Early 1940s (WW2 Era) Womens Clothing

In 1939, the onset of World War II in Europe, which was well-established as the fashion leader of the Western World, brought swift and dramatic changes to the ways women dressed and thought about clothes.

Most of the top Parisian fashion houses closed in 1940 after France was occupied by Germany. Chanel, for example, shuttered and didn’t reopen until 1954. England, in the meantime, had to put all its resources into fighting back Hitler’s armies. Women signed up for the armed forces, and men were shocked at the site of women in uniforms, usually a khaki jacket with a knee-length skirt. As a result, women’s civilian clothes also became more militaristic, masculine, and severe.

The emphasis, particularly in England, was on the austere, “utility” look, as embellishments, frills, and lavish accessories were traded in for more understated and responsible common-sense fashion. Clothing designers touted these spared-down designs as a matter of national pride and allegiance to the war effort.

The trademark early ’40s look was a two-piece suit, the jacket featuring square shoulders and a fitted waist, paired with a straight skirt with a pleat or two. Another popular look was the shirtwaist dress with a minimal number of buttons, or a lightly pleated or gathered skirt, the waist defined by a narrow belt.

In June 1941, the British government ordered the rationing of cloth, clothing, and footwear. A household’s clothing allowance was a very modest 66 coupons, the same amount as its margarine allowance. By the end of the war, this rationing was reduced to 36 coupons. Costly imported silk stocking were also banned in that year.

Clothes made in England in those days used sturdy fabrics because they had to last a long time. Fashion magazines gave beauty advice on how to save buttons and fasteners, how to recondition handbags and shoes, and how to make cosmetics last. Decorative pockets were out, while trimmings were often made of dull colors, as dye was not available.

With Paris couture nearly out of commission and British fashion becoming necessarily spare, for the first time the world turned to America for fashion leadership—rationing in the...

As in the previous decade, the most influential force in fashion at the time was Hollywood glamour, which offered an escape from the grim realities of war. Naturally, regular women coveted the elegant evening gowns they saw on screen, particularly Joan Crawford’s sharply tailored look. But gossip magazines also fed the obsession with the daily lives of stars like Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, and Lana Turner, showing them playing golf or lounging by the pool, which led to an interest in sports wear and casual dress.

In contrast to the stark British fashion, day-to-day American shirtdresses were made in vivid cotton prints, with bold abstract designs, patriotic red-white-and-blue patterns, and black-and-white polka dots or checks. Women living alone at home and working in factories embraced a practical casual style, with jackets, blouses, skirts, and slacks that could be mixed and matched. Headscarves became acceptable to wear in public.

Other popular American looks included “Mexican” peasant blouses, polka-dot “Pioneer” dresses, and checked “Country-and-Western” skirts. Levi-Strauss and Co.’s denim dungarees, now known as jeans, were becoming more popular with the general public, whereas only workmen had worn them before. America also pioneered the concept of “chemical” clothing made of synthetic materials like rayon and nylon, which spared precious natural resources such as cotton.

Even after the war ended in 1945, its impact on fashion could still be felt, particularly in the new mass-producing techniques employed to make thousands of uniforms. But in 1947, new Parisian fashion designer Christian Dior asserted his bold “New Look” on the runway, a radical change from war-era fashion.

A call for returning women to femininity, Dior’s dresses featured tiny wasp waists, often created by built-in corsets, and incredibly full ankle-length skirts. These clothes used an abundance of fabric and trimmings, which helped restore France’s textile industry. This look was wildly popular, dominating fashion right until the end of the ’50s.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

MyVintageVogue

MyVintageVogue

The history of 20th-century women’s fashion largely played out in the pages of magazines such as “Harper’s Ba… [read review or visit site]

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

The Fashion Columbia Study Collection (FCSC) is the digital home of the Columbia College Chicago’s fashion archiv… [read review or visit site]

1960s Fashion and Textiles

1960s Fashion and Textiles

Put on your go-go boots and check out this wavy, groovy tribute to 1960s fashion and textiles, courtesy of the Vict… [read review or visit site]

Vintage Fashion Guild

Vintage Fashion Guild

The VFG is a non-profit international educational organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of vinta… [read review or visit site]

Fashion-Era

Fashion-Era

Bursting at the seams with content, this site contains hundreds of pages of fashion and costume history, including … [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

1940s Ladies Vintage Rayon Dress~ Navy Blue & Ivory Print~full Skirt~bust 40"1940's True Vintage Brown Tweed Turquoise Blue Trim Wiggle Pencil Dress Vintage 1940s Plush Burgundy Velvet Quilted Luxe Smoking Robe O/s Vintage 1940s Penny Mason Stunning Lace Fan Applique Blouse Sz S Vintage 40s Black White Gray Shirtwaist Dress Medium Betty Hartford Rockabilly Vintage 1940s Emerald Green Military Edge Jacket Sz MTrue Vtg 1930's Dress Bias Cut Drape Fish Tail S Ww2 Little Edie Ivory WeddingVintage Black Crepe Dress From 1940's....lace Trim...neat PocketsVintage 1940s Wool Made In Mexico Embroidered Stitched Cardigan Jacket Sz L *lot Of 3* 1940's True Vintage Nightgowns Ivory Satin & Peach Bias Cut31 1940s-50s-60s Dress Labels~rosenstein~abercrombie~dior~bendel~eisenberg~weiss1940's Ladies Vintage Rayon Dress~ivory~teal~purple~full SkirtTrue Vtg 1920's/30's Dress Rayon Crepe S Gatsby Cocktail Fitted Full Sweep HemOld Hollywood Glamour 1930's 1940's Vintage Liquid Satin Dress Sultry Red GownVtg 1930s/40s Cotton Abstract Print Baby Doll Halter Summer TopVintage 1940s Jet Black Avant Garde Peplum Jacket Sz XlVtg Vintage 1940's Blue & Red Standardized Nurse's Cape Standard Apparel Co.Vintage 1940's Radcliffe Hollywood Glamour White Bridal W/ecru Lace Nightgown 30True Vtg 1930's/1940's Fancy Ww2 Top Button Blouse M Red Fitted Puff Sleeve TuxVintage 1940s Midnight Black Velvet Dramatic Draped Hostess Robe Sz Xs Vtg 1930s/40s Blue And Turquoise Rayon Baby Doll Peplum Blouse TopFab Vtg 30s 40s Deco Red Rayon Waffle Grid Print Shirt Waist Swing Dress PocketsVtg 40s Sheer Navy Floral Lace Pleated Dress-bust 39/ MVintage Black Silk Panties 1950's Plus Bonus Sears Thigh High StockingsVtg Jennie Schachter 30s Art Deco Chartreuse Green Rayon Jersey Zipper Dress SVintage Gauzey Red Gingham 1930s-1940s Summer Day DressVtg 30-40s White/red Dots Cotton Layers Long Dress-bust 32/xxsVintage Ladies Peachpink Tap Pants/embroidered/elastic Waist/inset Crotch/prettyTrue Vtg 1930's/1940's Full Slip Rayon Taffeta Black 4 Panel Zips Up Side 381940's Vintage Ladies Rayon Blue & White Print Dress~full Skirt~button FrontVintage 1940s "windsor Krinkle" Pink Sleeveless Empire Nightgown- Cotton CrepeVtg 1940s Red Wine Velvet Dress, Handmade With Rhinestone Clasp Belt, SmallSz L Vtg 30-40's Mitzi Rayon Dressing Hostess Gown Long Maxi Dress Sweep LoungeWhite Crenoline Peticoate 29" To 38" Waist X 22" LongVintage 1940s Ladies Nightgown Miss Swank 100% Rayon New/old Stock Never WornVintage 1940s "windsor Krinkle" Sleeveless Empire Nightgown- Cotton Crepe Sz 3636 True Vtg 30's/1940's Full Slip Snip It Slip Celanese Clairanese Rayon TaffetaVintage 30s 1930s Champagne Pink Satin Romantic Lace Open Back Nightgown SVintage Purple Satin Ladies Dress With Covered Buttons 1940's-1950'sVtg Wwii 1930s-40s Striped Top Day House Sundress Sleeveless Sun Dress Med/largeVintage Black 40's SuitVintage 1940s Petal Sequin Shrug Bolero JacketBeautiful Vintage Gray Wool CoatAntique Wool Ivory Wedding Gown Kay-seling Vtg 40s Soft Yellow Wide Collar Bow Long Dress-bust 38/xs-sVintage 1940's Woman's Short Jacket Mint! Size SBeautiful Vintage 40s 50s Silk Chiffon Sheer Blouse With Black Lace - M/l Woman's Slip Undergarment Vintage 1940s Made In Usa