Fashion By The Decade: A 1940s Style Guide

The 1940s was a period of "make do and mend." In comparison to the extravagence of earlier decades, the fashion was considered austere at the time.


History of 1940s Dresses The 1940s were a challenging decade for women. Huge numbers of men were away from home fighting during World War II, and commodities that had been readily available before were suddenly in short supply. Rationing was common, and rationed items included many of the fabrics and accessories used to make clothing. Natural fabrics such as cotton and silk were needed for the war effort, and this led to a rise in popularity for rayon and other types of synthetic fabrics. Women ’ s dresses during the early part of the decade tended to be simple and practical. Hemlines were shortened to knee length, and skirts were predominantly straight or A-line in order to minimize the amount of fabric needed. Shoulder pads also came into style, probably because they gave women’s clothing a masculine look that mimicked military uniforms. Colors were also typically very subdued due to dye shortages. After the war was over, women’s dresses softened up a bit. Brighter, prettier colors came back into use, shoulder pads began to disappear, and skirts were once again a little longer and a lot fuller, thanks to the availability of fabrics and other supplies. The fuller skirts allowed women to engage in different forms of swing dancing, which was very popular at the time. Styles of 1940s Dresses World War II brought about many changes for women, and this included changes in the types of clothing and dresses they wore. The longer, flowing, very feminine styles of the 1930s gave way to styles that were much simpler out of necessity, yet still had a classic, fashionable look. The following sections discuss several styles of 1940s dresses in depth. Women’s Victory Suits With so many men away from home during the war, women had to fill the gaps left in the workforce. For some women, this meant the freedom to wear slacks, considered scandalous only a decade before. Other working women wore victory suits or utility suits, which consisted of A-line skirts with blouses and matching suit jackets. Suit skirts during the war years were simple and unadorned. They featured no pleats or additional fabric. In the years after the war, skirts became fuller again, and pleats and pockets reappeared on some styles. Blouses were usually solid colors and featured buttons running down the front. They usually came with either round or v-neck collars. Suit jackets were made from the same materials as their matching skirts, although sometimes women mixed and matched items from different suits to create a variety of looks with a minimum of apparel. Jackets had square shoulders, high necklines, and buttons all the way down the front, with the exception of bolero-style jackets, which were waist-length and usually did not button. Suits were typically made from sturdy, heavy fabrics, such as wool or wool blends. Some women today who wear suits for business may have suits in their wardrobes based on 1940s styles. In most cases, these suits are modern reproductions made from lightweight fabrics, rather than vintage originals. Women’s Day Dresses "Day dress" is the common term for casual dresses that women in the 1940s wore on a daily basis to do routine things like run errands. Day dresses were often made of wool, although rayon and other synthetic materials quickly gained popularity during the decade. Day dresses had high necklines, A-line skirts, square shoulders, and fitted bodices. Necklines were typically square, heart-shaped, or v-shaped with collars similar to those found on men’s dress shirts. A-line skirts were slim, and they did not feature pleats until the late 1940s. Most day dresses had square shoulders that were often enhanced with shoulder pads, and the bodices of these dresses were usually fitted and snug. Apron-front dresses, styles that had either an actual or simulated apron sewn onto the front of the dress, were a popular type of casual day dress. Shirtwaist dresses buttoned all the way down the front of the dress instead of having zippers, and were very common throughout the decade. In fact, shirtwaist dresses have remained a classic, popular style with women through the years since the 1940s. Many modern 1940s-style dresses are shirtwaist dresses. Women’s Evening Dresses Many of the features common in formal evening dresses of the 1940s are also often seen in modern fashions. Formal dresses of the time often featured halter tops and spaghetti straps that exposed the shoulders and chest, although actual cleavage display was kept to a minimum. Even though war rationing led to simpler styles, many 1940 formal evening dresses were still elegantly made from luxurious fabrics like chiffon. Beads and sequins adorned the waist and bodice of many formal dresses. Even for the wealthy, knee-length evening dresses made from rayon were more common than formal evening wear. Exuberant dances such as the jitterbug, were popular during the 1940s, which led many women to prefer dresses with wide, flared skirts for evenings out. Women’s Swing Dresses Women’s swing dresses grew popular in the late 1940s after the war was over. Fabrics were readily available again, so slightly longer, full, flared skirts became more common. Swing dresses served dual purposes: They allowed women to once again splurge on fuller, feminine-looking dresses while also wearing clothes that were perfectly suited to the popular swing dances of the time. Most women already had these dresses as a part of their regular wardrobes and did not have to purchase them just for dancing. Actual swing dresses are considered a very retro look, but wide, flared swing skirts have endured the test of time and are still very popular with women today. Been invited to a 40s “Old Hollywood” themed prom, wedding or charity ball? Or maybe a WWII Canteen swing dance and not sure what to wear? This guide will help you put together a perfect period correct look for your 40’s vintage themed event. Fashion for a good part of the 40s fit closer to the body, and used less fabric due to rationing because of the second world war. Hemlines during that time tended to be just below the knee. Toward the end of the decade hemlines dropped to mid calf and in the latter part of the decade Christian Dior introduced his “New Look”designs which involved very tight fitting bodices with very full skirts, utilizing copious amount of fabric. So what most people think of as a 50s silhouette started in the late 1940s. After the war, when rationing ceased, designers were very eager to get back to utilizing as much fabric as they could in their creations. And women were certainly ready to embrace the change. When recreating a classic 1940s look, the easiest thing to do is find an authentic vintage dress or evening gown from that decade. But if you can’t find what you like in your size, you can also put together something from new “vintage inspired” clothing that will work just fine. Adding the appropriate accessories will complete your outfit and add more authenticity to the look. Clothing A lot of the clothing was made of rayon, especially gabardines and crepe, since silk wasn’t available until after the war. Sheer fabrics in nylon were also popular. Suits were very fitted with jackets that had nipped in waists. Skirts were A line or sometimes gored with a slight flare, (good for swing dancing) and fell just below knee length until after the war when skirt hemlines dropped to mid calf. Shoulder pads also got larger toward the latter part of the decade. Solid colors tended toward the neutral, blacks, browns, navy blue. But the 40s were also know for their fabulous novelty prints in cottons and silky feeling rayon. Playsuits, rompers and two piece playsuits with halter bra tops and high waisted shorts. Very cute if you’re going for the pinup look. 1940s dresses and evening gowns had lots of interesting details to make up for the neutrals colors and restricted use of fabric. Look for swags, peplums, bustles, trains, etc. Evening and formal wear was usually made in rayon crepe, lace or taffeta and sheer overlays were common. Lots of black, but embellished with lots of embroidery, studs and beading. Pastel colors for parties and bridesmaid dresses were also seen, as were white and ivory luxurious bias cut satin wedding gowns. After the war many soldiers returning from the Pacific brought back souvenir fashions. So Hawiian prints and sarongs also became popular.
Accessories:   Hair flowers Hats with lots of flowers, turbans Peep toe shoes, wedges, and slingbacks. Platforms are the iconic shoe style of the era, especially with wood or cork soles. Corde handbags, alligator purses Snoods to hold hair in place.
Hair and Makeup:   Victory rolls Longish and wavy hairstyles. Parted to the side. Red lips and nails. Natural brow darkened and defined with pencil. Matte finish pancake makeup, blush.

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