I love it when readers ask me for help with vintage outfits. One recent request was ideas for 1940s casual outfits. I have seen this topic come up a few times in some groups I follow as well. “Casual” and “vintage” usually do not belong in the same sentence. What was casual or informal in the 1940s would look very dressy to us today in the times of athleisure and loungewear.
What you might think of as casual clothing in the 1940s was women’s workwear or summer clothes. Work clothes were heavy jeans, overalls, or trousers with flannel shirts and loose jackets. Summer clothes are a bit more fun with high waisted shorts, wedge sandals, and blouses.
1940s Casual Outfit: Shorts & T-Shirts
Who doesn’t love a soft comfortable T-shirt and a pair of shorts in summer? It is the ultimate simple summer outfit you can wear. Thankfully, T-shirts existed in the 1940s, as did high waisted shorts. 1940s style T-shirts were knitted cotton fitted shirts with a ribbed ringer crew neckline. They were not called T-shirts, but polo shirts instead. Necklines often contrasted with the shirt body, especially with striped shirts that came in red and white or blue and white stripes. Solid color or thin stripe shirts in red, blue, grey, yellow, white and beige were also casual styles. Long sleeve T-shirts with the sleeves pushed up were another option.
T-shirts paired well with high waisted shorts and trousers. They could be worn tucked in or untucked. For summer, I like to pair them with shorts in navy blue cotton, chambray denim, black, or white with at least a 5-inch inseam. Sailor buttons on the sides are very vintage, but other shorts styles like flared, Bermuda, or culottes lengths look equally ’40s. The key detail of 1940s vs modern shorts is no front fly! 1940s shorts buttoned on the sides. Shop 1940s style shorts.
The final piece to this simple outfit is a pair of shoes. White wedge or peep toe platform shoes are what most 1940s models wore. Black, blue, or any color shoe that matched the shirt will be easier to find than white. In the collage above, I paired a red and white striped shirt with blue sailor shorts and red wedge shoes.
1940s Casual Outfit: Culottes
Between shorts and long pants were culottes. The 1940s version of culottes looked like either tailored slacks or denim style jeans with a cuff just below the knee. Culottes is summer look very sophisticated paired with a white T shirt or turtleneck shirt (I know, too hot) and a blazer jacket.
A button down shirt with denim culottes gave them a western look in the late 1940s. Add a matching headband and a snazzy pair of sunglasses.
I haven’t found a pair of culottes I like yet. I may take a pair of pants and hem them to the knee to get the most accurate 40s look. I would also pair them with a low heel casual shoes, like a penny loafer, or a singback shoe.
1940s Casual Outfit: Pants
When the weather is not too hot or you just want to wear pants, you can substitute the shorts in the above look and have another simple summer outfit. Solid color or striped T-shirts / knitted pullover shirts can be worn with high waisted, wide leg pants in a full range of colors. Blue or beige are my favorites because they go with everything.
An alternative to a T-shirt is to wear a cotton blouse. Button-down blouses tend to not be casual enough for most women, but if you choose a colorful small print, like vertical stripes or polka dots, they will read casual, cute, and easy going. In winter, try a long sleeve plaid shirt like a men’s flannel shirt instead. Shop 1940s tops.
Wedges or heels with casual pants generally do not go well. Most women in the 1940s wore flats in the form of penny loafers or modest slip on-shoes. Low heel canvas slingback shoes and saddle shoes were other options.
Personally, I love a good pair loafers. I slip them on in the morning and wear them around the house all day. I think they look best without socks, but in winter, a dark colored sock is a warmer option. Most ’40s loafers were brown or black, but some came in two-tone blue and white or brown and white combinations just like these loafers.
1940s Casual Outfit: Jeans
I live in jeans, just jeans, all day, every day. If you live in your jeans, too, there is a quick and easy way to make a ’40s outfit with them. Pair them with a button-down shirt, leather belt, and loafers. Most women who wore jeans in the 1940s were either working (at home or on a job), riding horses, or were teenagers. Teen girls borrowed Dad’s or Brother’s jeans before women’s versions were being made.
They fit high on the waist, were boxy over the thighs, had a deep crotch, and ended with wide rolled cuffs. Repro ’40s jeans are not nearly as popular as ’50s styles that have a slimmer fit. Sometimes I have better luck buying men’s dark denim “work” jeans, rolling the cuffs, adding my husband’s belt and voila! Shop 1940s pants and jeans.
The best tops to pair with jeans are T-shirts, button-down pattern shirts (check, plaid, stripes) and dark colored blouses (navy, maroon, yellow, green). They could be short or long sleeved. I like short sleeve shirts with white collars and cuffs for a relaxed and almost western vibe. Shop 1940s shirts.
1940s Casual Outfit: Overalls
Overalls. You either love them or not. I love them because they are very comfortable to wear. I don’t love navigating the restroom with them. I am sure it wasn’t much different in the ’40s. Overalls were another work-to-play clothing item that makes a great casual outfit now. 1940s overalls were usually cotton twill or denim in lighter cotton fabrics for summer. Dark to light beige, checks and pinstripes were all common patterns too.
They were worn over t-shirts or knit pullover tops, button down blouses, or nothing at all. Since ’40s overalls had a lot of coverage in the front and back, there wasn’t a need to wear a shirt underneath. Finding full coverage overalls can be tricky today. The current trend is for ’90s overalls that have narrow legs and a dropped bib. I look for overalls with a heart shape bib with button-on straps instead of hooks. Sometimes, I will buy a pair of hook overalls and change them out for buttons.
Like the pants above, overalls paired well with loafers and slip-on shoes, but I have also seen pictures of them being worn with sandals, Oxfords, platform heels, and boots (workwear style.). Pretty much any shoe can go with overalls. Shop 1940s shoes.
1940s Casual Outfit: Shortalls
Overalls with shorts became shortalls. Adorable shortalls are a fabulous casual summer outfit. They are, however, not easy to find in a 1940s look. Most shortalls look like denim overalls while the 1940s shortalls were usually cotton twill, chambrey or seersucker fabrics with a high modest neckline and straps that crossed in the back. A more modern name for them are “rompers.”
Rompers are also what were called playsuits back in the 40s. Playsuits were usually a romper with matching skirt or shirtdress worn over them. While reproduction playsuits are few and very far between, you can achieve an inspired look by wearing a plain colored romper (or shorts and top) and adding a button down shirtwaistdress or skirt over it in any color or pattern (stripes are very vintage!)
Coveralls, rompers, and playsuits are the most casual outfits of all 40s summer clothes. With them I would also go casual with footwear and choose classic canvas sneakers (Keds), colorful espadrilles, or sandals.
1940s Casual Outfit: Dirndl Skirts
In the early 1940s there was a major trend for Dirndl or Alpine skirts and dresses later called peasant dresses. Paired with white peasant tops they are making a comeback now.
Dirndl skirts were tiered or ruffle hemmed with a gathered waistband that gave them some fullness but most important air conditioning. They were so light and airy they were extremely popular in summer.
Thanks to the recent Boho and CottageCore trends there have been a revival of peasant style skirts, many which could pass for 1940s. Look for gingham checks, stripes, and small floral print skirts. Pair them with classic peasant blouses, a crop top, knit T-shirt, or button down blouse.
The shoes for dirndl skirts are sandals or peep toe wedges/platform sole heels. I think white sandals pair the best with these summer outfits.
1940s Casual Outfit: Dresses
1940s dresses are some of the most casual of all the vintage decades. House or day dresses were usually colorful prints with simple A-line silhouettes. Summer dresses embraced the peasant dress or apron pinafore. I personally like shirtwaist dresses and wrap dresses in solid colors because they are the most versatile for adding accessories and layers like cardigan sweaters. A headband or hair scarf can also make a dress more casual as well as wearing socks with shoes (weird, but it works!) Shop ’40s day dresses.
These young and fresh “cute” dress styles make great casual ’40s outfits with just a pair of low heels, sandals, or slip-on shoes. I paired the dresses below with wedge heels. I love mixing colors instead of matching everything. I think it modernizes the look a little bit for a vintage inspired casual outfit instead of true ’40s vintage.
More 1940s Outfits
- 1940s Costumes, 40s Outfit Ideas– DIY outfits using vintage, thrifted or repro clothing, shoes and accessories.
- 1940s Outfit Ideas: Recreate the 40s Look
- 1940s Women’s Outfit Inspiration
- 1940s Fall Winter Casual Outfits
- Sailor Outfits
- Camping / Hiking Clothes
Debbie Sessions has been teaching fashion history and helping people dress for vintage themed events since 2009. She has turned a hobby into VintageDancer.com with hundreds of well researched articles and hand picked links to vintage inspired clothing online. She aims to make dressing accurately (or not) an affordable option for all. Oh, and she dances too.