women to adapt, improvise and get creative when it came to choosing their wardrobe. Despite restrictions, awesome trends still emerged from the decade and some of these styles are quintessential pieces in the modern woman’s closet today.
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Keep reading after the jump to see how 5 modern ladies incorporated unique touches of ’40s clothing into their everyday looks, and how the ’40s trend got its start on the timeline of fashion history!
It’s easy to style the ’40s when you know that those trends are being reproduced in new fashion today. Check out vintage inspired clothing sites like Stop Staring, Pin Up Girl Clothing and Pin Up Dresses.
Coats of the 1940s
Source: Family Photo
Knee-length coats came into vogue in the 1940s because of fabric restrictions. No longer was it considered trendy to wear a maxi-length coat made from rich, warm fabrics like wool. Even if you had the money to buy a luxurious and lengthy style, clothing brands were bowing to US demands and producing more conservative styles with less fabric and almost zero decoration.
And for ladies who couldn’t afford to buy a new shorter piece, they’d cut the bottoms from their ’30s coats to stay on trend with the new shorter-length look!
I found this family photo in my mother’s photo albums. The photo dates from 1941 and shows one of my distant family relatives wearing a knee-length princess style coat, a style defined by a slight A-line flare and soft pleats. Note the coat’s triple rows of buttons, which is an interesting style characteristic and probably designed to give the piece a bit of stylish flair.
Source: Wallflower Vintage /’40s trench coat
1940s fashion investments were strategic and smart. Women purchased classic pieces that they could wear for seasons to come. Their coats needed to be as versatile as the rest of their wardrobe.
Since military influences abound for fall-winter season 2012 (just check out the Moschino runways for proof), a great way to incorporate the modern trend as inspired the ’40s is to wear a classic trench coat. Thankfully you won’t be fighting in the trenches … but you’ll still look great when seen in one!
Thanks to Couture Allure for providing background information on the 1940s coat trends.
Dresses of the 1940s
Source: Dardanelle / Gottlieb Jazz Photos from Library of Congress Flickr Commons
The 1930s was an era of feminine, elegant dresses in fresh florals and cut in silky drapes of floor-length drama.
When World War II began in 1939, within a few seasons soft tailored dresses were replaced with boxy cut plain dresses, masculine blazers of wide shoulders and shorter knee-length skirts. The feminine feel of the ’30s took a backseat to the severity of wartime style that was designed for practicality more than prettiness.
Still, a girl had to feel gorgeous sometimes, so the era compromised and the trend of short-sleeved and knee-length rayon dresses was born. Because fashion adornment was looked down upon, most dresses still took on masculine qualities and were designed with collar lapels and box cut skirts with slight pleats. Girlie decoration of buttons, lace, sequins and other frills were few and far between.
Source: Yours Truly Mag / ’40s floral dress
Simple floral designs satisfied the ’40s woman’s desire for something decadent in her wardrobe. Plus, the synthetic fiber rayon was the least war-rationed material, and because of its cotton-esque properties took to floral designs and light coloring well.
’40s floral dresses were worn for multiple occasions by the women of the era, but the style is best worn today for a sweet ‘n casual day look. I love how Yours Truly Mag has accessorized her ’40s floral dress with a vintage straw bag, a forest green hat, nude flats and gorgeous red nails and lip!
Skirts of the 1940s
Doris Day & Kitty Kallen / Gottlieb Jazz Photos from Library of Congress on Flickr Commons
Pencil skirts were popular in the ’40s because women quite literally couldn’t wear longer skirts due to government restrictions on the amount of materials used in garments.
In 1942, the War Production Board announced order ”L-85″ that said jackets could be no more than 25 inches in length, pants no more than 19 inches in circumference at the hem, belts no more than two inches wide and heels no more than an inch in height!
Source: Polly Bland / ’40s skirt
It was as if the war made every garment smaller — including skirts, which for the first time since scandalous 1920s fashion rose to the knee to conserve fabric. The “pencil skirt” was born because it was cut close to the body for a leaner, trimmer style. Now, women all around the world rock the pencil skirt as a go-to professional clothing staple.
Polly’s modernized her ’40s pencil skirt by pairing it with a tucked-in white blouse to show off her teeny waist. Rather than wear the boxy jacket style of the ’40s, she’s chosen feminine pieces to top off her look so that she looks like a lady of 2012!
Suits of the 1940s
Pee Wee Russel & Linda Keene / Gottlieb Jazz Photos from Library of Congress on Flickr Commons
Because fashions were discouraged from having decorative details like ruffles, lace and other types of trim, American designers found inspiration in the utilitarian design of men’s suiting.
Since fabric restrictions were in place, it made the most sense to design a women’s suit based on the simple styling of a man’s. Plus, with patriotism the new “trend” of the era, designing suiting to resemble military styles was a way for fashion to contribute to wartime efforts.
Thanks to Kaziah Vaughn of Spotlight Vintage for providing background information on 1940s suit trends.
Source: Wallflower Vintage / ’40s blazers
Even sewing patterns were designed to show women how to wear men’s suiting in style. McCall’s magazine produced patterns showing women how to transform their husband’s suits into ladies suits, dresses and children’s clothing.
The 1940s was arguably the first decade of sustainability, recycling pre-existing materials by re-purposing them into new garments. So if you were a woman of the ’40s and your husband was at war, chances were he needed a new wardrobe when he returned!
Wallflower Vintage transform two different ’40s blazers and styled them into form-flattering androgynous-inspired looks for today. The black ’40s blazer she’s wearing can be paired with dress pants to skirts to skinny black jeans, and the military-esque gray wool blazer is perfect paired with feminine pleats and black Cuban heels.
Hair Accessories of the 1940s
Source: Tatiana Riabouchinska / Wikipedia Commons
One of the most popular (not to mention easiest) ways to spotlight some ’40 style into your look is by wearing a patterned scarf tied from the back of your head into a knot at your forehead.
This style wasn’t a look worn by day for the typical lady of the ’40s. Rather, it was a practical but pretty way for the new working woman of the era to keep her hair out of her eyes and away from the machinery she might have been handling at her factory job.
This is why the iconic image of the ’40s — Miss Rosie the Riveter, shown at the top of this article — is wearing a scarf in her hair. She represents the new “factory girl” of the 1940s. These were the women who took on the jobs men once had who were now enlisted in the military.
Source: Adore Vintage / ’40s hair scarf
Ironically today, the ’40s hair scarf trend is not worn by the modern woman for a “working girl” look. We’re definitely not dressing to manage the assembly line in a factory!
Rather the hair scarf serves as unique hair flair that can add a punch of print to a tailored, feminine look. The knot can be tied as small or large as you want with hair tied back in a loose bun or swept-up ‘do.
Adore Vintage smartly added a ’40s touch to her look by knotting a patterned scarf with colors matching her pencil skirt. Even with two patterns in her look, the outfit has an aesthetically pleasing flow and has her looking like a 2012 version of Rosie the Riveter herself!
MORE 1940s FASHION
HISTORY: 1940s Fashion Timeline from Fashion-Era.com
DRESS CODE: The ’40s Silhouette Revealed on Glamourdaze.com
PHOTOS: Amazing Advertising of the ’40s on Costumegallery.com
PLUS: How Women Really Wore World War Two Fashion