What Did Women Wear in the 1940’s? In a nut shell 1940’s women’s fashion were about creating a certain silhouette. Wide padded shoulders, nipped in high waist tops, and a-line skirts that came down to the knee. This was the everyday shape for clothing from suits to dresses. Even pants had a similar shape. 1940’s fashions were all about the hour glass figure with broad shoulders, tiny waists and full hips. If you were not naturally an hour glass shape the clothes were designed to help you achieve the look.
Here is a thorough overview of everyday 1940’s fashions with links to more articles and shopping sources.
1940s Women’s Dresses
With the start of the war and a strict rationing on fabric, dresses in the 1940s became shorter. Whereas the 1930s featured dresses down to mid calf, the 1940s brought them up to knee length. The war also affected the top of the dress.
Women’s clothes took on a masculine militant look with the invention of shoulder pads. Every dress, blouse or jacket was fitted with shoulder pads that extended just past the edge of the shoulder. This made for a boxy or square neckline and shoulder angle. Sleeves were often puffed up a bit with gathers at the top and extended down to just above the elbow.
The neckline of the 1940’s came in a variety of cut outs. They could be square, slit, sweetheart, keyhole, shirred, cross front (wrap), or V with shirtwaist (button down) tops. There was no cleavage! All dress top designs revealed very little skin, compared to today’s fashion. Evening dresses were the exception. They were spaghetti strapped or halter topped that revealed shoulders and chests but only mild cleavage. Skirts were long and full in the early 40’s and sleek by the end of the decade.
Later in the 1940’s more fabric could be used and more fabric choices were available. In order to forget the depressing war, women embraced colorful patterns with contrasting trims. Fabric material was usually rayon, a newer synthetic invention. America cotton was also a favorite for house dresses. The material was light and airy. Stiffer, wool like, fabric were used on suits and work wear.
Plus size fashion in the 1940s was not something overlooked like it had been in previous decades. Most women were not the ideal curvy hour glass shape. As women matured, bodies matured to, and women found themselves shopping for clothing with a different eye on fashion.
Catalogs and department stores now carried “Stout” size clothing lines with dresses, tops, coats and shoes in designs that were more flattering to the fuller figure. Beauty tips and fashion advice books were full of Do’s and Don’ts tips for dressing a women’s best.
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1940s Women’s Suits
The shortage of fabric also caused the popularity of the two piece suit know as a Victory or Utility suit. Women could mix and match skirts, blouses, and jackets for a new outfit everyday. Even after the war the suits remained popular due to its’ comfort and practicality.
Suit skirts were A line- not pencil. This means they flared out gradually from the hip to the knee. Dressed from the early years didn’t have any pleats or gathers because that wasted fabric. The later 40’s had some pleats and a wide “A” shape and even included some pockets. Teenagers were the biggest fans of skirts. They loved plaids and stripes and full skirts making the latest fad- swing dancing- easier to move in.
Blouses were the next part of a suit. The could also be worn plain or with a light cardigan sweater over it. Blouses were either solid color or a fun striped pattern. They could be short sleeved like dresses, or long sleeved with puffy gathers and tight wide cuffs at the wrist. They usually buttoned down all the way and had a small v neck or round peter pan collar neck opening. Learn more about 1940s blouses.
Finally the suit jacket topped the outfit. Jackets were of the same materiel as the skirt but could be mismatched if that’s all you had. They had the same padded, wide shoulder, high neckline and nipped in waist with only a slight flair at the bottom. The lower edge of the jacket came to mid hip length. Jackets were button down and featured a variety of lapel width, points, and shapes. It wasn’t necessary to wear a blouse under a suit jacket but was often more comfortable. The bolero jacket was a nice, short, rounded edge jacket that was worn over a blouse. They rarely buttoned in front- preferring to hang open and show off the blouse. Sleeves were always long and narrow.
Pants or trousers were a men’s wear item only until the 1940’s. Women
working in factories needed safe clothing that wouldn’t snag in machinery. At first women just wore mens’ pants. Later manufactures made pants for women although they still looked very masculine. They were very high waisted, button or zippered down the side, and had full legs with wide cuffs at the bottom. They were made of cotton, denim or wool blends. Women wore them at work mostly but soon became a part of their casual wardrobe at home and for fun.
Overalls and coveralls were another work wear turned sportswear option. Made of blue denim or sturdy cotton they have become a symbol of the 1940s Rosie the Riveter.
Early 1940’s coats were very square and usually plain. They had a few large buttons down the front, plain or cuffed narrow sleeves, and a variety of necklines. They were long, down to the knee, to keep warm and covered up. Shorter box coats hang to the hip in a wide cape like fashion with big bell sleeves.
Fur trims were still very popular like in the 30’s. Fox was the best and other furs were dyed to look like fox. For formal wear, fur stoles and capes were a must.
Read more about 1940’s women’s coats.
Shoes of the 1940’s lacked the elaborate detailing of the 30’s and were mostly plain, sturdy and “chunky.” What makes them special is not the style but the material. Leather was needed for the war so shoes came in velvet, mesh, reptile skins and even all wood (clogs.) Heels were short and thick in the early 40’s and slightly thinner in the late 1940’s. The later shoes were called pumps.
The 1940’s were most notable for the popularization for the wedge or wedgie. The wedge sole was all one piece, gave moderate height and were considered safer then tall pumps. They came in solid slipons or fun summer sandal types. The peep toe was one common style. It was a small slit in the front of the toe. Peeptoes could be seen on pumps, sandals and wedges.
The more casual style of shoes were the oxfords and saddle shoes. These single or two tone shoes resembled men’s shoes with a rounded toe. They were causal, comfortable, and all the rage with teenagers and working women.
1940s Swimsuits and Beachwear
Swimsuits came in one and for the first time two pieces. One piece suits were tighter fitted, then in the 30s, had padded bras for support, and thin shoulder straps. The neckline was a V but revealed little cleavage. A Halter top style was very popular as well. The suit bottom came to the top of the thigh in either a skirt shape or slightly loose shorts.
The two piece suits was like the one piece but with the middle cut out. The pants came up high above the belly button with only about 4 inches of space between the top and bottom. The Bikini invented in 1946 was similar in style but tighter and lower on the waist. They were too revealing for most women’s taste.
Beachwear, called play suits, were really just very short dresses that wrapped over a swimsuit. They were button down, loose fitting dresses in light cotton. They were also high waist shorts, with a swimsuit style halter top. These were mostly worn by teens and younger single women. Mature women had play clothes as well but they were longer and more conservative.
Head wear of the 1940s was very diverse. There were only a few new styles that became trademarks of the 1940s The first was the beret- a one piece round, flat, french inspired hat that sat directly on top or angled off to the side. The next hat was the turban- a piece of fabric wrapped around the head and decorated with flowers, feathers or jewels. Small hats with veils were another trademark style. They were not practical for sun protection, merely decorative.
Working women had to keep their hair tied back. They wore hair snoods- knit bags that gathered hair back and out of the way or scarves tied around and up. Rosie the Riveter made the hair scarf a recognizable icon of the 1940’s. They were made of silk with a variety of fun hand painted patterns.
1940s Bra, Underwear, and Stockings
Ahh the undergarments or foundation garments were the sole of 1940’s fashion. They created the hour glass shape with smooth lines that were critical to 40’s fashion. They were also very uncomfortable. Girdles were the worst offenders. They looked like granny panties but with much tighter, flatter fronts that sucked in every belly bump and lump. Bras were large with full back coverage. They encourage a natural rounded shape. The pointy bullet bra came much later in the 50’s. A full slip was usually worn over the underwear to keep the shape smooth.
Stockings are what kept women from feeling naked with those shorter dresses. Nylon was invented prior to the 1940s and quickly replaced silk stockings. Both materials were needed for the war and women had to go without for a short time. Stockings were a shade darker than natural skin. They usually they had subtle seems down the back but seamless stockings were increasingly common by the end of the decade. Stockings only came up to thigh high and were fastened on by garters. Read about the history of 1940s stockings here.
Socks were popular with working women and teenagers. Bobby socks with saddle shoes are an icon of the 1950’s but were really started in the 1940’s. During the war women wore patriotic colored socks instead of nylons, even with heels.
Creating 1940s Fashion for YOU
The following infographic should be helpful to in in creating a vintage inspired 1940s style for yourself. There are endless possibilities using new, thrifted or vintage clothes to recreate a style for a 1940s themed event such as a a swing dance, WW2 remembrance day, or pinup photoshoot. Be sure to look at these 16 different 1940s “costumes” to help you plan the perfect look.