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    

Vintage 20s 30s Sheer Cream & Brown Polka Dot Shirred Ruffle Sleeve Tea DressVintage 1940's 50's Bombshell Sexy Dress W Full Skirt W-29"40s Estate Vintage Rayon Dressing Gown Pattern Wwii Dress Rare Med-lrgWw2 Womens Officer Wool Uniform W-ike Jacket Patches Overseas-a5 Garrison CapSexy Vintage 1940's Lucy Cocktail Pinup Party Dress W Full Skirt W-29"Bright Orange Flowers...green Pockets, Belt...cut Out Back Wow ! C. 1930-35Vintage 1940's 50's Rayon Coral Pink & White Floral Blouse W/shoulder PadsElegant Lace Blouse & Skirt...'diamond' Buckle C. 1935 "org.franklin Fashions"vtg 40s Brown Crepe Drapery Day Dress-bust 36/ S-mHistoric Womens Vintage 1940s Wwii United States Navy Waves Dress White UniformStunning Black Gold Earthtone Hand Painted Swirl Vintage 40s Midi Swing Dress MVtge 1940's 50's White Rayon Print Blouse W/navy Black Rectangles Shoulder PadAstonishing Ivory Silk Satin Wedding Gown C. 1930 Peach Chiffon Rosette Lace Boudoir Bed Jacket Size Medium 1920sVintage Silk / Alencon Lace 1930's Lingerie PantsPeriwinkle Blue Vintage 40s 50s Plaid Button Up Cotton Midi Swing Day Dress SVintage 1940's Ladies Gray Wool SuitVintage One Piece 1940's Bathing Suit Cream W/ Aqua Stripe Rose Marie ReidWwii Vintage 1940s White Silk Japanese Embroidered Pajama Set Kimono Floral L/xlVintage 1940s Petal Pink Rayon Gown Maxi Dress Floor Length Xs1930s - 1940s Sexy Burgundy Nightgown !Vintage Pink Jacquard Open Bottom Laced Girdle 4 Garters S/mVintage 1940's Ladies Bullock's Navy Gabardine SuitVintage Polka Dot DressAuthentic Vintage 1930s - 1940s Handmade Dress Vintage 1930s 1940s Silk Gown Satin Bias Cut Lingerie Nightgown Pink PeachVtg 40's Lingerie Nightgown Peach Rayon Liquid Satin Embroidered Flowers B-35 LVintage 1940s Wwii Era Pink Print Cotton House Dress W/eyelet Lace Trim! Sm NrLate 1930s/'40s Light Blue Taffeta Dress, PetiteVintage 1940s 50s Ecru All Lace Organza Braided DressVintage 1930s 1940s Rayon Lace Gown Satin Lingerie Nightgown IvoryVintage 40's Pink Black & White Rayon Pin Up Housewife Day Dress L XlAdorable True Vintage 1940s Xl Or Xxl Unique Peplum Dress!Vintage War Era Wool Nurses Cape Cloak-army/navy-military-w/hood StandarizedVintage 1930s 1940s Peach Pink Pajamas, Unworn, With LaceGorgeous Jewel Purple Blue Brush Stroke Vintage 40s Wwii Chiffon Swing Dress S MVintage 1930's / 40's Black Pure Silk Satin Chiffon Dress / Nightgown By FischerVtg 40s 50s Pinup Deco Gorgeous Era Sheer Chiffon Embroidered Dress Blouse L XlVintage Nos Berkliff Nylon Panties W/ Lace, Ruffles, Butterfly Applique - Sz 5(downton Abbey Feel) Day-wear Vintage Shirt Dress- Fringe Pocket Accent1930s 1940s Vintage Black Crepe Dress Long Sleeve Shirt StyleVintage 30's - 40's Barbizon Ladies Lace Trim Bias Slip Nightgown Size 15Vtg 40s Lingerie Black Slipper Satin Rayon Full Slip Sz 38 Bust Beautiful Lace1930 Vintage Burgundy Red Velvet Dress Belt V NeckVintage 1940s Black Crepe Dress L (14) Robbie Robinson Ny1930 Unusual Fluid Candlelight Satin Wedding Dress Over Jacket/wrapper W/trainVtg Japanese 1940s 40s Ivory Silk Floral Dress W/ Asymmetrical Drop Waist Xs Vintage 1930's - 40's Blue & White Pinstripe Rayon Crepe Dress Size 16 40s Barbizon Rayon Satin Nightgown SmVintage Cream Silk Lace Bridal Wedding Trousseau Peignoir Robe Dressing Gown Vtg 1940 Strapless Black Moire Peplum Blue Bows Train Formal Long Party DressVtg 40's Lingerie Nightgown Pale Peach Silk Charmeuse Gorgeous Lace Bias Cut LVintage 1930s 1940s Dress Gown Black Velvet Quilted Dressing Robe Puffed SleevesAwesome 4 Strand Glass Necklace W Germany & Matching Clip Earrings 30's VtgTrue Vintage 40's Herbert Levy Rayon Dress Lace Inserts Metal Zip Size L Usa EucVintage Woman's Navy Blue & White Rayon DressWw2 Officer Army Womens Wool Skirt Marian Fischer Tag & Shirt Natahan Licht Vintage 1940 Iridescent Bronze Taffeta Green Tulle Net Formal Evening Gown DressVtg 30s 40s Miss Rosamonde Ivory Rayon Satin Full Slip Sz 34 Embroidered TrimVtg 1940's Wwii Striped White & Tan Cotton Day Afternoon Dress *m*