Fashion History: What happened to fashion in the 1940s?

1940s Fashion & History


“Fashion is not an island; it is a response.”

Can you imagine a world where fashion trends are directly influenced by government regulations? This might sound like something out of a dystopian novel but that was reality for anyone who lived in the 1940s.
Fashion trends of the 1940s were strongly influenced by WWII via government regulations, & rationing. This was true for both The Allies (France, America, Britain, & The Soviet Union) & The Axis Powers (Japan, Italy, & Germany).
Resources from both sides, that were generally used to produce consumer goods, were redirected to assist the war effort.
The effect this had on fashion resulted in “make do and mend” ingenuity by the general population; the creation of a collection of timeless silhouettes that closly aligne with regulations established by governments; and a varied assortment of novelty jewelry prints and color.
As stated so eloquently by Amanda Hallay, “fashion is a response.”
In the 1940s the world responded by making the most with what was allotted and, in the case of American designers, taking the reins and establishing fashionable trends that made the most of the world around. (*Fashions of A Decade – The 1940s by Patricia Baker, 1992)
In June of 1940, Germany occupied Paris, who at the time, as it is today, was the center of the fashion world. Fortunately, Paris fashion houses were permitted to continue working throughout the war with the assistance of his leader, Lucien Lelong. (*Fashions of A Decade – The 1940s by Patricia Baker, 1992)
This event prompted a dramatic shift in the fashion industry. For the first time in history, American designers took on the roles of trend setters.
American journalists in search of talent quickly realized that there were a number of talented American designers who’s work was amazing.
Fashion, New Edition - The Definitive Visual Guide - Smithsonian by DK
*Clair McCardell's interchangeable resort-wear featured in the book Fashion, New Edition: The Definitive Visual Guide (Smithsonian)

1940s American Designer: Claire McCardell

Claire McCardell is one example. She was one of the most successful American designers of the time. Her style aesthetic naturally placed utility and practicality at the forefront of her designs, hence government regulations on clothing played to her advantage.
She is well known for her pullover dress.
Pictured below is a practical resort-wear ensemble with interchangable halter top and skirt designed by Claire McCardell. 
Fashions of a Decade The 1940s by Patricia Baker #40sfashion #1940s #fashionhistory #1940sfashion
*Illustration of Clair McCardell's resort-wear in the book Fashions of a Decade : The 1940s
Fashions of a Decade The 1940s by Patricia Baker
*Illustration of woman's work-wear in the 1940s, featured in the book Fashions of a Decade : The 1940s

1940s Fashion Brief

Fashions of the 1940s reflected strong and empowered utility pieces as well as bold and lively ensembles. The dichotomy is representative of the sentiments of the time which visually may seem to clash but the spirit of each was strongly aligned with the other – winning the war and the hope of a better tomorrow. 
Men were being summoned for duty and, for the first time in history, women were catapulted into the workforce with great enthusiasms.
These changes meant that lavish, delicately adorned garments could no longer be readily produced or purchased. Instead, mending to make do – a popular marketing campaign originally made popular during The Great War was reintroduced in Britain –  was in fashion.
There was much to lose unless great and vast sacrifices were made, and new ideologies embraced and implemented.

Life as we know it today – August 18, 2020

I find it unimaginable to picture life under those circumstances of severe restriction and the unthinkable pressure of world events while sacrificing so much.
In my lifetime, while I’ve lived through horrifying events, I have never had to sacrifice so much of myself. I have not had to fear for the safety of my family due to bombing raids. I have not had to forgo many creature comforts – until recently due to COVID-19.
This is the year of The Rat according to the Chinese zodiac.
The Rat is known for it’s vitality, wit and flexibility – all of which we’ve experienced as a nation in one form or another this year.  
It is the year we rose as a nation to demand equality and justice against racism.
It is the first year, in my life, that I have ever personally experienced a lack of grocery products – especially eggs, bread, water, paper towels, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper.
These shortages triggered something in me, and in many around the world, we hadn’t experienced before. A panic that there may not be enough to go around.
Thankfully though, this is very much an anomaly and not a byproduct of the world being at war. It is a response to COVI-19, a pandemic we will have to continuously fight against to minimize its effects.
While we continue to experience dramatic changes to our way of life due to this most serious issue, our fashion industry hasn’t really affected – unless you count the addition of face masks. (Many now treat them as a fashion accessory.)
We have yet to see where this journey ends (today is August 18th, 2020), I am hopeful that soon enough the world will return to a less aggravated state and that hand sanitizer and paper towels will be readily available once again.  
Beyond COVID-19, I have witnessed the horrifying events of 9/11 and all the good and bad that came in its aftermath.
I am a part of a generation that embraced the beauty of social media. I have also felt its destructive effects.
All-in-all, I am so happy to be a part of the imperfect world as we know it today. However it leads me to wonder, would I be able to withstand the circumstances presented to me in the 1940s?
Without a doubt. There truly would not have been another option.
But to imagining it is anxiety inducing. Living under constant fear, is a lot. Yet, many were able to live through it, while fighting for the safety of their country, as well as for the safety of those around the world.
The strength and ingenuity of that generation is what draws me to this era. It is the inspiration for this blog. 

1940s Fashion Timeline

As  briefly noted earlier, fashion in the 1940s was greatly influenced by regulations implemented by governments.
Governments all over the world sought to direct all essential resources to providing tools for the war effort instead of creating consumer goods.
For example silk. In the 1940s women’s silk stockings were considered nonessential given that silk was already in short supply and this material was used to create parachutes, maps and other wartime tools. As noted by The Vintage News, manufacturers then turned to nylon and later to cotton and rayon to produce stockings. 
To better understand how and why it is that government got so involved in the fashion industry during the 1940s, I wanted to go through a brief timeline. 
Fashion On Ration - A brief history of 1940s fashion #1940shistory #1940sfashion #1940s
*Fashion on ration meant purchasing pieces that followed governments regulations with the ration coupons they provided. (Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look )
1940s Fashion #1940sfashion #1940shistory #1940s
*1940s jewelry consisted of bold novelty pieces (Vintage Jewelry Design: Classics to Collect & Wear (Vintage Fashion Series))
*(1940s Ad) - Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look
Fashions of a Decade The 1940s by Patricia Baker
*Zoot suites - controversial & bold (Fashions of a Decade : The 1940s)
Fashion, New Edition - The Definitive Visual Guide - Smithsonian by DK
*Women's Legion Uniform (Fashion, New Edition: The Definitive Visual Guide (Smithsonian) )

A Snaptshot of 1940s History

Adolf Hitler’s army invaded Poland on September 1, 1939
2 days later, British and French governments declare war on German Third Reich
June, Paris is occupied by the German Army and essentially cut off from from outside influences
Parisian fashion houses continued to operate under Nazi occupation
Ties become wider & embraced bold patterns
December 7 – Attack on Pearl Harbor –  The U.S. immediately declares war on Japan and  enters the war on December 11
Clothes rationing is introduced in Great Britain
The U.S. government establishes clothing restrictions under the L-85 Order
The goals of this order were as follows:
  • to save 15% of domestic fabric production
  • to save 40-50 million pounds of wool
  • to freeze fashion
Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (ISLFD) produces first Utility fashions in London – these go into production on 1943
Rosie the Riveter rises to fame as a representation of American women working in factories
British media campaign – Make Do and Mend Starts
Claire McCardell’s denim “popover” dress soars in popularity
June 3- 8,  Zoot Suit Riots where Mexican Americans wearing zoot suits were violently attacked by Marines and sailors in California
Paris Fashion Show is a huge flop
In response, British & American governments ban wide-scale media coverage of the Paris designs due to their disregard for government regulations
Rationing escalates
May 8th – Germany surrenders to the Allies marking the end of WWII in Europe
Balenciaga drops the hemline to 15 inches off the ground
The bikini swimsuit is shown in Paris Britain Can Make it exhibition shown in London
The House of Dior opens with the New Look – which takes the world by storm
The Marshall Plan, otherwise known as The European Recovery Program is enacted in The United States
March  15 – clothing restrictions are lifted in Europe
A Brief History of 1940s Fashion
A short history of fashion in the 1940s.
Fashions of a Decade The 1940s by Patricia Baker
*Keep mum she's not so dumb! Careless talk costs lives. (1940s Ad) Fashions Of A Decade : The 1940s

1940s Fashion Trends

The Ultimate Fashion History on 1940s Fashion Trends

 Amanda Hallay (Mastermind Of The Ultimate Fashion History/Fashion PHD Expert/Ultimate Fashion Bada$$) has created a wonderful collection of videos on the topic of 1940s fashion I think you’d very much enjoy.

History In Color: 1940s

The Ultimate Fashion History: The 1940s

Speaking of Fashion: The 1930s vs. The 1940s

1940s Jewelry & Accessories

Vintage Jewelry Design by Caroline Cox
*Examples of novelty brooches of the 1940s from Vintage Jewelry Design: Classics to Collect & Wear (Vintage Fashion Series)
Forties Fashion From Siren Suits to the New Look by Jonathan Walford
*Examples of shoes from the 1940s (Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look )
In response to restrictions set forth by governments across the world, accessories from the early 1940s were generally bold and affordable.
In the spirit of make do and mend, many were made from recycled materials.
For example, military insignia from loved ones was transformed into delicate brooches, bracelets, or necklaces. This type of jewelry is known as Sweetheart Jewelry.
Precious stones were inaccessible hence novelty jewelry was made to look like precious stones. Such pieces were made from plastic, glass, or Bakelite – a mixture of phenol and formaldehyde. (Vintage Jewelry design, classics to collect and wear by Caroline Cox, page 86)
Presently we consider shoes to be accessories that we use to enhance our outfits of the day (OOTD). This is, of course, because we do not have any restrictions on the materials used to create our shoes.
For those that lived in the 1940s, shoes were treated, yes as an accessory of sorts, but mostly as a necessity.
With women being asked to go to work, sensible shoes they could wear all day long were a must. Yet, because of rationing and a shortage of rubber, shoes were often made with alternative materials, many of which were not comfortable -i.e. wooden soles.

“In both Germany & France cobblers had a backlog of shoes in need of resoling…Many cobblers salvaged tires to make rubber soles, and a brisk business was made of adding metal tops lifts and plates to heels and toes of walking shoes still in good condition, in an attempt to preserve their leather soles. “

Sweetheart Jewelry And Collectibles by Nick Snider #1940s #sweetheartjewelry #1940sjewelry #jewelrywithmeaning
Sweetheart Jewelry and Collectibles (Schiffer Book for Woodcarvers)

1940s Clothing Rationing

Rationing began almost as soon as the war began, however, initially it didn’t include the rationing of clothing.

Before the fall of France in June 1940, rationing of British civilian supplies had been minimal; but imports did not meet civilian demand, and supplies were dwindling. The national resources would need to be thriftily managed to ensure a secure supply of food, fuel, and clothing for every citizen.

On 1 June 1941 a rationing plan was introduced that had been developed by the Board of Trade earlier that year. A coupon system meant that both cash and coupons were required for the purchase of each item of clothing.

This rationing plan meant that working class women had to make do with less given that merchants had to increase their prices to stay in business. According to Forties Fashion from Siren Suites to New Look by Jonathan Walford, between September 1939 and May 1941, the price of clothing more than doubled. 

While the purchase of new garments was not an option for many, they turned to sewing and creating their own clothing. This practice not only fully embraced the “make do and mend” philosophy, but it also saved on ration coupons given that  a number of sewing tools were not rationed.

The United States declared war on Japan on December 8th, 1942 and officially entered the war on December 11th, 1942.

In the spring of 1942, the War Production Board (WPB) and its subsidiary, the Civilian Production Administration (CPA), issued a series of rules for the garment industry that were identified by a number preceded by the letter L, for Limitation Order. Women’s clothing was covered by L-85. (*Forties Fashion From Siren Suits to the New Look by Jonathan Walford, Page 67)

These restrictions brought about:

  • Utility Fashion – fashionable pieces designed by well known designers of the time which closely followed regulations set forth by governments. These resulted in military style ensembles
  • The Bikini Swimsuit – clothing limitations provided designers with an opportunity to play with different cuts and silhouettes. The invention of bikini was a product of such ingenuity. It was shown in the Paris Britain Can Make It exhibition in London in 1946.
  • The rise of Rosie The Riveter—a representation of a strong woman at work who is both feminine with her bold red lip and practical, with her hair pulled up with a scarf and dressed in work-wear which she had to create with what little cloths she had in her closet.

The popover dress – an affordable utility style dress designed by the ever fashionable and practical American fashion designer, Claire McCardell. At the time, it sold for only $6.95 (LoveToKnow, Claire McCardel By Kohle Yohannan).

It was specifically designed to accommodate the needs of domestic work – from gardening to baking (it even included an attached oven mitt).

On May 8th, 1945, Germany formally surrendered its armed forces to the Allies in Europe.

To celebrate this incredible feat, restrictions on red, white and blue bunting – festive decorations made of fabric – were lifted for one month. However, clothing rationing in Europe would remain in effect until March 15th, 1949, while in the United States clothing restrictions were lifted almost immediately following the end of the  war.   (Forties Fashion From Siren Suits to the New Look by Jonathan Walford, Page 42)

Forties Fashion From Siren Suits to the New Look by Jonathan Walford
*Example of ration books from the 1940s (Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look)
Forties Fashion From Siren Suits to the New Look by Jonathan Walford
*1940s Make Do & Mend Ads - Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look
Fashions of a Decade The 1940s by Patricia Baker
*The Bikini - a ration era innovation (Fashions of a Decade : The 1940s)


Living in the 1940s was clearly one of the hardest eras to live through and one of the most remarkable in terms of fashion history. There are so many beautiful designs and innovations that speak to my soul.
Most notably to me, Utility Fashion. I absolutely love this style. There is great power in simplicity and I think this type of fashion perfectly emulates this era.
Hopefully in the near future I’ll learn to sew and recreate one of these stunning pieces for myself. When that day comes you can be sure that I’ll document the process on my YouTube Channel. 
What do you love most or find most interesting about 1940s fashion? 
Jessica Gibson

Jessica Gibson

1940s Armchair Historian/Headmistress of Kaleidoscopes & Polka Dots

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