Knitted sweaters were a clothing staple throughout the ’40s. Sweater styles shared similar designs to the blouse, and were often called knit blouses instead. In the UK, sweaters were called jumpers (not to be confused with an American jumper dress, popular with teens). This article will focus on women’s 1940s long sleeve sweaters, cardigans, sweater vests and knitwear. For short sleeve knit tops, read more here.
Women’s 1940s sweaters were made from wool when available, wool-synthetic blends, full synthetics such as rayon, and/or simple cotton. The weave of the sweater varied by designs, from a narrow flat knit for light weight sweater blouses to a heavy shaker knit for winter layering.
Sweaters could be store-bought, but more often women knitted their own. They were a big part of homemade clothing during the decade. Matter of fact, the 1940s are called the “Golden Age of Knitting.” Entire magazines were dedicated to home knitting patterns. Most home or women’s magazines also included free patterns for knitting sweaters for the entire family. During the war years, an old knit sweater was often unraveled and reworked into new designs.
1940s Sweater Styles
Sweaters could be a wide variety of colors, often bright ones like red, yellow, and blue. In spring, pastel colors like rose, white, and powder blue were pretty. Solid color sweaters were the most versatile item for a standard wardrobe.
“In 1940, American designer Claire Potter included decorated evening sweaters in her collection. A year later, Mainbocher took British-made cashmere cardigans and decorated them for eveningwear. Sometimes they were made as part of a dress ensemble, with the lining of the sweater matching the dress. They were decorated with beads, sequins, metal studs and fabric trim. This started a trend for decorated sweaters that continued into the 1960s.” Lizzie Bramlett, Vintage Fashion Guild
Besides beading, decorative embroidery or ribbon applique on the sweater fronts in floral or patriotic themes created cheerful designs for less than cheerful times.
Angora hair (long rabbit hair) was also very popular in the early ’40s and again in the 1950s. There were sometimes called “fluffies. ” Cheaper versions were made of brushed wool, brushed cotton, or mohair (cotton rayon blend).
They were short sweaters trimmed in beaded cuffs, buttons, collars, and novelty designs as well. Both cashmere and angora were quite warm to wear, yet because of how pretty they were, they were mostly worn in Spring with a light skirt or pants. Cashmere was usually blended with silk to reduce the heat. The beaded soft sweater style really took off in the 1950s, when women had more disposable income to spend on these pricey sweaters.
Sweaters were usually crew-necked (high and rounded), wide at the shoulders (early styles had large puff sleeves) and fitted through the high waist. They could be short sleeve (just above the elbow) or long sleeve. The Midgie cardigan was a short sleeve, button down ribbed cardigan with a high and wide waistband. It was very popular in the 1930s and early 40s.
Retail sizing was determined by bust size, although it was often necessary to buy two inches up so that it would fit over a camisole top or thin blouse as well as provide some room for shrinking – especially wool sweaters.
Sweater blouses were quite short, hitting above the hip with a wide rib knit band to hold the sweater in place. The fit emphasized the ideal ’40s torso which was a thin waist, full shoulders, and soft natural chest.
The Torso sweater had an extra narrow waist with a wider and longer hip band. They came in both pullover, cardigan, and short sleeve styles.
The term sweater girl started in the 1940s with movie star icon Lana Turner. She and other young women wearing snug fitting sweater tops were seen as both innocent and sexy. The modest coverage of the sweater said “I am a good girl,” while the two-sizes-too-small fit said “I have breasts!” To be so flaunting with a woman’s natural assents was taboo in good company. With the invention of the Bullet bra in the ’50s, the Sweater Girl look only became more pronounced.
The cute character sweaters with knit in designs of animals, insets, fruit, flowers, bows, music, and seasonal icons are highly collectible today. Girls, teens and young women of the ’40s certainly embraced some whimsy in their sweater choices. They came in both pullover style and button up as well as long and short sleeves.
In winter, the Norwegian style sweater with novelty design of Deer Stags was especially iconic. These seem to keep coming back in fashion year after year.
Another common pattern was the striped polo sweater. Not to be confused with a partial button down polo shirt, the polo sweater featured narrow horizontal stripes and a ringer band and cuffs with a looser, sportier fit.
1940s Teen “Sloppy Joe” Sweaters
In the 1940s, American teenage girls known as bobby-soxers became famous not only for their fashions, but for their love of male crooners such as Frank Sinatra. Bobby-soxers wore ankle socks, rolled-up jeans or plaid skirts, sloppy sweaters, and saddle shoes.
Unlike women’s tight fitting short sweaters, teenagers wore oversized women’s (or men’s) sweaters that bagged around the low hip, with loose sleeves and a large crew neck opening. Many were button up styles similar to the collegiate look, however to be really stylin’, teens never wore it traditionally. They either draped over their shoulders or wore them backwards, buttoning up the backside. This odd trend continued into the ’50s as well.
Pullover styles like those worn on the above were acceptable teen wear, too. They were purchased a few sizes up to get the perfect amount of sloppiness.
See more examples of sweaters from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
1940s Cardigan Sweaters
The long-sleeved crew-neck, the short-sleeved crew-neck, and the twin-set – which consisted of a crew-neck sleeveless sweater with a matching cardigan – were three common but plain styles of sweaters. Cardigans were a little bit longer (to mid hip), and were often decorated with a matching ribbon down the front where the buttons went. Ribbon on the inside kept button holes from stretching out of place.
Button up sweaters had buttons made of synthetic pearl, nylon plastic, or real “salt water pearl.” They could be plain white, but were more often dyed to match the sweater.
1940s Winter Sweaters
The heavy knit winter sweater was worn as a layer over other tops. It was nearly always made of wool and designed either as a button-up or pullover style. Collars were large and high around the necks and wrists bands were tight to keep the warmth in. The same bright colors popular in summer were worn in winter as well. Bright red, blue, and green made women visible while skiing, too.
The turtleneck sweater was a good choice for winter. They came in light weight pullovers as well as heavy knits for ski season.
Women’s pullover sweater vests provided a good layering piece for winter warmth. They were more popular in Britain than they were in the United States, and most users in the States were mature women who also wore them in the 1930s. They were coming back into fashion going into the 1950s for all ages – especially the cap sleeve top that could be worn alone or over a blouse.
Simple ribbed knit pullover vests had a short waist with a wide ribbed band. Fair Isle patterns and stripes added some variety to otherwise monotone vests. Both pullovers and cardigans vests were worn.
1940s Sweater Patterns
While simple knit cardigans are easy to find today, a short waisted ’40s style sweater blouse is not. Besides vintage options on Etsy or eBay, your best bet for getting 1940s sweaters is to knit one from a vintage pattern. Here are some of my favorites:
- Vintage Knit Sweater Patterns on Kindle reader- 35 sweaters from the ’40s and beyond. Great reviews. Or 25 sweaters from the 40s and 50s.
- Free Vintage Knitting Patterns – A mix of decades. Many ’40s.
- Vintage 1940s Sweaters on Etsy – Due to age and moth damage, vintage sweaters are a rare treat.
- 1940s, 1950s, 1960s Women’s Vintage Sweater Styles
- 1940s Women’s Blouses and Tops History
- Women’s Pants Styles of the 1940s
- 1940s Skirt Styles and History
- 1940s Women’s Coat and Jacket Styles