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.

Lauren Thomann is an antique dealer, freelance writer, and editor with 16 years of experience and a B.A. in English and Linguistics. She specializes in antiques (mainly Victorian through Mid-Century), antique jewelry, old house renovations, and lifestyle and home-related content.
Examples of outfits for women from the 1940s

The 1940s was a unique decade for women’s fashion, blending the practical needs of wartime with the hopeful spirit of post-war prosperity. Women’s fashion in the 1940s was about a mix of style and function—and was an era that transitioned from simplicity and utility to glamour and extravagance. Let’s dive deeper and talk about some key features.

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

History and Overview

World War II, which spanned from 1939 to 1945, profoundly impacted global fashion, significantly shifting women’s sartorial choices in the United States. The war demanded practicality and austerity, leading to fabric rationing and the adoption of 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, requiring more practical attire. Trousers, previously reserved for men, became common for women, representing a major departure from the traditionally feminine styles.

Notable Woman

Rosie the Riveter, an iconic figure representing the wartime working woman, embodied this fashion transformation of the 1940s. Dressed in a practical work jumpsuit and a red and white polka-dot bandana, Rosie symbolized the strength and resilience of women during this challenging time.

Post-War Changes

The end of the war heralded a transition in fashion. Women, having spent years in utilitarian clothing, began to embrace 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

Key Elements

Typical 1940s style dresses
Sears, Roebuck, and Co Catalog, 1940-41

The Typical Silhouette

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.

The Utility Aesthetic

With fabric rationing in full swing, utility clothing became the norm. 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 kept to a minimum.

The Swing Dress

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

The 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.

The Suit

Women’s suits were hugely popular, often consisting of a tailored jacket with strong shoulders and a knee-length skirt. They were practical for working women and became a sort of uniform for those contributing to the war effort.

The Trouser

Women began wearing trousers more often, out of necessity for their new roles in factories and on farms. Wide-legged, high-waisted styles were popular.

Popular Accessories


Shoes of the 1940s were often sturdy and practical, with a modest heel. Oxford shoes, loafers, and peep-toe styles were popular.


Hats were an essential part of a woman’s outfit. The beret, the turban, and small-brimmed hats were among the most popular styles.


Jewelry was less common due to wartime restrictions, but when worn, it was typically simple and elegant. Brooches, watches, and simple necklaces were the most common pieces.

Styling Tips

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

If you’re charmed by the blend of elegance and practicality in 1940s fashion, you’re in luck. There are many ways to infuse 1940s-inspired elements into your modern wardrobe. Here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Silhouette: Opt for clothing that highlights the iconic silhouette of the 1940s—a nipped-in waist and A-line skirts or wide-legged trousers.
  • 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.
  • Suits: A well-tailored suit that accentuates your waist can provide a professional look reminiscent of the 1940s women’s suits.
  • Prints and Patterns: Polka dots, floral prints, and plaid were all popular during the 1940s. Incorporate these into your outfits to add a vintage touch.
  • Accessories: Don’t forget about accessories. A beret, a simple brooch, or classic Oxford shoes can instantly add a 1940s vibe to your outfit.
  • Makeup and Hair: For a full vintage look, you could try a bold red lip, winged eyeliner, and classic 1940s hairstyles like victory rolls or soft waves.

And here are some outfit ideas inspired by 1940s women’s fashion:

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

Remember, fashion is all about expressing yourself. Feel free to experiment and mix vintage with modern to create a unique style that’s all your own.


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 may not adequately represent the diverse styles, cultures, and identities present in the United States during this period.

It’s important to note that these catalogs are a product of their era, reflecting attitudes that we now recognize as discriminatory or exclusionary. The lack of representation and diversity does not reflect the rich tapestry of American fashion and culture. Therefore, when reviewing these catalogs, consider them within their historical context and acknowledge the limitations in their representation.

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