An In-Depth Guide to 1940s Women’s Fashion (With Pictures)

The 'Make Do and Mend' culture during World War II had women creatively repurposing their existing clothes, which helped shape 1940s fashion.

Examples of outfits for women from the 1940s

The 1940s was an iconic decade for women’s fashion. It was split between early and late years as the decade blended the practical needs of wartime with the hopeful spirit of post-war prosperity. In effect, clothing transitioned from simple and utilitarian to glamorous and extravagant. If you want to add more 1940s flair to your wardrobe, get familiar with the basics first. Here’s how the decade evolved and how you can recreate it with a little help from a thrift store.

Cover of the Sears, Roebuck, and Co Catalog, 1940-41
Sears, Roebuck, and Co Catalog, 1940-41

History and Overview

From 1939 to 1945, WWII profoundly impacted global fashion and significantly shifted women’s sartorial choices in the United States. The war demanded practicality and austerity, leading to fabric rationing and adopting the ‘Utility Scheme,’ which promoted simpler, less fabric-intensive designs.

This context led to a ‘Make Do and Mend‘ culture, where women recycled, repurposed, and altered existing clothes, reflecting the era’s resourcefulness.

As men left for war, women filled their roles in the workforce, including factory work. This work required more practical attire. As such, trousers became common for women, which was a major departure from the traditionally feminine styles.

Notable Woman

Rosie the Riveter is an iconic figure representing the wartime working woman who embodies the 1940s style. She dressed in a practical work jumpsuit and a red and white polka-dot bandana and symbolized the strength and resilience of women during this challenging time.

Montgomery Ward : Fall & Winter 1941-42 [Work Clothing Sections]
Montgomery Ward : Fall & Winter 1941-42 [Work Clothing Sections]

Post-War Changes

The end of the war heralded a transition in fashion. Women embraced more feminine and lavish styles, moving away from the austerity of the war years. This shift marked a new era in fashion, highlighting the adaptability of fashion trends in response to historical events.

Early 1940sLate 1940s
More utilitarian due to war rationingMore extravagant and feminine as the economy recovered
Broad shoulders, nipped-in waist, knee-length skirtsIntroduction of the “New Look” by Christian Dior with a cinched waist, fuller skirts
Predominantly plain, practical garmentsIntroduction of more extravagant materials like velvet and taffeta
Typical 1940s style dresses
Sears, Roebuck, and Co Catalog, 1940-41

Key Elements

The typical silhouette for women’s fashion during the 1940s was broad shoulders, a nipped-in high waist, and A-line skirts that fell just below the knee. This look emphasized the hourglass figure but with a softened femininity compared to the sharper lines of the previous decade.

Utility Aesthetic

With fabric rationing in full swing, utility clothing became the norm in the early 1940s. These garments were simple, practical, and typically made from sturdy materials. The idea was to maximize the use of fabric so designs were streamlined and embellishments were kept to a minimum.

Swing Dress

The swing dress was a staple of the 1940s and was designed to be comfortable and easy to move in. It has a fitted waist and a skirt that flares out.

Shirtwaist Dress

Another popular dress style was the shirtwaist dress, a button-down dress that resembled a man’s shirt. It was practical, easy to wear, and suitable for many occasions.

Suit and Trousers

Women’s suits and trousers were popular. They often consisted of a tailored jacket with strong shoulders and wide-legged, high-waisted pants. This style was practical for working women and became a sort of uniform for those contributing to the war effort.

Popular Accessories

Oxford shoes, loafers, and peep-toe style shoes with modest heels were popular in the 1940s. The beret, turban, and small-brimmed hat were also common. Due to wartime restrictions, jewelry was not as common. But when worn, jewelry was typically simple and elegant. You see a lot of brooches, watches, and simple necklaces.

1940s hats for women
Sears, Roebuck, and Co Catalog, 1940-41

Styling Tips

If you want to dress like you’re from the 1940s, opt for clothing that highlights the traditional silhouette—a nipped-in waist and A-line skirts or wide-legged trousers. For dresses, look for fit-and-flare dresses (modern swing dresses), shirtwaist dresses, or any style that highlights the waist and falls just below the knee.

Add in polka dots, floral prints, and plaid, which were all popular during the 1940s. And don’t forget about accessories. A beret, a simple brooch, or classic Oxford shoes can instantly add a 1940s vibe to your outfit. For a full vintage look, add a bold red lip, winged eyeliner, and classic hairstyles like victory rolls or soft waves.

OccasionOutfitAccessories
Casual Day OutHigh-waisted jeans paired with a tie-waist blouse.Loafers, small-brimmed hat, simple stud earrings
WorkA tailored suit with a pencil skirt and blouse.Oxford shoes, a simple brooch, a structured handbag
EveningA velvet fit-and-flare dress.Peep-toe heels, clutch bag, statement earrings
Summer PicnicA floral print shirtwaist dress.Espadrilles, a wide-brimmed hat, a charm bracelet
1940s Outfit Ideas

Disclaimer

This article references historical department store catalogs, specifically from Sears in the mid-20th century. These catalogs predominantly reflect the mainstream fashion and societal norms of the time, which were heavily influenced by a white, Eurocentric perspective. As such, they do not adequately represent the diverse styles, cultures, and identities present in the United States during this period.

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