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]

The Antique Corset Gallery

The Antique Corset Gallery

Take a deep breath, and check out this sparse, simple, and beautifully designed site showcasing 250 years of corset… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

Ahoy 1940s Us Navy Sweetheart Rayon Crepe Sailor Dress With Patches 1942Vtg 1940's Amazing Draped Buttoned Crepe Dress Green Dorothy O'hara BombshellVtg 1940's Somewhat Sheer Ruched Crepe Long Party Dress Evening GownVtg 40s Wwii Swing Era Wool Fur Trim Princess Fit Flare Holiday Coat Jacket MVintage 40's 50's Western Novelty Print Barkcloth PlaysuitVintage 40s Wwii Silver Fox Plush Glam Boho Chubby Cape Coat Jacket Vintage 40s Celanese Pink & Black Flame Pattern Jersey Dressing Gown Robe S Vintage 40s Monkey Long Fur Coat Colobus Vellerosus Gold Coast Striking Chartreuse Vintage 40s Wwii Button Up Dip Waist Cotton Swing Dress SVintage Womens Wwii Nurse's Uniform Dress & Hat - Size 16 - Excellent !40s Brown Tweed Fit And Flare Peter Pan Collar Button Up Day DressVintage 40s Black & White Rayon Crepe Dress W Bow Accents And Buttons S XsRembrandt Vintage 40s Navy Blue Floral Small All Silk Classy Dress Costume WwiiA Serious Corset ! Laces, Hook & Eyes, Extra Panels "lady Lyke" C.1918-1935Vintage 40s Rayon Floral Drape Dress MediumVintage Monkey Fur CoatVintage 40s Wwii Swing Era Lilli Ann Silk Wool Hourglass Dress Suit Skirt JacketVtg 40s New Look Jacket Women's Wwii Hourglass 50s Peplum Dior Drape Detail!!!Vintage Nurses' Cape With Red Lining #2781940's Ladies Chinoiserie Silk Brocade Long Dressing Robe Puff Sleeves Size 8-10Vintage Original Red Cross Nurse's Uniform! Good Condition With Some Wear! Rare Vtg 40s Gloria Dehaven Purple Pinup Costume Step Lively? Showgirl OutfitVintage 1940's Black Rayon Crepe Print Cocktail Evening DressVintage Retro 1940's Luxury Cashmere Long Black Wrap Dress Coat S M Nice EstateAntique Vintage Womens Fur Coat W/matching Hat. Medium? Mink/fox? James Siote Vtg 40s Heavy Gabardine Gallant Juniors Gray & Black 2 Tone Turtleneck Dress SVtg 1940's Navy Blue Floral Paint Brush Print Day Evening Swing Dress Drop WaistVtg White Seamed Nylon Stockings Celtic Maid 11 1/2Vtg 1940s - 50s Extraordinary Gab Gabardine Green Suit Jacket Dress Euc! X/s - SLg. 11 Pc Vtg 30s 40s 60s Fur Leather Dress Coat Scarf Lot Ooak Repair Costume 2 Pr Vtg White Seamed Nylon Stockings Nurses Pride 15 Denier 60 Gauge Sz 10Vintage Rayon Dress 1940’s Or 50's With Tropical Print FabricVintage Unique Cashmere SweaterVintage Harem Pajamas Sheer Nylon Chiffon Nightgown Genie Pants Xl Costume Vintage 1940's, Swing Era, Wwii "haas Omaha" Navy Wool Princess CoatVtg 1940s Wwii Wide Leg Pant Asian Brocade Jacket & Pants Hostess Suit Set RareVtg 1940s Desmonds Striped Gray Huge Pockets Belt Jacket Gabardine Gab Coat RareVintage Lace Dress Inserts Fabric Wool? Rayon? 1930's 1940's 1930s 40s Flower Print Cotton Vintage Front Button "housedress" W/ White CollarVintage Mink Coat Real Fur Medium Length Xl L Peyton Marcus Furriers Okc Glam1930s 40s Black Crepe Rhinestones Dress Gown Low Back Angel SleevesStunning Vintage 1940-1950 Fairy Tail Velvet Dress Long Jacket Cape1950s Tan Cashmere Cardigan Sweater The Perfect Fall AccessoryRadiant Red Velvet...black Wool Skirt With Hip Flounce C. 1945-50 Vintage Bruck's Wool Nurse Cape Wwii Ww2 1940's St, F.h.Vintage 40s Black Crepe Party Dance Dress Fab Corded Lace Trim Xl Xlent ConditVtg 50s 60s Pinup Darling Pleated Full Skirt Button Up Back Day Dress L XlAntique Vintage Fur Coat Henery's Schenectady Ny. Medium? Mink? Vintage Black Velvet Burnout Evening Opera Cocoon Coat GorgeousVtg 1940s Gabardine Gab Cherry Red Pencil Skirt Suit Blazer Jacket Set AmazingVtg 1940s Encrusted Beaded Wrap Bodice Wool Classic Evening Cocktail Dress RareGlamorous Peach Silk And Rayon Evening Gown From The Late 40'sVintage 30's-40's Black Rayon Crepe & Satin Evening Dress Size MSheer Chartreuse Eyelet Cap Sleeve Vintage 40s Wwii Metal Zipper Swing Dress SVintage Vanity Fair Grecian Goddess Starlet Chiffon Gown & Robe Peignoir Set 34Vintage Castle Height Military Academy Blue Uniform ,visor, Hats, Belt & MoreVtg Rodeo Cowgirl Fringe Suede Leather Split Skirt Western Rockabilly Bronc RideVintage 1940's Women's Fringed Embroidered Western Cowgirl Gabardine Show Shirt Vtg 1940's Wwii Era Black With Pink Polka Dots Cotton Day Afternoon Dress & BeltBrucks Wwii Rare Original Nurses Cape Military Navy Red Wool 30-40's One Size