Attending a 1940s party, tea or informal dinner-dance required women to dress up in their finest afternoon frock or semi-formal cocktail dress. The word cocktail dress wasn’t used in the 1940s. Instead a “date dress,” “tea dress” or “party dress” were the appropriate terms.
1940s party dresses differed from long length ballgowns and eveningwear not just in length but in materials and design. Accessories too played an import role in taking a 1940s dress from day to night.
Let us take a look at 1940s cocktail dresses and party dresses styles, shoes and accessories. Then I will show you a few outfit ideas you can put together. For those of you who can’t stand wearing a dress, I have some dress slacks outfits too.
1940s Tea Party Dresses
Because of the War, wearing a long expensive ballgown wasn’t an affordable option for many. Instead, semi-formal dresses, based on day and afternoon dress and suit styles, were upgraded with material and style.
The overall look was clean and sophisticated. Every woman had one of these “going out” dresses in her wardrobe, even if she didn’t have a fancy gown. They were worn to dinner, tea, important meetings, holiday gathering, dancing, church and even shopping in the big city.
Most 1940s afternoon or party dresses were made of light materials that draped in soft folds. Cotton, linen, and wool were out of place in semi-formal dressing. Better choices were crepe, silk, rayon, velvet and taffeta. Bits of sheer fabrics were used in sleeveless and necklines but otherwise tulle, net, satin, and organdy were saved for evening gowns.
1940s tea dresses in floral prints were common in spring and summer but for most night time parties, solid and dark colors were best. The 1940s Little Black Dress fits perfectly in the evenings. But so does dark navy blue, merlot / burgundy, hunter green, medium blue, violet, and pink. White, too, was a good choice for summer parties.
1940s tea party and dinner party dresses differed from daytime dresses in their formality. The shirtwaist dress, a common house dress or day dress, were never worn to a party. Instead dresses that had soft pleats and folds, draped panels, ruched bodices, wrap overs, and peplums were more elegant.
Trim was minimal on most party dresses. Sheer or lace sleeves and necklines were trendy on some dresses, perhaps a bit of lace trim on the edges, or a flower pinned to the waist. Some added strings of sequins or beading along the neckline or waistline for just a dash of sparkle. Plain dresses looked the most dressy when accented with jewelry and accessories.
Printed dresses, were almost only worn in spring and summer for daytime tea parties and were often made of sheer or semi-sheer fabrics.
1940s Cocktail Party Dresses
Semi-formal evening dresses, also called cocktail dresses today, were fancier versions of afternoon party dresses or short version of evening gowns. They were too fancy to wear to a daytime party but perfect for a dinner date.
For the many women who handmade their own party dress, evening dress patterns came with directions for two lengths -long and short. Short, meaning below the knee and long meaning to the floor. The bodice was exactly the same both both dresses and fabrics too could be shiny silks, satin, lace or rich velvet.
As 1940s evening gowns became ballgowns so too were party dresses shortened up into the Ballerina length in the very late 1940s. They now had fuller, longer swing skirts, with puff sleeves or off the shoulder necklines. Teenagers were the first to embrace this new girl-ish look.
1940s cocktail dress skirts were often draped, ruched, wrapped, and gathered, just like afternoon dresses. Skirts were A-line shaped, never snug. A fitted 1940s cocktail dress like the one below still had a straight skirt for easy walking.
All dresses had sleeves with the ever-present sharp ’40s shoulder pads. Sleeves could be short but puffed, short dolman, long sleeves, 3/4 sleeves or bracelet length sleeves were available. Sleeveless or off the shoulder party dresses were rare, unlike evening gowns.
While afternoon party dresses were modest and covered up, evening party dresses head deeper V, sweetheart and squared necklines. They were not so low as to show off chevage, only expose some glowing skin and a pretty necklace.
A woman could still be modestly dresses in a party dress. These examples show higher necklines and longer sleeves.
1940s Separates: Party Skirt
Not all women wore a dress to a party. Especially in the early 40s and again in the last few years, a nice skirt paired with a pretty blouse was equally glamorous as a dress. Silky or sheer blouses in white, a cheerful color, or festive print paired well with A-line skirts. Blouses could be long or short sleeves with a modest high neckline.
Instead of a blouse, a beaded, sequin or applique decorated sweater (short or long-sleeved) or short blazer-type jacket could be worn. A cropped bolero jacket became trendy in the late 1940s too.
Along the same lines a softly tailored two piece suit in a lovely color was also worn to parties. These were especially common with mature ladies.
1940s Separates: Dress Slacks
Did women wear slacks or pants to a party? No! Never! Maybe to her own house party, maybe, but never out in public. A woman would be banned from entering a restaurant or dance hall if she dared to wear pants (which several Hollywood Stars tried and failed to do.)
That being said I think you could wear nice slacks with a 40s top and be perfectly well dress at a 1940s party today. Unless historically accuracy is required, you have my full support to wear pants.
Wide leg, high waisted dress slacks are the only style of pants women wore. Paired with a silky blouse, beaded sweater, or blazer type jacket your look will be perfectly vintage.
Many years ago I wore this outfit made of all vintage 1940s clothing: blue slacks, white blouse, bead necklace, peep toe shoes and an bad attempt at making Victory hair rolls : )
1940s Party Dress Accessories
Dressing up for a party required different accessories than typical daywear. Starting from the bottom up we have:
Evening shoes or party shoes were black or white peep toe heels and sandal heels. The heel may look high in images but was a low to moderate 1-2.5 inches. Straps around the foot or ankle helped keep them on during vigorous dancing.
Alternative party shoes could be wedges, pumps, Mary Jane, T-bar, and ankle straps. Oxfords were for daywear only but pretty much any other 40s shoe was acceptable to wear.
1940s party shoes differ from modern shoes in that straps were thick, heels were heavy and foot coverage was modest. For your footwear needs look at 1940s style shoes, flats shoes and wide shoes shopping pages.
Stockings covered women’s legs all day and night. Evening stockings were more sheer than daytime in nude or black colors. The matching backseam was prevalent on most 40s stockings although some luxury evening styles lacked any seam. Shop 1940s stockings.
To hold up stockings a corselet or girdle with garter straps or garter belt was worn over panties. All in one corselets were ideal for evening since the one peice smoothed and shaped bodies from bust to thigh. Women needing less shaping could get away with a bra, panties and garter belt.
To top undergarments’ a slip was worn in the length to match the dress. This was critical to help the dress hang correctly on the body. More about 1940s lingerie.
For your outfit today, you can get away with modem control top pant hose or shapewear. I do suggest buying a new, old style granny bra, to help create the correct bust shape. It really does make a difference!
Furs, Shrugs, Wraps, Coats
Adding a fur coat over a party dress was a fashionable way to dress going to and from an event. Fur coats could be long but many were hip length box coats. Black or dark fur was trendy in the 1940s. White fur was out of fashion by 1942.
Fur stoles were not worn over a party dresses at the event. They make fun vintage accessories for a photo, but that “look” was part of the 1930s, not the 40s. Shop faux fur wraps and stoles.
You can see in the many photos on this page that adding a cluster of silk flowers to a dress at the side waist, shoulder, center bust, hat and in the hair was a popular way to accessorize a plain dress. Flowers such as rose, gardenia, carnation, orchid, dahlia, hibiscus, hyacinth, and daisy came in pretty pastel colors, white and red. I find good, cheap, flowers at the Dollar store or local craft shops.
A fresh pair of gloves was critical to a nice party outfit. Party gloves were mid arm length, often ruched to bunched down a bit. Fancy versions were embroidered in matching color thread. Even if a dress had long sleeves, long gloves were worn overlapping the sleeves.
While many gloves were white (even with black dresses) the 1940s loved to add a pop of color to an outfit with a pair of brightly colored gloves. Pink, purple, teal, green, and blue were popular regardless of dress color. If a hat was worn, gloves would often match with it. Black gloves were also worn with dark dresses (black, navy blue, or grey.)
Handbags for semi formal events were small and flat or small and pouch-like. Very little was needed (makeup, a few coins, hanky) to be carried. A spouse who had pockets in his suit became a traveling purse for women who wanted to be hands free for dancing.
Of course our modern phones need to hide in something. A flat envelope purse, pleated evening bag, or wrist handle pouch bag make excellent choices. I usually find something that will work at thrift stores. Learn about 1940s handbags here.
While hats were usually not worn for formal eveningwear, they were welcome at daytime tea parties and semi-formal gatherings. They were not worn to dance in. Hats with flowers and veils said this is a “party hat” more than any other daytime style. Otherwise small crescent hats with bows, fascinator types, and flat plate hats could be dressy enough.
Hairstyles for parties and semi formal events were the same as daytime styles but with a bit more effort to have neat and tidy hair. Most women would schedule a hairstyling appointment the day of a special event. With the help of a stylist, hair was set neatly in rolls, curls, buns and braids.
Having hair up and off the face was ideal for formal evenings while less formal parties could have hair up, down or nicely styled in whatever way she liked best. Read about 1940s hairstyles.
If there was only one peice of jewelry every woman owned it would be a pearl necklace. Short choker length necklaces or slightly longer multi stand neckless were the all she needed for daytime or evening party outfit. Semi-formal events did not call for sparkling rhinestones and crystals nor elaborate gold, although tasteful and simple gold jewelry was an alternative to pearls.
Necklaces – 1 to 3 stand short pearl necklaces
Earrings – Pearl button earrings were large. Other heavy gold earrings were popular too.
Bracelets– 1-2 stand pearls, bead, or gold tennis bracelets worn over gloves. Or one heavy gold bracelet
Brooch – A plain dress or suit was jazzed up with a pretty brooch. Flowers with colored gems add that pop of color.
1940s Cocktail Party Outfits
Now that you know some history and accessorizing options, how do you put it all together?
As much as love my one and only 1940s cocktail dress, its not always practical to buy genuine vintage. There are many modern cocktail dresses that will work for the 1940s look or you can splurge on a reproduction 1940s dress.
I lean towards wrap dresses in velvet, or sheer sleeve fit and flare dresses. A print dress with a modest neckline works well as a tea party dress.
Once you have your dress picked out (or slacks and blouse) its time to add the accessories. Start with a pair of heels (or flats if you can’t do any size heel), add nude backseam stockings/pantyhose, gloves, purse, jewelry and hair accessories or hat. You can spend as much or as little as your budget allows.
If you need help with your outfits, please ask me.
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.