If one thing about fashion of the 1940s is for certain, it’s that the trends in America were influenced by the pressures of World War II. It was as if for half a decade, fashion literally stopped. The war prevented high-fashion designers from designing between 1939 and 1945, and new garments were produced to show support for “fighting the good fight.” Compared to the glamorous era of the ’30s and the feminine flare of the ’50s, American ’40s fashion focused on a less-is-more conservatism in favor of patriotism.
Materials necessary for the war like wool, silk and nylon were impossible to find in the United States and outlawed from sale in the United Kingdom. So rayon, gabardine, linen and corduroy became the new materials of fashion. “Victory” suits of shortened hems, body-skimming fits and minimal frills were made upon order of America’s War Production Board, which limited the length of skirts, jackets and pants so that fabric use was kept to a minimum to conserve textiles for war efforts.
With men away from home, fashion accepted women dressing the part of “the man” whilst wearing padded blazers and pants in favor of dresses and skirts. While a girl can easily purchase three pairs of shoes in one shopping trip today, American women in the ’40s were limited to three pairs per year. Plastic and leather shoes (again, materials necessary for wartime) were replaced in favor of cork and wooden heels.
However, 1940s clothing wasn’t just about style skimping or dressing like a man. Girls dressed like ladies in peplum skirts on dresses and coats, sequins on evening wear and pops of country-inspired prints. These were trends many women tailored themselves with sewing patterns (like from Vogue, Simplicity or Butterick) or if they were lucky enough to afford, bought new in store. When Christian Dior introduced his “New Look” in 1947, the collection’s superfluous fabric and emphasis on a woman’s hourglass figure was such a stark contrast to the straight and narrow silhouette of less and lean ’40s clothing.
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Still, it would take until the early 1950s for American fashion to step away from the masculine styling of severe suiting, sharp and somber-colored dresses and the era’s “make do and mend” motif to embrace the return of luxurious feminine couture.
It’s clear that 1940s clothing trends stem from a period of sober style, but for so many contemporary women remains one of their favorite fashion eras.
Why do you think this is? Why does the ’40s remain one of the most popular decades of fashion?
FASHION OF THE 1940s TRENDS
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #1: Pussycat Bows
Wearing separates (versus one dress all day, everyday) became popular in the ’40s, and pussycat bow blouses were paired with midi pencil skirts and padded blazers with a pair of Spectator pattern heels. Pussycat bows are similar to today’s ascot blouses, except a pussycat blouse is literally a fluffy bow while an ascot more closely resembles a scarf.
Your Modern Reason: Because a pussycat blouse is perfect paired with a pencil skirt for the 21st century office, plus it’s all Peggy from Mad Men wore during the first few seasons of the show.
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #2: Sportswear
Source: Vintage Ad Browser
Sportswear was worn when spending time outside or playing social sports.
Outfits for the beach, for the tennis courts or even going for a walk on the boardwalk were considered “sportswear” in the ’40s because they were casual cotton outfits for sun, fun and dressing down. The trend of sportswear was particularly rampant on the west coast, where four-seasons-of-nice obviously influenced fashion toward sunwear.
Your Modern Reason: Because yesterday’s sportswear is today’s sexy wear! A ’40s playsuit becomes a killer crop top and skirt, and a gingham romper is rockin’ for next summer’s music festival. Don’t tell me you don’t love both looks above — both look so modern and wearable for summer 2013 and beyond.
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #3: Hollywood Glam
Source: Memory Store Fashions
Hollywood glamour was everything, and so we owe the stylists of Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow a huge thank you for inspiring women of the era to wear floor-swept dresses in luxurious materials and sensual necklines.
Your Modern Reason: Because you’ll look a helluva lot better than every girl at the party, and I swear you’ll only have spent half of what she did for a discounted dress that was (ahem) made in China.
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #4: Bolero Jackets
The Spanish-inspired design (Google search a matador to see what I mean) was popular in the ’40s since it used less material and hit the waistline of the era’s similarly popular high-waisted pencil skirts. A bolero jacket, pussycat blouse and pencil skirt with wooden heels is a great example of a classic ’40s look.
Your Modern Reason: Because with such a chic cut you won’t feel like you’re wearing a blazer, so you can wear one to work and play professional fashion hooky!
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #5: Wedding Suits
When wartime weddings were held, women opted for a sharp suit from their closets to wear versus a taffeta and tulle ensemble expected from women before them.
Not every woman wore a wedding suit, but if she was of the patriotic (or penny saving) type, then chances are she wasn’t wearing a white wedding gown on her big day. The wedding suit look was even more appropriate if her husband was a soldier, as he would have been married in uniform.
Your Modern Reason: Because a woman in a white suit can get away with anything (except spilled juice). Wear one to your next big meeting and I swear, the boys will be bending over asking for your love.
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #6: Shoulder Pads
The wide shoulder (hence shoulder padding) was embraced to further accentuate the decade’s obsession with a teeny tiny waist, which was made further possible by shape wear like corsets, girdles and other firming devices popular in the ’40s. The shoulder pad was just another example of how women dressed in more severe, masculine inspired styles during the early to mid ’40s. This straight and narrow silhouette, with a wide shoulder and a teeny tiny waist, would be trumped by Christian Dior’s H-figure “New Look” that became popular in ’50s fashion.
Your Modern Reason: Because a girl in shoulder pads is boss. Pair a padded blazer with skinny pants or leggings below and the tallest pair of heels you can find, and you’ll definitely knock down whatever’s in your way (football not included).
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #7: Pencil Skirts
The pencil skirt was the era’s most extreme example of austere dressing. Cut straight and fit taut to the bod, the pencil skirt was a declaration of style sobriety that was more functional than fashionable.
Your Modern Reason: Because no one who wears a pencil skirt is ever criticized. You look polished, you look professional, you look pretty dang good. And if you can’t go wrong with a pencil skirt, then who really needs an erasure?
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #8: Sweaters
Source: Vintage Ad Browser
The fitted sweater was marketed to both sexes as the every-season- comfy-cover-up. Worn for everyday fashion to lounging at ski resorts, the styles were handknit in a variety of whimsical, seasonal and colorful design.
Body-hugging sweaters like those shown below were first popularized by Lana Turner in the movie They Won’t Forget. She became known as “The Sweater Girl” and a pin-up starlet since that cozy sweater was so tightly fit to the chest!
Your Modern Reason: Because this oversize sweater and leggings business has got to stop eventually.
If you’re like me and you desire some softness on the chest and not hanging from it, then a ’40s cropped knitted top is exactly what we both need. Stat.
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #9: Peplums
Best described as a short over skirt attached to another clothing item, the “peplum” was a popular style accent for dresses and skirts in the ’40s. Why it was called the peplum I have yet to figure out, but one things for sure: This skirt over a skirt drew even more attention to the wearer’s preferred teeny tiny waist. Call it a devious device or just call it style smart: The peplum is pretty rad.
Your Modern Reason: When everyone compliments your outfit, you can reply “Thank you! I love peplums too!” and when they ask “What the heck a peplum is?” you can wow them with your vintage fashion knowledge about the ’40s (you can thank me later). Plus, according to the fashion Gods at Vogue UK, the peplum was way big for 2012.
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #10: The Victory Suit
Source: Vintage Ad Browser
The Victory Suit was marketing jargon for suits that were made from less material and decorative features to conserve for the war. Don’t confused the Victory Suit with the “utility suit,” which was the UK’s more strict version of what a patriotic World War II suit should be. These were often made from men’s suiting, who had left for the war and therefore left their good clothes in closets behind. So rather than make a new style of more conservative clothing, women in the UK made a utility suit from pre-existing materials because their coupon system strongly prevented them from buying anything new. The American Victory Suit was designed without extraneous styling. There are little pleats, vents, ruffles, or cuffs. The bottom of the jacket is cut away at an angle to conserve fabric. Even the pockets are likely to be simple decorative flaps as they were also discouraged to avoid wasting fabric. The Victory Suit was a new silhouette for the era that is best described with the three S’s of “sober, severe and sharp.”
Your Modern Reason: Because you get business done, and wearing a Victory suit isn’t only a cue that you’re a winner (hence the name) but that you dress like one, too. As if you needed more convincing to rock your ’40s suit, the Victory suit was replicated in the ’80s and renamed the “Power” suit. Bam.
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #11: Trousers
Source: Vintage Ad Browser
The ’40s woman wore pants mostly for work (as many women took over men’s jobs who had become soldiers), for home and for outdoor play (as illustrated in the Peck & Peck ad above). While women weren’t quite to the leggings-as-pants stage in the ’40s, more and more brands began to market different cuts, colors and style of pants to women as casual daywear worn for occasions the ’40s society had deemed appropriate for such a masculine style of dressing.
Your Modern Reason: Because we take wearing pants for granted. In fact, we dress so casually today that American suburbia is nothing but women wearing jeans, pants, yoga sweats and other two-legged garments. So put on a pair of pretty pants from the ’40s (cotton capris to silk palazzos to a pair of sturdy riding jodhpurs) to honor how far fashion has come.
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #12: Patriotic Print
Source: Tuppenceha Penny Blog
Not only did women wear less and make do with more during World War II in order to conserve fabric and demonstrate patriotism, but they added deliberate color to their fashion duty with designs in red, white and blue. These weren’t dresses worn on just the 4th of July, but whenever and wherever as a woman’s demonstration of her American allegiance. Sewing patterns instructed women to use materials of the states-supporting colorway — down to their “Old Glory” design aprons!
Your Modern Reason: Because as if looking simply adorable isn’t reason enough, you can wear these dresses at least 6 times a year when the US likes to celebrate just how awesome it is: the 4th, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, President’s Day, and Memorial Day. Plus with Uncle Sam so distracted by your pretty pin-up style, you could get away with tax invasion wearing a piece of All-American vintage awesome (wink).
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #13: Plaid Print
Source: Vintage Ad Browser
The decade loved its country prints, and plaid was obviously the perfect piece of print for the lad or lady looking to fit in with countryside chic. Traditional plaid was left to the boys, while the girls got away with wearing plaid in bright and brilliant hues — think technicolor dream plaid, only about two decades too soon!
Your Modern Reason: Because plaid is every bad girl’s pretty priceless cover-up. Think about it: Our modern perspective of plaid is schoolgirl sweet. But behind every schoolgirl is a sassy sister who just knows how to work the system and at such affordable prices like the vintage examples shown above, who wouldn’t want to invest in a little plaid protection?
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #14: Gingham Print
Source: Elegant Musings
Another country-inspired print trend of the ’40s was gingham. Whether in classic red or darker shades of blue and green, the checkered print was a daywear standby on buttoned cotton blouses and the dresses of happy, humble housewives.
Your Modern Reason: Because gingham isn’t just for table cloths or going on a picnic. To dress pin-up without the Victory rolls and scarlet lips, a gingham dress will get the job done minus the beauty hassle.
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #15: Hawaiian Print
The ladies of America’s west coast wore Hawaiian inspired prints and tiki motifs in their year-round wardrobes, including wrap skirts, bathing suits and halter dresses for fun in the sun.
The west coast had a more casual style of dressing than the trend-focused and seasonally influenced east, which unless on vacation were lesser participants of the island style trend.
Your Modern Reason: Because if a middle aged man can wear a Hawaiian print shirt and be the life of the party, why can’t you were a Hawaiian print dress and be the same?
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #16: Novelty Print
Source: Elegant Musings
Novelty prints are a part of the era’s “narrative fashion” trend. These were prints that told a story with whimsical designs of figures, animals, plants, people and other lively bits. These were the prints intended to inspire discussion and connection between the wearer and those she met — hence, why they were also called conversation”prints.
Your Modern Reason: Because you know you want an excuse to wear dress with puppies, clowns or umbrellas on it (all of which I’ve seen on ’40s dresses!).
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #17: Rayon
Source: Glass of Fashion
Rayon was a popular fabric used to make dresses in the ’40s because materials like wool, nylon and silk were difficult to purchase in the United States during World War II and literally impossible in the United Kingdom. Reason being that wool was used to make soldier’s uniforms and silk was necessary for parachutes. Rationing rules in the US and the UK were different because of the resources each country had available. While the English were limited to approximately 3 new outfits per year purchased on a point system with coupons, Americans styles simply changed to reflect higher hemlines, no pockets, somber coloring and limited adornment. That’s why the trend of the ’40s rayon dress actually has origins in the United States — not the United Kingdom. Women in the US could buy or make dozens of rayon dresses if they pleased, while the women of the UK could hardly buy a new dress once a year.
Your Modern Reason: Because rayon is a heck of a lot nicer than cotton or polyester – hence why a ’40s rayon dress lives today. It was built to last!
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #18: Gabardine
Gabardine was used as a substitute for wool, which was rationed for World War II. The copycat material was used for women’s suiting made new in America during World War II.
Made from worsted wool or cotton and polyester blends, its woven in such a way to resembles the fiber of wool without feeling like it. Gabardine was invented by Thomas Burberry in 1879, founder of the luxury brand we know today by the same last name.
Your Modern Reason: Because no other girl has gabardine in their closet. Gaba Gaba whaaaaaat?
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #19: Taffeta
Source: Suite 101
Taffeta was used to make evening dresses and upscale day dresses (like the shirtwaist dresses shown below) for the ’40s lady of luxe. The shiny material is made from synthetic fibers, although blends pre and post World War II could be made from a percentage of silk as well. The dramatic structured look of ’40s evening wear was made possible by taffeta because the pleats, contours and rise of the fabric stuck, especially when paired with volume-enhancing crinoline below.
Your Modern Reason: Because you’re going to feel like a billion bucks wearing 1940s taffeta, considering it was woven in France, Italy or Japan. Today taffeta is made on looms in Bangladesh or India.
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #20: Decorative Sequins
Source: Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Columbia Pictures
The War Production Board of America restricted the amount of material used to make new clothing, but it didn’t restrict the use of shiny, spectacular sequins. So while voluminous shaping and ball-ready gowns were frowned down upon, evening wear still evoked extravagance with the design of surface sequins. Sequin treatment in the ’40s was typically limited to a small part of the garment along the neck and on the chest.
Your Modern Reason: Because girls who wear sequins have more fun, and because you can get away with wearing sequins by day when they’re simply on the surface of a chic black dress!
FASHION OF THE 1940s TREND #21: CC41 Clothing Labels
As a bonus to this article, I wanted to shed some light on the fashions of the United Kingdom during World War II. Like the “War Production Board” of the US, the CC41 (Controlled Commodity 41) labeled garments produced under governmental restrictions that ensured manufacturers adhered to design guidelines in order to conserve materials for war efforts. The 41 represents the year the restrictions were put into place, but not necessarily the year this dress was produced. The tag was used on clothing through 1952. Unlike the US, women of Great Britain purchased garments using coupons distributed by the government for controlled purchase of food, clothing, oil and other essential goods. Despite the production of new clothing in the UK during WWII, the amount of it was much less than non-war years considering purchase opportunity by the public was so limited.
Your Modern Reason: Because it’s a collectors item, and baby girl that Gucci status symbol bag ain’t gonna last as long as this ’40s dress will!
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