1940s Fashion Was All About How to Look Great in Tight Times...

1940s fashion s motto can be considered Total Utilisation, The Age of the Uniforms or Make Do and Made as British Vogue Pronounced in 1940s.

In Europe, as the Governments took control of the wartime purse strings, rationing enforced an era of required minimalism. The luxurious film star look of the 30s now viewed as flashy, unpatriotic and vulgar.

In 1943 Vogue warned: ‘You’ll have fewer clothes because you have not the time, money and coupons to clutter up your life with non-essentials... You’ll have simpler clothes because in these days anything elaborate looks silly.’

1940s Fashion Girl in polka dots dress

Restriction orders outlawed any wasteful cutting and excess trimmings, ration limited consumerism and the Utility scheme offered Government-approved clothing at fixed prices.

In 1940s Fashion were no place for fashion!

Luxurious fabrics like silk and nylon (introduced in 1938) were commandeered for parachutes; golf balls became gas masks and mattresses became life jackets. Fabrics such as rayon, viscose and even (illicitly) blackout material were left for making clothes. From this point of view 1940s fashion wasn’t quite fashion it was a big necessary reduction.

On both sides of the Atlantic top designers were called up to do their bit. The British Board of Trade drafted in a group which included Hardy Amies, Victor Stiebel and Edward Molyneux to design a complete civilian ‘Utility’ wardrobe to be mass-produced and bought with clothing coupons. That was 1940s mass fashion.

1940s Fashion Girl in brown dress


Were Uniforms in ever in fashion? Oh yes they were in 1940s fashion!

Around the world, millions flocked to the talkies to see and (for the first time) to hear their idols, stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow. They became icons, idealised goddesses and arbiters of style. Image was all. In Hollywood, film studios hired costume designers to dress their stars both on and off screen: at Paramount Pictures, Travis Banton designed for Marlene Dietrich; Gilbert Adrian dressed Greta Garbo at MGM. Edit Head put Dorothy Lamour in a sarong and set a trend.

Vogue backed the move , saying that there was ‘an overwhelming case, in mass production, for starting with superlative design’. Normal Hartnell made clever, practical uniforms for Girl Guides helping with post war relief works.

1940s Fashion Taxi driver

And boy were uniforms cute:

grey-green tweed dresses had long sleeves that could be buttoned on and off. Wide ski trousers were tucked into boots and teamed with long sleeved, tight jumpers.

And even quite smart

The Women’s Voluntary Service had Digby Morton to thank for their uniforms and in the United States. Mainbocher designed elegant clothes for the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service. Couturiers were learning how to work with manufacturers, as important development in view of the ready to wear designer boom that was to come after the war.


The main aim though were to work &mdash not to amaze!

As the man fought overseas, women rolled up their sleeves and knuckled down to work. Women’s daywear was sharp and to the point, with heavy shoes (often with wooden soles to save on leather), sharp-shouldered jackets and knee-length skirts.

Mix and Match and some more handy trends from 1940s fashion

As the war continued, women devised a new mix-and-match formula to stretch their wardrobes. Suits gave way to contrasting skirts and shirts. British Vogue patriotically focused on DIY fashion and ‘Make Do and Mend’. It advised sewing different coloured ribbons into pleats of skirts, embellishing black dresses with paisley pockets and turning maternity capes into reefer jackets. White collars and cuffs were used to economise on fabric, and berets, hairnets and turbans replaced hats when straw ran out.

Designers’ Paris felt asleep for a while

Meanwhile isolated by the German occupation, Paris had lost its influence. Coco Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet shut up shop; Edward Moulinex, Charles Creed, Mainbocher and Charles James all fled abroad. Those who remained worked in a bubble, surviving by producing lavish costumes for the Nazis’ women. But even couturiers had to watch their step: when Madame Gres draped her models in the patriotic red, white and blue of the French tricolour the Natzis immediately closed her house down.

1940s Fashion Girls Portret

US designers started sporty and leisurewear trends

In America, designer such as Vera Maxwell and Alice Evans were putting women in sporty leisurewear. Clair McCardell teamed up with manufacturers Towney Frocks to offer simple, ready-to-wear separates in jersey, denim, ticking and calico. Her wrap-style dresses, jersey bodysuites and fabric-coloured ballet-style shoes appealed to women because they were simple, but well designed.

Some more 1940s fashion trends from America

By 1944 American styles included the jumper dress, this time round with sharp shoulders, wide shouldered pinafores and shoulder bags like drawstring rucksacks. More glamorous were voluminous evening gowns and ski-fi-look padded white satin jackets by Charles James.

On a visit to New York in 1945 the photographer Cecil Beaton was stunned by the ‘wonderful young women with their towering Marie Antoinette hair-do’s... It was as if the war had never happened.’

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The Theatre de la Mode came beautifully back

It was the final of the 1940s fashion. The war in Europe finally over, Paris needed to prove that it was still leader of the pack. Facing severe fabric shortages, necessity nonetheless proved the mother of invention.

Ingeniously, 237 wire mannequins wearing scaled-down versions of the couture collections ere exhibited in miniature stage sets at the Louvre. Each mannequin was 70 centimeters high and fully dressed in couture clothing, from underwear to accessories. The Theatre de la Mode toured the world, putting Paris back on the map. And couture was back in business with new designers up their sleeves.

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