A World at War & Women at Work: the Chic Utility of the 1940’s

My lovely grandmother Betty (third from the left) & her well-dressed girlfriends in 1946.

Greetings, ladies & gentlemen!  I am finally updating!!!  I actually wrote this article awhile ago but have been trying to find some images that are unique and illustrate the awesomeness that is 1940’s fashion.  The photo above is from my grandmother’s collection of photographs and I think it’s a great example of mid-40’s dresses.  Growing up in the Midwest, my grandmother didn’t live in the fashion capital of America, but she and her girlfriends look super chic and stylish in their (probably rayon) dresses with sweetheart necklines, knee-length (or higher) hemlines, and peeptoe shoes.  Going through her photos was pretty inspiring, and it made me want to write more articles for this blog.  So, if you want to know more about what made fashion in the 1940’s special, keep reading.

Amidst war, rationing, austerity, and sacrifice, the period of the 1940’s also saw the true birth of American fashion.  America was coming out of the Great Depression of the 1930’s through the social programs of FDR’s New Deal, and while Europe was floundering America seemed to be flourishing.  With tension high between major European powers, trade between Italy, France, Germany, and Britain was disrupted and, as the Pacific factored in, supply lines, such as silk from China and Japan, were cut off almost entirely.  America had a new role to play as far as production went, whether it be manufacturing raw and finished goods or funding projects to invent new materials to replace the old ones that were no longer available (hello, nylon).  At the same time, Paris, the fashion capital of the world, could no longer command quite the same authority it once had, as its designers and couturier system could not function properly in times of such strict regulation on fabric and production.  In Europe, though designers did have some say, the government was largely making the fashion decisions by regulating yardage, detailing, how many pockets a garment could have, and on and on.  Designers like Schiaparelli attempted some sort of fashion liberty by combining style and function, utilizing hoods and crafting garments that could go from chic daywear to air raid-ready.  Meanwhile, Italy, also an important fashion center but still second to the couture of Paris, attempted to assert itself in the fashion world by founding the Ente nasionale della moda, or National Fashion Body, which focused on Italian style separate from the French.  Germany tried to do the same thing, but their attempts to focus on an old-fashioned “Gretchen” model of Bavarian beauty and fashion didn’t really go over so well with fashionable German women.

Thus, with European fashion taking a backseat, American fashion was allowed to grow and become more fully realized than it had before.  Prior to this time, fashion labels rarely credited a specific American designer, as most American labels existed to mass-produce copies of Parisian fashion.  Department stores carried more clout than specific designers did, and New York was hardly a fashion capital so much as it was a garment one.  1940 saw the beginnings of promoting New York City as a true fashion capital, with the growth of Saks Fifth Avenue, as well as the Museum of Costume Art.  Between 1940 and 1943, individual designers working in New York and Los Angeles grew in renown and became nationally influential.  Instead of focusing on creating mere copies of European garments, American designers (such as creator of the “American look”, Claire McCardell) began to let go of European influence and define themselves.

A working woman with kerchiefed hair & adorable kelly green cardigan.

So what did this mean for American women?  How was 1940’s fashion any different from the 1930’s?  Firstly, fabric limitations changed the face or, rather, the hand of most garments in the 1940’s.  Fabric such as silk, wool, linen, and rayon were in use in the U.S., but limitation were placed in order to reserve the fabric for the war- uniforms, parachutes, supplies etc.  Designers were working with new (often synthetic) fabrics that draped differently or that they had less of, so, naturally hemlines raised and dresses just below the knee were acceptable.  Secondly, the usage of fashion for women was different in the 1940’s.  As America joined the war and the men were sent to Europe or to the Pacific, gaps in manufacturing allowed women to join the workforce.  Working in factories or volunteering to aid the war meant utilitarian fashion was in order, with pant suits and one-piece jumpsuits being a necessity.  Meanwhile, utilitarian and military details infiltrated fashion pieces as well, with broad shoulders, uniform-esque blazers, epaulets, and patriotic color schemes of red, white, and blue making appearances.  Designer Hattie Carnegie’s simple yet chic suit for the Women’s Army Corp encapsulated this iconic combination of utility mixed with style.  Everyday fashion was conservative, but not dowdy.  Headwear was important, as women often had to keep their hair out of the way at work, making the turban a popular way to accessorize, along with the well-known Rosie the Riveter kerchief, keeping pincurls and peek-a-boo bangs out of the way.  Younger girls still dressed in style similar to adults, but the shorter hemlines (knee-length) gave a youthfulness to the styles, as well as small details to make a seemingly austere garment special.  A 1940 spread in a Sear’s catalog aimed at high school girls featured the copy: “Hoods are good . . . bright shiny embroidery is exciting.  We like 2-piece dresses . . . we’re happy in pastels”.

If anything, tailoring was key in early 1940’s fashion.  Dresses fit closely in the bodice, featuring square, supplice, or sweetheart necklines.  Shoulders were wide with gathering near the collarbone or puffed sleeves to emphasize a broad frame.  Skirts usually flared out and flowed or were pleated, to the knee.  Suits were tailored, single-breasted, often with slightly wide lapels, again to emphasize a broad shoulder and a trim waistline (foundation garments were of course worn to achieve this look).  Perforated leather was popular, as well as wingtip pumps and saddle shoes.  Wood and crepe-soled wedges were also fashionable choices.  Shoes during the war were often crafted with new synthetic materials, or wooden soles to conserve leather for soldiers.  Slacks, now acceptable for the working woman, were high-waisted with wide, flattering legs and flat front pockets.  Paired with well-tailored blouses, separates had a sharp, almost androgynous look that, even at work, looked incredibly chic.  By the mid to late 1940’s, feminine details began to replace some of the military ones, with bowed neckties replacing the austere square neckline, and printed fabrics in gingham and floral patterns being popular for daywear.  Details like embroidery, ruffles, pleating, and gathering could be used again.  Throughout the decade, dresses without a full skirt usually featured the popular peplum skirt, now seeing resurgence in modern fashion.

Work-appropriate attire at an airplane factory.

Foundation garments for women during this period still played an important role.  The fashions often called for the typical slip waist, full hip ratio that is not exactly natural in every woman.  Even with rationing of fabric, foundation garments were essential.  With the higher hemlines, stockings were essential, as well, even though they were made out of the most useful materials for wartime manufacturing, silk and nylon.  Nylon, originally named “No-run” (except they did run, hence the name change), was meant to replace silk stockings but it ended up being rationed as well.  Some places of employment allowed women to work stocking-less, but many women chose to fake it.  Sears sold “Leg Make-up for that silk stocking glamour”, which came as a lotion, a cream, pan-cake, or something called a leg stick (I’m thinking kind of like make up in deodorant form, but for legs).  With the shorter hemlines and the popular high-soled platform shoe, stockings, or at least the appearance of stockings, were important to complete the look.

Below, a few examples of popular women’s fashions from Sears really illustrate the look from this period.  Although there were a range of trends throughout the decade, a classic silhouette is evident: broad shoulders, military-inspired, narrow-waisted, simple but fashionable.

Rayon-crepe dresses from 1942 featuring pleating, drape, and details at the waist & necklines.

Sequins add richness to these rayon crepe dresses from 1944, advertised at the time for $9.98 each.

Fabulous ’40’s daywear! Advertised as “Man-tailored for the young figure”, 1946.

Obviously, 1940’s fashion is fascinating and has a rich history, which is hard to cover fully in one post.  I’ll definitely be posting more regularly, and will cover more aspects of the fashion from this era throughout future articles.  As a film nerd, it’s my duty to do a cinema-based article (next time), but are there any other aspects of 1940’s fashion you would like to know about?  Leave a comment & I will consider new aspects to cover, and try to dig up some great visuals to go along with them!

Next time…

The Fashion of Film Noir!

Diminutive film noir femme fatale Veronica Lake, who was always best-dressed.



Filed under Fashion History

5 responses to “A World at War & Women at Work: the Chic Utility of the 1940’s

  1. Excellent history lesson on 1940’s clothing.

  2. Some of the final images really make me think of Katherine Hepburn’s businesswoman roles in film, and I think there was one where she was a head librarian that really typified this kind of clothing.

    $9.98 must have seemed like a fortune in those days.

    I had no idea about the origin of the branding of Nylon!

    I’ve almost no knowledge of fashion but have been looking for this installment for several months as your posts are always very well thought-out and quite comprehensive.

  3. Pingback: Songstress Style: Key Elements of On-Screen Glamour | Hemline Quarterly

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