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

While primarily designed to steer buyers to online vintage clothing shops, this blog is chock full of interesting, … [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    

Fabulous Vintage 40's Wool Cropped Jacket CoatVintage Genuine Mink Kalinski Fur Coat Cape Jacket S/mWwii -american Red Cross- Vintage Women's Pinafore Decorated Nurse Uniform DressRibbon DressKnockout! Vtg 40s Two Tone Rayon Nip Waist Skirt Suit Swing Xs SVtg 1930s Boucle Fitted Dress Handmade Xs-s Wwii Depression Antique Dresses WornVintage 1940s Cream Glam Hollywood Mermaid Cocktail Dress SVintage '40s Dark Brown Mink/fur Coat-42-44-large-near Mint/swing/glamour Queen!Vintage Large Size Black Lace World War Ll 1940's Evening Dress Long Sleeves Navy Blue Wool Knit Crystal Button Vintage 50s 3/4 Sleeve Mod Sweater Dress M LOriginal Vintage 1940s Emerald Green Wool Circle Skirt 27"w Pinup 50s Wwii MintFabulous Vintage 40's Printed Rayon Dinner Day DressVtg 40s Avant Garde Big Shlds Green Velvet Backless Dolman Holiday Dress 10 MVintage Sheer Black And Lace Dress 1930'sOriginal 1950s Lady Lynne Neiman Marcus Rayon Satin Slip Dress 38 Pinup Vtg 36 SDeep Blue Evening Dress With BeltVtg Women's 1940s Wool Coat Cape Poncho One Size Fits All Buffalo PlaidVintage 40s Wedding Party Dress W/ Shoes & Seamed Stockings Bridal M/lSheer Pale Blue Tiny Floral Pleat Front Vintage 40s Wwii Cotton Shirt Dress SVintage 1940's Stackpole Moore - Tryon Co. Unisex Black Wool Cape Cloak ~ Sz 40Vintage 1940's 1950's Gold Satin Acetate Cocktail Swing Dress Size MediumGorgeous Vintage 40's Rayon Draped Cocktail Dinner Dress * Shirring * R&k OrgnlVintage Tan Lustrous Lisle Rayon Seamed Fish Net Stockings Two Pairs Paris XllntVintage 1940's Evelyn Pearson Silky Rayon Dressing Gown Robe Cream Pink FloralUnusual And Flattering 40's JacketVintage 1940s Nylon Dress (1947-1964/post Wwii-early 60s) Wwii Era Dorothy O'hara Fashion Forecast Crepe Draped Black Dress With BeltOriginal 1950s Wondermaid I Magnin Shiny Satin Slip Dress Pinup Deco Vtg 34 SWomens Feather Velvet Netting 1940s Hat Union Made In Usa GatsbyVintage 50's Pink Polka Dot Grey Dress Front Bows Pinup Bombshell Vintage 1940's Wwii Handmade Knit Sweater Reindeer/snowflake Pattern Bust 40 LOriginal Vtg 1940s "j.i." Notched Bias Rayon Circle Skirt 25"w Pinup 50s WwiiLove This Floral Dress...black Velvet Trim "jerry Gilden Spectator " C. 1950 Vtg 1930s '40s Women's Jodhpurs Equestrian Riding Pants With Leather PadsVintage Hadley 100% Cashmere & Mink Ivory Sweater ~ GorgeousVtg 40's Womens Cocktail Dress White & BlackWoman's Small To Medium Brown Real Fur CapeOld Hollywood* Luxe Vtg 1930s Blck Silk Velvet Princess Seamed Opera Coat W/hoodVintage Silk Nightgown 1930s 40s Peach W/ Ecru Lace 36 38 Satin Hollywood GlamGlamorous Vintage 30's 40's Black Wool & Persian Lamb Fur Swing Coat L/xlVintage 40s Pink Rayon Slip Net Lace Trim Adjst Straps Xl 46x Fab Cond Boho VlvAdorable Robe...pink Roses...heart Shaped Pocket C. 1945-50Vintage 1940s 40s Allendale Pink Floral House Dress- As IsOriginal Vtg 40s Sailor Cape Dance Super-full Pinup Wwii Mini Swing Dress S 50sVtg 1940s Wwii Era Pink Floral Novelty Print Lingerie Wrap Robe~dressing Gown~ml1940's Vintage Seamed Nylons Stockings, 1st Quality, Visa, Size 9, 3 Pair Vintage Ladies 1940's Brown 2-tone Fur Coat/ Size 8-10/ Fully Lined/box Shoulder1940's Radelle Night Gown Slip Small 1940 1950 Vintage Blue Lace Petticoat Bouffant Under-skirt Crinoline 27 Black Velvet Double V Neck Elegent Holiday Top Fitted Waistline Side Zipper C1930-40 German Silver And Blue Beaded FlowerBeautiful Ruched Waist Tailored Silk Plush Velvet Vintage 40s Wwii Black Dress SA Fully Beaded Stunning 1940 Burgandy Holiday Dress! Size Xl Vtg.1940's Ivory Satin Bias Full Slip *xs-sWomans Vintage Blue Trench Coat, Sailor InspiredVintage Union Made Navy Blue Nautical Coat Size SmallVintage Ff Seamed Nylon Stockings Cuban Heel 30 Denier Sz.10 Hickory 36"l C1940 Vintage Black Carson Pirie Scott Designers Women's Church Hat Withorig Price TagWhite Satin/lace/beaded Wedding Dress Sz-sm Craft Project/105" Round Skirt+trainVintage 1940's Purple Brown Cotton Day Dress Size Large 38-40 Bust