1940s fashion history is fascinating. The clothes women wore were not designed by the fashionable and wealthy, but by patriotism and practicality needed during times of war. Menswear and military uniforms changed how women’s clothes looked, moved, and were made just as Hollywood had done in the 1930s. The results were timeless dresses, pants for work and leisure, and the iconic pinup style women love today. Wearing 1940s women’s fashion either as a hobby or daily wear begins with an understanding of 1940s fashion history for the everyday woman of the decade.
This infographic and article is a quick glance at the difference between early and late 1940s dress and the all important accessories needed to make an authentic 1940s look. Shop women’s vintage inspired 1940s clothing, shoes, and accessories too for a fresh 1940s inspired style.
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1940s Fashion History
The 1930s were all about glamorous Hollywood elegance on a budget. People were still recovering from hard times when WWII began. With all the fabric, manufacturers, and labor needed to supply the warfront, women’s clothing needed to simplify. Dress hem lengths shortened to the knee and pretty trims were eliminated to save on materials. Instead of soft, feminine designs, women’s fashion borrowed men’s military uniform details and applied them to clothing — pointed shirt collars, padded square shoulders, pants and overalls, two piece suits, long boxy coats, and sturdy practical shoes were just a few notable ones. With pretty prints and simple color choices, the look was minimal, but not boring by any means. At the same time that clothing was more masculine, beauty was more feminine. Women embraced a natural “pretty” look in their choice of makeup. Hairstyles were complicated, needing weekly trips to the beauty parlor. Wartime or not, vanity was still part of a woman’s life.
After the war ended and life started to return to normal, women’s clothing became elegant once again. Military collars were replaced by round necklines, button fronts by wrap over styles, and fuller skirts that echoed freedom once again. In 1947, Dior’s “New Look” was introduced to the fashionable world which set the style trend for 1950s dramatic fashions. The ’40s pinup look also took place in the late ’40s, when clothes also became tighter, more form fitting, and sexier! From one end of fashion to the other, the 1940s had it all!
1940s Fashion for Women – Learn about all aspects of 1940s women’s fashion in this overview article.
1940s Dresses: Early and Late Styles
Early 1940s dress styles featured padded shoulders, puffed sleeves, menswear style collars, matching fabric belts, and a slim A-line skirt that fell just below the knee. Patriotic colors of navy, red, white were ideal while other primary colors of green, black, grey, and brown dominated most of women’s dresses. House and semi formal dresses often came in small floral prints, polka dots, thin stripes, and checks.
The late 1940s dress styles gave women a more feminine look with a narrow straight fitting skirt (not “va va voom” pencil shapes), rounded collars and necklines, and shorter cap sleeves (or no sleeves in summer). Dress colors were cheerful pastel pink, yellow, blue and purple. Prints grew larger with more contrasting trim added back on in black or white.
1940s dress styles were repeated in the 1980s. Classic styles like the shirtwaist dress, two piece suit (with large padded shoulders) and princess ballgowns all came back into fashion. The two decades are often confused.
TIP: While looking for a 1940s style dress, keep in mind the shape of the neckline (collars are good) and width of the skirt (A-line is best). For a pinup look, it’s all about the va voom of the wiggle. The dress should be snug, hugging your curves, but not so tight as to reveal bunches and rolls. I like to buy my pinup dresses one size up so they look classy but not too sexy.
1940s Style Dresses for Sale:
While dresses and two piece suits were worn by 90% of women 90% of the time, leisure activities, sports and the rise of the teen style made wearing separates popular again.
Skirts were still A-line, straight cut, or very full by the end of the 1940s. Plain colors as well as plaid was especially popular year round. Read more about 1940s skirts here. Read the history of blouses, pants and coats, too.
1940s plus size fashion?
Women of all shapes and sizes were part of everyday 1940s fashion. 1940s clothing is very flattering on most figure types even today. Every curvy girl need a sexy wiggle dress in her wardrobe — it’s the one style that can make you feel like a dress was made just for you. Classic A-line dresses are also a good look because they are modest and simple. They are ideal for days at the office or going out with good friends.
Learn some history and see examples of 1940s clothing for plus sizes. Get advice, straight from the ’40s, about dressing the plus size body. Read 1940s fashion Do’s and Don’ts for the tall woman and petite lady too.
While 1940s shoes were overall sturdy with chunky heels and modest coverage, they were not without vintage glamour. Almost all shoes had a pretty bow, clip on decoration, or design details on the body. While today’s shoes are usually plain, the 1940s loved a good ornamentation. Common shoe styles were the classic pump, wedge, peep toe heel, two tone Mary Jane, low heel Oxford, and moccasin loafer. Many modern styles can double as 1940s style shoes if the heel is thick and an ornament on the toe can be added. Learn all about the history of 1940s shoe styles here.
1940s Style Shoes:
1940s Stockings and Underwear
Before you even think about putting on shoes, you need to grab a pair of seamed stockings and shimmy into them for a truly authentic look. 1940s stockings had seams in a natural color that matched the body. The popular nude stocking with black seam didn’t come out till the 1950s. Although subtle, the visible seam was a big deal to women in the 1940s. If women couldn’t afford to wear seamed stockings, they would draw a line down the back of their legs instead. Learn about stocking history here.
1940s Lingerie – The history of what women wore underneath it all. Bras, girdles, corsets, slips and underwear.
A dress and pair of shoes will complete most of your 1940s look, but a few choice accessories will make you stand out.
Gloves: Short, wrist length day gloves or long, elbow length formal gloves were worn whenever a woman left the house. She only took them off for eating, drinking, smoking, or working. Gloves should coordinate with other accessories. Shop gloves.
Hats and Hair: Small velvet or straw hats were very common in the 1940s. Many had veils hanging part way down the face, too. The trendy look today is to ditch the hat and wear a single or small bunch of hair flowers clipped to the hair. A hair snood or scarf is another classic item that can work for a working class Rosie as well as a semi formal pinup look.
Jewelry: Chunky bead necklaces were part of every wardrobe, although wearing a lot of jewelry was seen as too flashy for most of the 1940s. Simple pearl or stud earrings and even colorful flowers were charming additions. The iconic jewelry of the 1940s was a brooch (pin) made of flowers, animals or patriotic motifs. They were colorful and “costume jewelry” looking. Not too classy- just fun! Shop costume jewelry.
1940s Makeup – Learn how to apply makeup the 1940s way.