The 1940s was unique in that it brought a diverse selection of women’s fabrics and patterns to the mainstream. Because of this, it can be difficult to distinguish what is a 1940s print compared to a print from another decade, simply because there were so many designs, styles and colors. In the early ’40s when WWII restricted fabric production, most clothing came in a limited palette. Most suits, sports clothing, work clothing, and separates were solid colors. Prints were mostly for casual dresses, playsuits, blouses, and children’s clothing.
When sewing your own 1940s clothing, it’s important to pick fabric and trim in the color palette of the era. This guide will help you get a sense of the common colors, fabrics and prints in women’s fashion during the 1940s.
Men’s fabrics are discussed in the article on 1940s men’s suits.
1940s Fashion Colors
While colors came in and out of fashion for most of the decade, there was a certain set that were considered “classics.” These were mostly primary colors- strong, bold, and vibrant. Year-round colors were navy blue, brown, beige, black, red, green (kelley green, mint green, aqua green), grey, rose pink, copen blue (a medium blue), white and golden yellow. In the summer, lighter versions of these colors were common: pastel pink, pastel yellow, pastel blue, etc.
I am not skilled at describing the difference between one fabric and another, so here is my best attempt as some of the staple fabrics:
- Rayon: Rayon changed the clothing industry forever. This fabric could be made to look and feel like almost any expensive fabric on the market, which quickly increased its popularity among home sewers.
- Wool: Wool blends made up suits, skirts and outerwear, and they became the staple fabric for winter.
- Cotton: A soft or stiff cotton could be light and airy (voile), covered in embroidered holes (eyelet). broadcloth (sturdy and basic), twill (thick with a subtle texture) and seersucker (a waffle weave common in summer stripes). Cotton is easy to sew with, easy to wear, and with care lasts a long time. But it’s important to know cotton is prone to fading with frequent laundering.
- Jersey: A very soft knit cotton or Rayon material usually worn in the fall or winter since it’s also rather warm.
- Silk: A rare and expensive fabric for most of the 1940s since it was needed to make parachutes and other military supplies. It is very light and shiny, which makes it popular for semi formal and evening attire. A shiny Rayon was a poor man’s alternative.
- Velvet: Velvet made another great evening gown material in winter. It’s not nearly as heavy as most velvet fabrics are today. Such a shame! It’s one of my favorites!
- Net: Net was used in most bridal gowns, bridal party dresses, and prom dresses in the 1940s. It was light, sheer and voluminous. Printed net was very popular, although from a distance the print is hardly noticeable.
- Flannel: When I think of flannel, I think of cozy winter bed sheets. In fashion, flannel is a soft but sturdy material frequently used for men’s and women’s suits and separates. It is breathable and light, which makes it very comfortable!
There are some classics prints that are part of the 1940s, just as they were in the 1920s to 1960s too. They scream “vintage” whenever I make a dress with one.
- Polka Dots: Classic polka dots were common in the 1920s through the 1960s. Small and large, the 1940s, for the most part, preferred small dot prints. Dots on white was especially common in summer although white dots over colors were an option year round, especially as the dots grew larger. When sewing a 1940s dress, you can’t go wrong with using polka dot fabric. They are very popular among ready-made retro dresses.
- Plaid: In winter, plaid was queen! But is was also popular in spring and summer too. The biggest fans of plaid were students and stay at home moms. Plaid skirts were part of every teen’s and woman’s wardrobe. Plaid jumpers or pinafore dresses were in every girl’s closet, too. Plaid cotton day dresses were made into any style imaginable. In winter, dark tartan plaids conveyed winter warmth while pastel plaids were ideal for spring. You don’t see many retro 1940s dresses made in plaid, which is a shame because it is another very ’40s, very classic, and easy to find print.
- Stripes: Small vertical stripes were another iconic design that is still easy to find in fabric stores today. Some stripes could be wide, but mostly they were a nice narrow width (not tiny pinstripes). Just like polka dots, they were usually on a white background. Blue, red, brown, green, pink and yellow stripes made up the bulk of summer fashions. In the later 1940s, stripes were incorporated into fabrics with flowers and other motifs spread over them like vines. They also become more common as multi colors stripe prints.
- Checks: Very small check, often called gingham, was the other classic 1940s print. They were equally popular in summer (again on white) as well as in suits for winter. Black and white checks or brown and white check tweed fabric was a staple for many women’s suits and overcoats.
- Florals: When I think of 1940s prints, I think of small flower patterns. While small flowers are the most iconic, medium and large flowers were also present. However, the 1950s embraced extra large flower prints, so steer clear of those for your 1940s fashion. The difference between ’40s flowers and ’30s or ’50s flowers is in the artistic rendering and colors. 1940s florals were vibrant, not subtle. They were not realistic but rather a splash of an artist’s paint brush. “Paint Brushed” designs were iconic of 1940s styles, whereas the 1950s liked “cute” or novelty designs and the 1920s and 1930s preferred Art Deco shapes. To identify the difference between each decade is a lengthy lesson in art history, which I will spare you today. Instead, here are a bunch of floral prints to give you the right idea:
- Abstract: The abstract art movement was making its way into fashion by the late 1940s. Squiggly lines, interpretations of nature scenes, multi color stripes, and even paisley made an appearance. These are the designs that make up the bulk of 1950s prints as well.
An equally important part of women’s fashion was the trim that embellished dresses, blouses and skirts. White lace, Rickrack, or eyelet ruffle edging was the most popular way to decorate a casual dress. Most semi formal dresses and suits didn’t attach trim in the from of ruffles, but made use of contrasting fabric, embroidered designs, pleats, drape and cording to add decoration.
Where to buy 1940s fabrics:
Here are some of my favorite sites to buy vintage fabrics:
- Rick Rack – Original fabrics from the 1940s- mostly cotton prints. Feedsack prints too
- Antique Fabric.com – Large collection of original fabrics
- Vintage Fabrics.com.au/ (AU) – Many colorful fabrics for home and clothing. Ships worldwide
- Vintage Fabric Market.co.uk/ (UK) – Vintage fabrics, accessories and some vintage clothing
- Donna Flower.com (UK) – Charming collection of 1940s fabrics
- Spoonflower.com – Not vintage fabrics but many designs have been reproduced, so you will be getting new fabric with a retro design
- Fabric.com – An assortment of basic fabrics. Sometimes I find great options here
- Telalinda – 1920s-1940s reproduction fabrics
- Thai Silks – A huge assortment of silks and silk blends
- Damask Raven – Silks appropriate for historical clothing
- Renaissance Fabrics – Historical fabrics and trims
- Maltings Fabrics (UK) – Early 20th-century reproduction fabrics
- Liberty Fabrics (UK) – Cotton and lawn printed fabrics. Also silk and linen. You can find this brand at most USA quality fabric shops
- Farm House Fabrics – Cotton, lawn, suiting, silk and more
- Sew La Di Da (UK) – vintage inspired cotton, linen, crepe, etc
- Til The Sun Goes Down (UK) – Vintage inspired designs from the 20s-60s
- B Back and Sons – Wool, cashmere and silk. Wool suiting ideal for menswear
- Dharma Trading – Dyeable silk, cotton, rayon and linen fabrics
- NY Fashion Center – Fashion fabrics, all kinds
- Mood Fabrics – Designer fashion fabrics, all kinds. Trims and leather too
- Fashion Fabrics Club – More fashion fabrics
- Fabric Mart Fabrics – Organized by fabric type
- IKEA – some amazing historical clothing has been made from Ikea’s fabric and curtains
- Farthingale – Corset, garter, bra making supplies and some fabric
You don’t have to go with vintage fabrics for your clothing. I usually shop my local fabric stores first and see what I can find that closely resembles 1940s colors and patterns. Sticking to the “classic” prints will be easier than looking for a floral print. However, a quick search on fabric.com found me a few 1940s style options I like:
Vintage notions for sale:
- http://www.thebuttonbower.com/ – Buttons, buttons, buttons!
- http://www.accessoriesofold.com/ – Beads, buttons, trim, and more
- http://www.vintagebuttons.net/ – Buttons, jewelry and more
Where to buy 1940s patterns:
There are a handful of 1940s reproduction pattern makers and each have their own level of difficulty. I recommend doing an online search for a review of a pattern before buying one. Also patternreview.com is an excellent source for reviews and online sewing lessons.
- http://www.pastpatterns.com/1940.html – Reproduction patterns you’ll love
- http://www.agelesspatterns.com/ – Reproduction dress patterns
- www.decadesofstyle.com – Patterns for apron, dresses, blouse, skirt, playsuit and pants
- http://www.reconstructinghistory.com/ – Reproduction patterns to fit modern bodies and sewing techniques. Men’s patterns too
- www.longago.com/forties.html – Some unique 40’s reproduction patterns
- http://www.wearinghistorypatterns.com/ – Fabulous dress, hat, trouser and playsuit patterns from the 1940s.
- http://www.edelweisspatterns.com/patterns.php – 1940’s dressed based on the Sound of Music movie costumes
- http://www.evadress.com/40s-01.html – Dress, slips, skirts, blouses, and trousers. Men’s trousers, jackets, ties, and smoking jacket
- http://www.neheleniapatterns.com/ (DE) – German pattern maker of women’s historical and vintage clothing
- http://rockinghorse-farm.com – Small collection of 4o’s clothing patterns