The 1940s fashion era is one of my favorites especially to recreate using used/vintage/thrifted clothing or new vintage inspired clothing I find online. As you will see in these 16 different looks there are many choices from casual or formal, day to night, and work to play. Whatever forties themed event you are dressing for these 1940s costume ideas will help you create a character that is authentic to the era without wearing strictly vintage. Follow the links within for fashion history insights and online shopping suggestions.
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1940s Costumes- Women’s Dresses
All women wore dresses in the 1940s. It was the one item that was worn in one style or another 24 hours a day. The style, material, trim and accessories determined when and where to wear a particular dress. At home dresses were simple while going out required a nicer dress with a few coordinating accessories. Wrist to gauntlet length gloves, hat, purse and shoes almost always matched each other. A coordinated woman was a confident woman, or so they said.
The key to choosing a 1940s style dress is in the silhouette. The top of the dress is modest (no deep plunging necklines), often with a collar and padded shoulders (hello 80s?) Sleeves were to the elbow or wrist, nothing too short. The skirt is A-line for most of the 40s or straight pencil (no hip hugging curves unless you want a pinup look) in the later years. The length came down to just below the knee. 1940s dresses are a classic shape and are typically not to hard to find in a thrift store, your own closet, or online. Read more about 1940s dress styles here.
Jewelry was optional. The 1940s were a frugal time where expensive jewelry was seen as vulgar. Cheap costume jewelry was popular but by no means necessary to wear. What was necessary was a pair of nude, back seam stockings (the seam is nude, not black.) When silk and rayon were needed for the war effort women went without stockings. They wore socks with their house dresses but saved a pair of stockings for more formal afternoon and evening attire.
With these essentials in mind let’s look at some 1940s costume ideas.
Day to Day Dress
This first look I call the “day to day” dress because it is both casual and semi formal. It can be worn around the house or out to run errands, visit friends or go to work in. This dress is the About the Artist dress from Modcloth– one of their best sellers. It has a classic 1940s A-line skirt, puffed shoulders, cute heart shaped buttons and a coordinating fabric belt. I paired it with an adorable bow topped “Shirley” heel from Royal Vintage Shoes.
The white piping on the dress coordinated with the ivory shoes and wrist length gloves (vintage.) I also added in a double strand white pearl necklace that was my grandmothers from the 1940s. The blue felt sun hat with chiffon bow is also vintage. Vintage gloves and hats are still affordable in vintage or antique stores. Online etsy.com has plenty. Look for wrist length or gauntlet length gloves (mid arm) for the 1940s. Color should coordinate with at least one other accessory or trim on the dress.
Running errands in town didn’t always mean wearing a full dress. The blouse and skirt combo was versatile and budget friendly. For a 1940s blouse you will want to get a button down short or long sleeve blouse. Most blouses had collars (pointed or round) with pretty details like pintucks or lace ruffles. White and ivory was the most common but other solids and stripes were fine too. The puffy shoulder look is iconic of the early 40s. If you can find one snatch it up fast.
For the skirt I found a pleated knee length skirt. 1940s skirts were mostly A-line, box pleated, or straight pencil shapes. They came up to the knee but no higher. A belt could be worn with a skirt. It was very thin in the early years and sometimes very wide by the end of the decade and usually matched the skirt. Shop 1940s style skirts.
The accessories I choose include a vintage hat (same as above), a double strand necklace of thick beads (also vintage), a flat navy blue rectangular purse (thrifted), white wrist length gloves (vintage) and the same bow top heels from Royal Vintage shoes I used in the first dress. It is such a charming ensemble, isn’t it?
The Women’s Suit
A variation on the blouse and skirt combo was the two piece suit. It was a style borrowed from menswear and women wore it for nearly any type of daytime outing. The jacket fit over a blouse with a single or sometimes double row of buttons, collar and lapels, and a pocket or two (or none during WW2.) They often came with a matching A-line or pencil skirt. Mixing suit jackets and skirts was common practice- they never had to match.
In my “business” costume here I layered a tweed jacket over the blue pleated skirt above. I could have also used a straight cut pencil skirt if it was long enough (most I find are not.) I changed out the short sleeve blouse above for a long sleeve bow tie blouse I recently found at Forever 21. Next I added a pair of ivory gloves to match the blouse and a brown flat purse with chain strap.
The hat is another vintage hat from my collection. It has a simple oval crown and slightly rolled brim that was called a sailor hat. I find this style frequently in thrift stores. Read about 1940s hat styles here.
The shoes are a pair of Hotter Donna shoes. I am a big fan of Hotter shoes not only because they have some great vintage inspired shoe designs but also because they have wide and extra wide sizes. The Donna shoes has been a favorite style of 1940s shoe for a few years. I choose the Navy blue leather shoes for this look.
While the first “Day to Day” dress was a casual style this “Afternoon” dress is more formal. Formal in the 40s means well dressed for a public outing, lunch or dinner date, or work in an office setting. Every woman had at least one such coordinated formal afternoon dress in her wardrobe.This one has a pointed collar, white buttons (very 40s), and a drop waist with lightly pleated skirt (a mid 40s style.)
Most dresses came with matching fabric belts in the 1940s however a contrasting leather belt was also used. I could have gone with all white accessories but instead chose a black bow belt, black gloves, a black handbag with short handle (vintage 50s), a small velvet hat with short veil (vintage), double strand pearls, and Lola ankle strap heels from Royal Vintage. Having multiple color-coordinated accessories is what takes this 80s dress back to the 1940s.
My blue pattern dress here is a 1980s does 1940s revival dress. This is what makes re-creating 40s style easy. The 1980s were chalk full of ’40s style. Most thrift stores are loaded with them. Woo hoo!
Dinner and Dancing Dress
The next step up after a formal afternoon dress is evening wear. Not ballgowns but something semi-formal for a night out with dinner and dancing (a favorite ’40s past time.) While the afternoon dress above would work for a dinner date, something a little prettier like this red dress with matching hair flower is a bit more romantic.
The dress is another 80s does 40s peplum top with attached pencil skirt. It has a soft lapel collar and dolman sleeves which are both 40s details. Ladies often skipped the hat and wore flowers in their hair for evening looks. A large flower pinned to her dress was also a pretty little something to dress up the day to night look. Red gloves were a must and since I didn’t have red shoes these Betty black peep toe platform heels from Royal Vintage were a great choice.
Tip: A pencil skirt dress can have a tendency to get too tight and a bit more va-va voom than a 1940s classy look. That is ok if you want to look a bit more pin up otherwise stay clear of a stretchy knit dress. Try on pencil dresses one or two sizes up to get the right fit or mix a correct fitting pencil skirt with white blouse for another simple yet sophisticated look.
The PinUp Dress
So what if you do want to be a bit more sexy, a bit more like a pin up girl? Well then you need a snug fitting pencil dress aka wiggle dress. Real pin up models were not nearly as risque as artistic renderings of them. They wore normal 1940s clothing that was just a hair tighter, hemline a little shorter, heels taller and necklines a little less modest. I prefer a genuine vintage pin up girl look over burlesque pin up but both can easily be done with the same clothing.
This red Stop Staring brand dress is my favorite 1940s style wiggle dress. Almost all Stop Staring dresses are made to hug your curves and bring out the sex kitten in you. My mannequin is on the skinny side so the dress isn’t as curvy as it fits on me. I paired it with a black knit snood and felt bow as the hair accessory which is a great, easy way to deal with long hair. I added black satin gloves (which are more formal than leather gloves) and a modern formal purse on a strap. The shoes again are the Betty peep toe platforms from Royal Vintage.
1940s Cocktail Dress
The final and most formal look I put together is a cocktail dress. Most women couldn’t afford a new ballgown to wear to the theater or special occasion so instead they began to wear shorter cocktail dresses. Most cocktail dresses were made of silk or silk like rayon, light layers of chiffon or a soft velvet. A ruched bodice, draping folds and lack off mannish collars made cocktail dresses more feminine than day time looks.
I lucked out and found this beautiful vintage 1940s blue velvet cocktail dress. There are many 1980s velvet dresses that look 40s too. Online I look for satin or chiffon dresses with ruching or long drapes down the side. A satin wiggle dress is a nice look too. You probably wont find good velvet dresses that are new. Vintage velvet is soft, light, and breathable. Modern velvet is heavy, thick, and a hot mess to wear.
For the accessories I had to include my vintage fur stole (I have a few faux fur stole’s as well.) It adds a richness to the look that belongs in fancy evening wear although they were worn with formal day wear too. For the jewelry I added a rhinestone pin to the front of the dress and a single strand rhinestone necklace (it was actually a headband I made into a necklace.) This adds a splash of sparkle. Every gal needs a little sparkle in her life.
The headpiece is a vintage veil with little velvet bows on top. Another piece I had is a fluff of feathers that clip into the hair. These are both easy formal alternatives to a hat. A fascinator is a similar little feather hat/veil headpiece that is easier to buy new.
Shoes are again from Royal Vintage. Have I told you how excited I am to have an entire shoe store dedicated to vintage style shoes?
1940s Costumes: Women’s Casual Fashion
For most 1940s themed events you will need one of the above styles of dresses. However if you want something different or need a costume for a house wife or working woman in the 1940s than you need one of these casual clothing costumes.
A woman at home in the morning before going out into town or all day if she is doing chores would wear a house dress. They were usually made of cotton in fun little prints like polka dots, checks, small stripes, and florals. They then had rick rack, ruffles, or piping trimmed along the sleeves, neckline, pockets, etc. The buttons down the front make this a shirtwaist style dress which was a very common house dresses. This dress was a gift from a friend. We believe it was handmade more recently than the 40s, probably as a costume.
You can find some dresses like this in thrift stores. Shirtwaist dresses are still being sold today too. Its a classic style that never left us. You can also easily make a simple dress from current sewing patterns on the market. Just look for the right shape, cotton print fabric, add some trim and voila! The dress on the right is one I made from an older Simplicity #2615 dress pattern. It had a round neck that I adjusted to be a sweetheart neckline (very 40s) and sleeves to match the inspiration dress. While this pattern is out of print there are many more similar ones in the big 3 pattern lines.
There are not many accessories to wear with a house dress. A thin belt is good to add as well as some low heel shoes. Oxfords as classic low heel house shoes. I found mine at Nordstrom Rack. With the small perforations around the body they are more of a 30s style which many women still wore in the 40s too.
You can also add a vintage style apron. Half aprons were very popular in the 1940s as well as smock top aprons.
Summer Day Dress
In summer, a day dress was more simple than in the fall. Lighter colors, pretty folk art inspired embroidery and less accessories were part of the style. A straw hat was a nice choice for summer but so was no hat at all- just a simple ribbon headband or flowers pinned to the hair. This look was usually just for young women.
My dress is a late 1940s style Graphic Floral Vine Embellished Poplin dress from eShakti. The fuller gathered skirt gives it that early 50s look to it. With eShakti you can customize a few features on any dress. For this one I opted for short sleeves (it was sleeveless) and a knee length. It turned out great! I could become addicted to eShakti and their dress customization. It is a very easy way to get a 1940s style dress with long sleeves, a longer skirt length, or in a plus size which all frequent requests I receive.
The shoes are a pair of yellow Miss L Fire brand peep toe heels I bought on clearance at Modcloth. They don’t have these exact pair anymore but the have others by Miss L Fire I just love. The teal blue and yellow combination is so summery!
A Peasant Summer
Another option for summer time was the peasant look. The vintage trend was for Spanish folk patterns and prints in both blouses and skirts. For this look I found a vintage gathered skirt with a border print. I am still on the hunt for a dirndl skirt with a single big ruffle along the bottom.
I then found a vintage peasant top with a gathered neckline and puffy gathered sleeves. It is a small polka dot blue print. So cute! Many peasant skirts have pretty folk pattern embroidery. Those would be perfect.
I added a pair of lace up wedges, also called Espadrille shoes. The lace ties up around the leg. Any pair of wedges with a slingback or peep toe would look great with a summer skirt too. The heels don’t have to be high. A low heel or even flat shoe is perfectly fine.
A pretty white ribbon headband with hair flower clip decorates the hair. The vintage scarf draped around the neck adds a touch more of the Carmen Miranda style.
“But I hate to wear dresses! ” says the voice of many women who need to dress 1940s style but despise wearing dresses or skirts. I hear you ladies. With two small kids, running around in a dress and heels is not my ideal costume to wear anymore. Luckily women in the 1940s started to wear pants as part of their sporty or casual wardrobe. Pants, no matter how formal the material, or if paired with a nice blouse and belt were still not welcome to semi-formal or office work settings. They were however worn at home, running errands, on vacation, or attending outdoor events.
This pant and blouse look uses a vintage pair of rayon pants. They are wide leg, high waisted, with a belt loop set in the middle of the wide waist band. You can still find wide leg pants like this in stores today. Its a trend I see coming back in fashion now. The blouse is a classic silk purple button down with collar. The shoes are two tone loafers from Aerosoles (my favorite shoe brand.) I also added a pair of round tortoise frame glasses. Retro style glasses and sunglasses are in fashion right now so it’s a very good time to buy them before they go out of style again. I could add a hat but for a casual look hatless is best.
With a quick change into a short sleeve blouse, a pair of pants can become even more casual. This look is ready for a nice bicycle ride along the beach. The blouse is the Ruthie 1940s reproduction blouse made by Wearing History Clothing. I love it and all her 1940s clothing. I changed the shoes into another pair of two tone oxfords by Aerosoles which are the closest thing I have to saddle shoes- the ultimate 40s casual shoes.
A changed out the glasses for sunglasses too. The 40s loved round or slightly cat eye plastic frame sunglasses in white or bright colors. I found both the glasses and sunglasses at Forever 21 for less than $5 a pair. The hair scarf is a new sheer scarf with a vintage travel theme on it. Themed scarves were a big trend at the time. Sort of like a vacation souvenir to collect and wear in the summer. To tie it I kept it simple and just folded it into a long flat roll and tied it at the top tucking the ends underneath. Use bobby pins to hold it in place.
For Work or Play
A 1940s pant suit wasn’t the business attire I think of today. Instead pant suits were matching top and bottom sets worn for house work, factory work, or out at “play” such as sports and leisure activities. These same pant suits were common in the 1980s and 1990s too which is why they are easy and cheap to find in thrift stores. Add a pair of saddle shoes or penny loafers, colorful socks, a pair of leather work gloves and a hair scarf and you are all set in a costume no one would think to wear. Its a conversation starter for sure!
Rosie the Riveter
I couldn’t possibly leave out the most iconic 1940s costume- Rosie the Riveter! Her look is a fun one and fairly easy to put together although finding just the right overalls was a challenge for me.
1940s denim overalls had wide legs and a full top with sweetheart or square neckline and two wide straps that crossed in the back. Most denim overalls in thrift or new clothing stores have narrow or skinny legs and a bib flap front with buckles aka the Oshkosh brand look. These overalls are ok in a pinch. But going the extra mile to find a more authentic 1940s style overall is worth it. I stumbled upon these Kim Kardashian overalls at Sears last year. Lucky find!
The shirt was a vintage 70’s knit top with banded rolled sleeves and ribbed collar. I try to find 40’s style knit T-shirts in stores but they are again not as easy as they seem. 1940s T-shirts had ribbed sleeves- something modern T shirts often don’t have. They also fit rather snug- no frumpy modern T shirt look. An easier shirt to find is a short sleeve button down blouse in a solid color or pint. If the fit of your overalls comes up high enough on the front and back and it is a hot summer day you can certainly leave out the shirt. Many girls and teens did this for beach wear in the 40s.
The hair scarf in this photo is my moms 1940s themed scarf. Its a soft cotton knit which is much easier to tie and hold in place than a slippery sheer scarf. The shoes are my two tone Aerosoles oxfords.
1940s Costumes: Teenager Fashion
Teens were the leaders of casual fashions in the 1940s. They were the first to choose less tailored, less accessorized, less tailored clothing for themselves. They set the tone for future women’s clothing fashions.
The teenager girl of the 1940s had a set uniform to wear at school. It was not a uniform chosen by the school administrators but by each other. It consisted of a plaid A-line skirt, blouse, cardigan or pullover sweater, white socks, and saddle shoes. The plaid skirt could also be a solid color with or without a matching thin leather belt. The button down or knit pullover short sleeve blouse was usually white but solid colors were ok too. A pullover or button up cardigan knit sweater was worn in cooler weather. It was two to three sizes too big for a “sloppy joe” style or snug and tight for a slightly naughty “sweater girl” look of the late 40s.
Girls didn’t wear stockings. They wore white bobby socks either rolled all the way up or folded over once neatly. The shoes were either slip-on penny loafers or two tone brown and white or black and white saddle shoes. The shoes had to be dirty. It was the trendy thing to wear. I’m not sure I would dirty up my saddle shoes for this look. I use them for my 50s costumes too where they had to be perfectly clean to be trendy. Teenagers and their ever changing fashions!
Jewelry was limited to a locket necklace or a special ring or charm on a chain necklace. A charm bracelet or ID bracelet was also trendy. Pearls were absolutely never worn- much too grown up. Hair was worn shoulder length with a middle part or deep side part. No Victory rolls or fancy finger waves. Teens avoided hats too, except to church.
The Teenage Rebel
The final costume and other common fashion for teenagers is the rebel. 1940s teens rebelled against stuffy women’s fashions and choose to raid their father or brother’s closet. Dark denim wide leg jeans worn one size too big and held up with a western motif belt was the foundation of the fashion. Jeans had rolled cuffs all the way up to the knee in summer. I borrowed my husbands jeans for this costume : )
Next is a men’s button down dress shirt also with rolled up sleeves. This is a vintage 40s shirt but any men’s dress shirt will work. You can tuck it in or leave it untucked.
Finally you need some classic white socks and a pair of saddle shoes or loafers to complete the look. It is surprisingly the casual style of 2015 too. I think I might just wear this today.
More 1940s costumes?
So there you have it. 16 different looks and how to put them together from new or used clothing. Is there a popular 1940s fashion I left out? Tell me what you need and I will see what I can come up with.
For the gentlemen, I have an article and costume ideas just like this one coming along soon.