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1940s Fashion Overview

When we think of 1940s fashion, we probably think of the glamour of the 40s Pin Up and the practical styles of the wartime Land Army Girls. We think of ultra feminine 1940s tea dance dresses in floral prints, wedge shoes and brogues. But it was also an era when designers, stretched to their innovative limits by austerity guidelines, created simple but beautiful draping techniques and introduced peplums onto dresses and shoulder pads to the most simple styles thus creating the fabulous Film Noir styles we admire today.

1940s clothing gives us a perfect example of how much fashion is influenced by politics, culture and social ‘situation’. This decade saw much change and what we now nostalgically view as the classic 40s look was actually represented by only a few years in this decade since Dior’s new look was launched in 1947.

The 1940s Silhouette

Initially, the wartime silhouette (1930 to '45) was angular and harsher than the willowy, curvy 30s. Slender, yet mannish with padded shoulders. There are definate differences between the UK fashions and those of the (more more glamourous) US - influenced, of course, by restrictions on materials...

A bit of History

Fashion essentially ‘paused’ during the war. Many of the couture houses in Paris who were the world leaders in fashion at the time were closed down or ceased trading during the occupation. The fabric mills turned their attention to production for the war effort and dress fabric was restricted through austerity guidelines. 

They say that during time of difficulty, the most innovative solutions are found – and this is certainly the case during the 40s. New fabrics were created (some not so good) because traditional fabrics could not be produced as easily and the austerity guidelines enforced during the war resulted in some of the most creative pattern cutting ever seen in fashion. The rules of 1941 covered how much fabric could be used, trimmings, hem length, pleats, gathers and even how many buttons could be used. This resulted in the production of the aptly named ‘utility clothing‘ labelled with the CC41 logo – the fashion industry was unofficially nationalised. Somewhat ironically, original vintage garments with this label can command high prices in the market nowadays!

The look was 'sensible' as a result

Made do and Mend!

Initially, the general public were less than fond of utility clothing and in 1942, designers were brought in to improve the utility styles and to simplify the manufacturing process. The more elegant 40s styles we know and love today were born. Innovative pattern cutting to use fabric to its greatest advantage included draping, peplums, gores, the use of shoulder pads and simple but intricate gathers at the bust line and shoulders. The silhouette became square or box like, the waist a little higher and the emphasis moved to the shoulders and head.

Although utility clothing was an important influence on fashion of the time, let’s not forget how brilliant the ladies were at home dressmaking. Most girls were taught from an early age and ladies became expert at reworking their existing dresses into more modern styles. The famous term ‘make do and mend’ evolved from this.

A classic day dress could be quickly reworked via changing the neckline using gathers or tabs and were shortened leaving spare fabric for reworking sleeves or creating trimmed pockets.

So due to the restrictions that women were required to adhere to combined with many years of rationing and working for the war effort, women, forever innovative and relentless in their pursuit of beauty, invented other ways to feel good and presentable. Dresses were regularly reworked and girls raided their mother’s costume jewellery boxes to revive overused outfits, red lipstick became a staple and women were encouraged to wear it to raise their spirits (*red lipstick in the 40s was actually an orange red not the pillar box red we associate with the era). But perhaps the most exciting element of 40s style, and one that enthusiasts of this era love to imitate, is the iconic 40s hairstyles. Hair was not restricted, although maybe cut shorter for war work, and was worn in ever opulent, innovative styles. The era of the victory roll and pompadour, snood and turban – hair was a ladies way of expression where everything else was hard to come by. If you want to ‘do ‘40s’ a modern hairstyle just doesn’t cut the mustard.

Fashion Etiquette

Despite the issues of the time, social etiquette still required women never to leave the house without wearing stockings, a hat and carrying an array accessories. More interestingly, despite the wearing of work clothes, it was still considered risqué to wear trousers well into the early 50s. Trousers were much more popular in the US but were adopted by the brave for dances.  And of course since supplies were low, women were required to create the illusion of stockings via drawing the line and the ever famous gravy browning – though ive not seen many enthusiasts adopting that one!

Women at Work - Practicality

The changing role of women meant they were required to work the land in the abscence of men. And so a popular 40s look is the dungarees, jeans, trousers and the popular turban style headscarf.

Hollywood was not exempt from regulations during the war and showed many glamourous actresses in more utility style clothing. This gave rise to the workwear jeans -specially cut to be more feminine

1940s Tea dress

When most think of the 40s they think of the tea dress. The dress for dances - floral, gored, sweetheart neckline, puffed cap sleeves. There probably isnt a more iconic look associated with a decade - but there are many dresses in this era that fit the category. Shirt dresses were very popular and versatile but more  utility in style  or a 30s dress reworked into a more modern style dress by pulling the neckline back into a sweetheart style.

Film noir 

The emergence of American style and creative drapery in evening garments created a strong and serious eveningwear look. Low slung sarong skirts, simple bodice styles but with padded shoulders and sequin motifs or jewellery.
Fabrics were plain in black, white, navy or red.

1940s Fashion Shopping List

Whether you want the 1940s land girl look or Hollywood glam, check out our capsule wardrobe shopping guide to get you started:-

  • Parachute silk knickers
  • Seamed Stockings
  • Day or Tea dress (preferably made in rayon/viscose)
  • High waist trousers or ‘work jeans’
  • Swing skirt (length to just over knees)
  • Pussy bow blouse or shirt style
  • 40s Shirt Waister Dress for everyday
  • Bolero jacket

Must have accessories:-

  • Snood
  • Hat
  • Orange red lippy
  • Platform shoes
  • Diamante brooches, earrings

Suggested reading:-
Forties fashion – From Siren Suits to the New Look – Jonathan Walford
The 40s Look – Mike Brown
Everyday Fashions of the 40s – sears catalogue

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