40th Anniversary Gala Preview: 1940s Fashion Overview Part One

Women at the Alfred Eisenstaedt Stork Club powder room (1944)

Fashion in the 1940s was most influenced by World War II, since the subsequent world economy necessitated changes in clothing styles and fashion design. Fashion for women was specifically determined by the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, because determining aspects of style like fabric and leisure time became immediately less abundant. Germany had already invaded Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia, and Greece by the time Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, so haute couture had been in the back seat for several years. Women had voluntarily begun to join the workforce in droves to offset the loss of male labor due to military enlistment, which necessitated changes to hair, makeup, shoe, and clothing styles.

In order to supply the war effort, fabric was rationed. Nylon and wool were in military demand, and Japanese silk was banned in the USA after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Rayon, the new synthetic fabric developed in the 1930s, became the material most often used for the creation of ladies’ clothing during the War. By June 1941, with Britain under attack by the Nazis, cloth rationing resulted in a coupon system. Adults in Britain received 66 clothing coupons per year, reduced to 36 coupons by 1945. Both Britain and the United States put official restrictions on the use of the materials used in the production of garments. The L-85 Order specified the amount of fabric that could be used to create a garment. The order also restricted the number of pleats and trimmings as well as jacket and trouser lengths. The metal used for zippers was needed by the military and buttons were limited  to usefulness, not ornamentation.

Watch the Andrew Sisters singing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy From Company B” in the 1941 Abbott and Costello film Buck Privates:

During the war, Paris lost its leadership role in the world of fashion. Couture houses that were still open drew disapproval from people in the Allied countries who resented the fact that some of the top designers appeared to work in cooperation with occupational forces. And when the rest of the world was scrimping, Paris offered superfluous use of fabrics, including cuffs, dolmen sleeves, nonfunctional buttons, draped fabric, and pocket flaps. Because of this, the fashion industry moved to New York.

People like Claire McCardell made use of fabrics like cotton denim, jersey, striped mattress ticking, gingham, and calico, which were not in demand by the military and had functional and comfortable everyday appeal. “War wise” dressing became the fashion trend with both drab and patriotic colors like air force blue, cadet blue, flag red, black, browns, greens, tan, and gray flannel. But rayon was the fabric of choice, since it was versatile; it did not shrink or crease, and could be produced in either light or heavy weights. Winter wear moved away from the use of wool and incorporated velveteen and corduroy for cold weather suits and dresses. Less fabric meant lean styles, with narrow hip lines and a trim over all appearance. Short and boxy was the fashion style of the day, out of necessity.

Betty Grable's world-famous 1943 pin-up photo, which showed off her "million dollar legs."

Oddly enough, sequins, unnecessary for the war effort, popped up on sweaters to add a note of glitz. And although Hollywood still depicted glamorous stars, the female stars portrayed a new kind of elegance. In the 1945 movie Mildred Pierce, Joan Crawford appears as a struggling single mother who dresses for success in attractive yet rather severe styles. The beautiful Lauren Bacall, in The Big Sleep (1946) appears sexy and glamorous in slacks and many fashion designs of the day.

Most notably, the restriction on fabric resulted in two piece bathing suits and shorter hemlines. Consequently, an emphasis was placed on womens’ legs. The pin-up of Betty Grable looking over her shoulder in a one piece swim suit became an iconic image.

Much of this article was influenced or taken from Fashion History: Design Trends in the 1940s with pictures. For further resources visit 1940s in Fashion: Film Classics, which features several pictures and descriptions of both mens and womens style trends, 1940s Fashion: Womens Dress Code in the War Years, and  How to Dress in American 1940s Fashion.


  1. […] more aspects of the nuances of mid to late 1940s hair, make-up, accessories, and dress. Also see 40th Anniversary Gala Preview: 1940s Fashion Overview Part One. Share this:FacebookTwitterTumblrEmailMoreStumbleUponDiggLinkedInRedditLike this:LikeBe the […]

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