Blouse styles have not changed dramatically in the past few decades, but every era has a little something that makes its blouses different. 1940s blouses are easily identified from their tailored collars, button up fronts, and puff sleeves.
Blouses were always worn tucked into skirts or pants with a bit of blousing left out to keep them comfortable to move in. Inspired by the menswear fit, the 1940s blouse took on a different shape than the feminine 1930s which favored large bows, ruffles and flounces. In the summer, short crop tops and knit t-shirts were the sporty and trendy tops to wear.
1940s Blouse Fashion History
WWII and the restrictions of L-85 made sure blouses, while pretty, were not too frilly or impractical to wear both on and off the job. Among other restrictions:
- There could only be one pocket.
- If tucks or pleats were used, a ruffle could not be, or vice versa.
- There could only be one ruffle per sleeve.
- There could only be two bows per shirt.
- Cuffs couldn’t be more than three inches wide.
These limits made early 1940s blouses simple and minimally decorated. The inspiration came from men’s dress shirts, which were tailored to a boxy or square body with equally angular point collars.
The one item that made them more feminine was the gathering on the top of the shoulder sleeves, which created a “puff” effect. This gave blouses a masculine broad shoulder with a softer ladylike touch. Many blouses also came with shoulder pads to increase the width and square off the shoulder line. The sleeve puff was one element to decrease significantly in the 1950s, making it a fashion icon of the 1940s.
After the war years when restrictions lifted, women’s fashion turned more delicate again with the addition of lace insets, ruffles, pintucks, tonal embroidery, string tie necks, shirring, pleats and gatherings. They looked more like Victorian era blouses than those of the prior few decades.
Blouses were made using pure silk or rayon crepe. Rayon satin could be used for a silkier look on budget, and cotton was used for casual and work wear. Wool jersey was a warm and comfortable alternative to summer weight fabrics.
Blouses were fairly short, between 20 and 25 inches long. Sleeves were either long and full, coming to a tight wrist-cuff, or short-sleeved, hitting above the elbow. Sleeves were gathered at the shoulder and the cuff for long-sleeved versions creating a roomy tube of ample arm ease.
Blouse colors were usually a plain white, cream, blue, yellow, red, or black. Later 40s colors included teal blue, pink, powder blue, and jade green. Large plaids, checks, polka dots, and vertical stripes were also common. Blue and white or red and white stripes made women appear faithfully patriotic.
Blouse collars came in the same styles as dress collars: pointed, like men’s dress shirt collars, or round Peter Pan collars of various sizes. Some had no collars, and instead were trimmed in a small ruffled edge. The bow tie neck blouses was occasionally seen in the 1940s, but was not as common as they had yet to be in the 1950s.
Many button up blouses also had lapels leading up to the open collar while others buttoned all the way to a closed collar. Shirt buttons could either be covered to match the shirt material or were contrasting white.
In summer, a short sleeve or sleeveless blouse (with large shoulder pads) was a welcome relief from the heat while remaining femininely forties. The same collars, ruffles, pintucks, and lace decorated these sleeveless blouses as they did long sleeved versions.
The western trend had an effect on blouses as well as men’s workwear shirting. They took cotton gingham checks, plaid, windowpane or a solid color with a button down shirt front, classic point collar, and single chest pocket, and remade them in women’s sizes. Teenagers preferred to borrow Dad’s or Brother’s shirts, which were looser and longer.
Short sleeved versions of the casual shirt looked like a compromise between a blouse and men’s shirt. Fold out collars, button down front, single chest pocket, and elbow length sleeves with a faux cuff. White made them look blouse-y, while patterns gave them a workwear vibe.
Summer Crop Tops
What did teens, pinups, and young beach-loving women wear in the summer? Crop tops! The crop top or bolero top came down only to the lower rib cage, exposing about 3-4 inches of midriff! They were worn with pedal pushers, shorts, playsuits, and sometimes long pants.
Midriff tops, as they were usually called, looked like mini peasant tops, cap sleeve blouses, and button up cotton shirts. The styles were endless — as long as they showed off some skin!
1940s Peasant Blouses
One trend that surfaced in the ’40s was the peasant-style blouse, thanks to popular Latin Hollywood film star Carmen Miranda. It was made of white cotton and had short, puffed sleeves that gathered at the arm. It was also loose-fitting, with a scooped or square neckline, sometimes decorated with eyelet at the neckline and sleeves. Bits of ribbon were woven through the eyelets on the tops and tied in bows at the neck and on each sleeve.
The peasant blouse was worn with a gathered dirndl skirt / Alpine skirt made of colorful floral patterns or striped cotton, sitting at the waistline and flowing to a wide hem.
1940s Knit Tops and Knit Shirts
Nearly all blouses were made in a woven fabric. The exception was the short sleeve sweater knit top and T-shirt.
Knit tops, which were called sweaters despite having short sleeves, came in pullover or button-down cardigan styles (called Midgies). They had puff sleeves, with high round necks and a slim fitting silhouette for most of the forties. They were designed to wear under suits or on their own over casual shorts, pants and skirts. The wide ribbed waistband hugged the upper hips and hourglass waist.
At the end of the decade, the sleeveless knit top took on a pullover vest appearance. It could be won over a long sleeve blouse or on their own in summer.
Sweater tops were usually a winter item but could carry over into spring, becoming the T-shirt. These light weight flat knit jersey shirts were taken from men’s undershirts and turned into sport shirts, called Tee shirts. Women’s T-shirts could not be called the same thing as a men’s undershirts, so they were given the name polo shirt. That is still too confusing, because classic polo shirts had collar and a 1/4 button plaquette.
For the sake of clarity, I will call them T-shirts. Women’s T-shirt could be solid white but they were more often striped. Thin or wide stripes in blue, red, grey or black and white were the popular colors for summer casual outfits, paired with bottoms such as shorts and gym clothes.
Much like T-shirts today, it was short sleeved with a high ribbed crew neckline, short sleeves, and a wide ribbed knit waistband too. The fit was slender, not tight or baggy. It was normally worn tucked in, hiding the waistband entirely. Similar modern shirts are called ringer tees when the color of the ribbed neck and band is different than the shirt body.
- 1950s Women’s Tops and Blouse Styles
- 1930s Blouses and Top Styles
- Authentic 1940s Makeup Guide
- 1940s Women’s Shorts Styles
- 1940s Ladies’ Workwear Clothes
Shop 1940s Style Blouses Today
I have a few vintage 1940s blouses that I love to wear when I feel like dressing 100% vintage. Otherwise, I like to wear vintage inspired or reproduction ’40s blouses and knit shirts on a day to day basis. Here are some good choices in the 1940s style.