Top Ten Fashion Trends of the 1940s

June 23, 2022 0 Comments


World War II impacted virtually every aspect of American life, and fashion was no exception. In 1942, the United States imposed a rationing system similar to the one Britain had implemented the year before, limiting, among other things, the amount of fabric that could be used in a single garment. Materials including wool, silk, leather and a fledgling DuPont Corp. invention called nylon were diverted for use in uniforms, parachutes, shoelaces and even bomber noses.

Jackets may be no more than 25 inches in length, pants no more than 19 inches in circumference at the hem, belts no more than two inches wide, and heels no more than one inch high. The hems went up to the knee in an effort to conserve fabric. Buttons, cuffs, pockets, and decorative details such as ruffles and lace were used sparingly. Women wore shorter, boxier jackets for a V-shaped silhouette reminiscent of military uniforms. Even Hollywood swapped elaborate costumes for stripped-down designs, a move that many claimed slow motion movies had a new air of realism.


As soon as it was introduced in 1938, women adopted synthetic nylon as a replacement for silk stockings. However, by the early 1940s, with silk already diverted to the war effort, the government recognized similar uses for nylon and seized it as well. Women responded by coating their legs in tan makeup and drawing lines on the backs of their calves to mimic seams. By the time the war was over and stockings were back on store shelves, nylon had become a generic term for hosiery.

swinging skirts

The swinging skirt had a scooped cut designed to look best in full swing of jitterbug. Swinging skirts were a common sight on USO dance floors as young women danced with uniformed men to the jazz horns that characterized the Big Band Era. Housewives were known to wear a more conservative version of the swing dress, sometimes with polka dot patterns or tiny flowers.


Hats became one of the few ways to express individual style with minimal resources. They were worn in a wide range of styles and personalized with bits of foil, sequins, netting, paper, and string.

Hair and makeup:

Hairstyles became more elaborate as women looked for ways to contrast their boring wardrobes. Shoulder-length or longer hair was coiled into complex shapes and secured with bobby pins. Screen sirens like Lauren Bacall, Veronica Lake, and Rita Hayworth popularized side parts and finger waves. The makeup was dramatic, characterized by matte foundation, powder, bushy eyebrows, and bright scarlet lips.

Platform pumps:

Wartime shortages of leather and steel forced shoe designers to be more creative, and as a result, shoes were made from materials ranging from alligator skin to cork. The shoes were more utilitarian than elegant, with low heels and limited color options. By the mid-to-late 1940s, high-heeled platform shoes with T-straps, ankle straps, or peep-toes had replaced scruffy wedges with their flat shapes and thick cork soles.

Male and female fashion:

A number of men may have spent the first half of the 1940s in uniform, but their civilian clothes were useful to women who held their jobs in the home. The women raided the closets of the absent men and tailored suits for them. McCalls even introduced a pattern specifically meant to modify a male suit to fit female curves. Suddenly, the sexually ambivalent appearance started in the late 1930s by Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich was no longer radical. The irruption of pattern making and the electric sewing machine led women to make their own suits from scratch, opting for the trench coat due to the scarcity of wool. Many with physically demanding factory jobs soon began wearing practical pants and Rosie the Riveter jeans.


By the mid-1940s, many women had abandoned the one-piece corset in favor of briefs and structured bras that lifted and accentuated the bustline. In 1946, a well-endowed Jane Russell appeared on screen in a Howard Hughes-designed cantilever bra, foreshadowing the 1950s bullet bra and the reign of the sweater girl. Baggy cardigans were also popular, especially on college campuses.


The virtual disappearance of French fashion houses during the war prompted American designers to explore their own creativity. Designers like Bonnie Cashin and Claire McCardell were instrumental in creating sportswear, that uniquely American look that features coordinated separate garments that can be layered or layered. The trend not only gave women more options and made it seem like they had more clothes than they actually did, but it also blurred the line between haute couture and ready-to-wear by showing them that they could be stylish and comfortable without spend a fortune .

The new look:

In the late 1940s, women yearned for a return to glamour, and designers committed to swirling skirts and shimmering evening gowns inspired by movie stars like Ingrid Bergman, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford.

In 1947, the French couturier Christian Dior almost single-handedly ended the austerity of the war with a fashion line that observers dubbed the New Look. Severe angles were replaced by curves, hemlines dipped below the knee, and skirts were generously draped. Structured underwear was key to the New Look, which featured broad shoulders, a cinched waist, emphasized bust lines, and padded hips. The pencil skirt was a figure-hugging alternative to voluminous skirts. Men also yearned to break free from conservative tailoring in khaki and olive green. They found relief in baggy pants, long coats, and suits in a variety of colors. Both men’s and women’s trousers featured higher waists, wide-cut legs and cuffs, and came in textured tweed and jewel tones.

The New Look received protests from women who had grown accustomed to showing off their legs and were unwilling to cover them again. Furthermore, the opulent designs and rich fabrics seemed wasteful in contrast to the fabric restrictions of the wartime. However, the desire for change prevailed and the look flourished for much of the 1950s.

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