Dress 1940s Fashion with Decade’s Most Iconic Trends

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Impacted by World War II, most 1940s fashion styles prioritized useful and practical silhouettes, upcycled materials, and earthy colors.

Fashion in the 1940s blended the post-Edwardian era styles with army-inspired, functional, and practical clothes from inexpensive materials rationed during the war and ‘new looks’ of the emerging fashion designers.

1940s Fashion brochures
1940s Fashion brochures – The VOU

The most popular colors for civilian clothing in the 40s were navy blue, khaki, olive green, patriotic red, white, and army blue.

Fashion during the 1940s was functional and practical, focusing on practicality and comfort.




1. Edwardian Style

The Edwardian Style in the 1940s fashion
The Edwardian Style in the 1940s fashion – The VOU

Named after King Edward VII of England, the Edwardian style was a fashion trend that emerged in the 1900s.

Made of luxurious materials like silk and lace, the Edwardian style was elegant and had a feminine cut culminating with a high-waisted, hourglass silhouette.

Popular with upper-class women in the early 1900s, the style fell out of favor in 1920s fashion following the rise of functional and practical styles.

In the 1940s, women in the entertainment industry reviewed the Edwardian style as a nod to the glamour and sophistication of the past.

2. Utility Suits

Utility Clothing in the 1940s fashion
Utility Clothing in the 1940s fashion – The VOU.

During the world wars, fashion was dominated by rationing, which impacted the available choice of 1940s fashion designers.

Made of durable, wrinkle-resistant materials designed to be functional and practical for the soldiers, utility clothing – available only with ration coupons – became the most ubiquitous form of dressing during those times.

Utility Dresses
Utility Dresses in the 1940s Fashion – The VOU (left image: Detroit Evening Times (Detroit, MI), May 25, 1944; right image: Evening Star (Washington, DC), September 15, 1943).

The suits were worn by pilots and aircrews, medical staff, infantry, artillery, armored units, and support personnel such as engineers.

The style permeated the fashion of the 1940s, with established fashion designers like Claire McCardell in the US and Norman Hartnell in the UK creating army-inspired utility suits for women and men.

3. ‘New Look’

The New Look in the 1940s fashion
The New Look in the 1940s fashion – The VOU

The ‘New Look‘ silhouette was a fashion trend introduced by the iconic fashion designer Christian Dior in 1947.

The ‘New Look’ featured a fitted bodice and full, wide skirts that created an hourglass shape.

The look was characterized by a nipped-in waist, padded hips, and full skirts flared from the hips to the hem.

Christian Dior's The New Look in the 1940s fashion
The New Look of the 1940s (image left to right: Christian Dior’s Chérie, Bar, and Abandon dresses from his 1947 and 1948 collections by MET museum) – The VOU.

The ‘New Look’ remains a significant moment in the 40s fashion scene, marking the shift to opulent fashion after the austerity of World War II.

After the practical and useful clothing style of the Second World War, the ‘New Look’ advanced more luxurious and feminine aesthetics.

The design had a cultural significance, depicting the shift from the masculine army styles of the war years towards feminine aesthetics.

4. American Look

The American Look in the 1940s fashion
The American Look in the 1940s fashion – The VOU

The American look of the 40s was characterized by a clean, tailored, and classic style.

The look represented American cultural ideals and was seen as a symbol of patriotism and national identity during World War II.

Hollywood stars like Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman, Bonnie Cashin, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner, and Bette Davis popularized the American look style.

Desirable, modern, and sophisticated, reflecting the values of the time, such as hard work, success, and self-improvement, the 1940s American look contrasted with the restrictive and formal fashion styles of Europe.

5. Zoot Suits

The Zoot Suit in the 1940s fashion
The Zoot Suit in the 1940s fashion – The VOU

Zoot suits comprised long, wide-legged pants, a long jacket with wide lapels and shoulders, and a wide-brimmed hat.

The voluminous trousers were tapered at the ankle to avoid tripping, and the look was completed with a wide tie.

Associated with jazz music and the emerging ‘cool cats’ subculture, the style was worn by young African American and Hispanic men living in Los Angeles and New York City.

The Zoot suit in the 1940s fashion
The Zoot suit in the 1940s fashion (left image: Cab Calloway wearing a Zoot suit in a musical performance from 1943; right image: Zoot suit by the Los Angeles Museum of Art 1940-42) – The VOU

However, the Zoot became controversial in the 1940s when race riots emerged between the local minorities and young, white servicemen.

6. Shirtwaist Dresses

The Shirtwaist Dress in the 1940s fashion
The Shirtwaist Dress in the 1940s fashion – The VOU

Also very popular in the 1940s, the “shirtwaist dress” was characterized by a waist-long fitted bodice and a knee-long, flared skirt.

Versatile and comfortable, the “shirtwaist dress” could be dressed up or down depending on the occasion.

Also, as it did not require a lot of fabric or complex construction, it was easy to make.

The shirtwaist dress became particularly popular during World War II when clothing rationing made it difficult to find fashionable, affordable dresses.

It was also popular because it was seen as a symbol of American patriotism and a return to traditional values after the war.

7. Preppy Style

Tweeds & Plaids of 1940s fashion
British Style in the 1940s fashion – The VOU.

During the 1940s, war-like austere times, the British designers recourse to tweed and plaids to make jackets, coats, and outerwear.

Made in Scotland, hence the association with highlands outdoor and countryside image, Tweed is a rough, woolen fabric woven in a twill pattern.

Plaid is also associated with traditional Scottish and Irish clothing thanks to the crisscrossed horizontal and vertical band patterns in two or more colors.

Tweeds and Plaids in the 1940s
Tweeds and Plaids in the 1940s – The VOU

As many wealthy British families moved to the US and started country clubs and preparatory schools, the school and club uniforms retained the style.

Suitable for outdoor activities such as riding, boating, hunting, and fishing on both casual and formal occasions, the look became part of the American Preppy style.




8.  Hollywood Glamour

Sequins in the 1940s fashion
Sequins in the 1940s fashion – The VOU

In the 1940s, sequin dresses emerged to augment the silver screen glamour and to sparkle the evening wear.Marlene Dietrich wearing sequins in the 1940s fashion

Sequins in the 1940s fashion (image: Marlene Dietrich in publicity photos as Erika von Schlütow for ‘A Foreign Affair’ in 1948) – The VOUTiny, shiny, disc-shaped metal, glass, or plastic beads sequins were popular on costumes and performance wear, mixed with other embellishments, such as beads, pearls, and lace.

9. The ‘Popover’ Dress

The Popover Dress in the 1940s fashion
The Popover Dress in the 1940s fashion – The VOU

Characterized by a full, flared skirt and a bodice that “popped over” the waistline, giving it a gathered or pleated appearance, the ‘Popover’ dress was trendy in the 1940s.

Introduced by McCardell, the dress was made of lightweight cotton, linen, or silk and was often worn with a belt to cinch in the waist.

During the 1940s, the ‘Popover’ dress was one of the most popular choices for casual and formal occasions.

Pop-over Dresses in the 1940s Fashion
Pop-over Dresses in the 1940s Fashion (image: Claire McCardell’s pop-over dresses at the MET museum) – The VOU

The ‘Popover’ dress was paired with heels or pumps and accessorized with gloves, a hat, or a handbag.

The style was particularly popular with young women and was often featured in fashion magazines and advertisements.

While the Popover dress may not be as well-known or widely worn today as it was in the 1940s, it remains one of the most popular fashion trends from that era.




FAQs

What Was the Fashion Style of the 1940s in the US?

Led by American designers, women’s Fashion in the forties focused on functionality and comfort, with dresses and skirts featuring uncomplicated and streamlined silhouettes without ornamentation.

American women wore prom dresses, knee-length hemlines, and high-waisted waistlines.

Made of wool and tailored for a fitted look and paired with wide-leg trousers, ties, and fedoras, 1940s suits were a must in men’s.

But, by the end of the decade, we saw the appearance of Hawaiian shirts, aviator glasses, evening bags, and fabulous swimwear.

How Should I Dress for a 1940s Party?

For a polished and elegant look, true to the 1940s style, dress in vintage-inspired clothing as described below:

For men, wear a suit with wide lapels and a double-breasted jacket.

Choose a neutral color such as navy, grey, or brown. Pair the suit with a dress shirt, a tie, and dress shoes.

Alternatively, wear a military uniform representative of the 40s decade.

For women, wear a vintage-inspired skirt with a fitted waist and match it with a nipped-in jacket.

Accessorize with a pair of pumps or peep-toe heels, a clutch, and a hat or headband.

What Did Ladies Wear in the 1940s?

Popular styles for women in the 1940s included the “New Look” style, featuring a full skirt with narrow waists and padded hips matched with popular hat styles.

Made of casual fabric and showcasing a more relaxed fit, the “Utility Suit” was another popular style for women in the 40s.

Conclusion

Despite the war scarcity and the times’ utilitarian trends, the most popular 1940s fashion style remains the “New Look.”

Launched by the French designer Christian Dior, the New Look was characterized by full, voluminous skirts and super feminine silhouettes.

Moreover, Christian Dior’s innovative style for those times included narrow waistlines, full skirts, and sharp bust lines.

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Konstantina Antoniadou is a seasoned writer focused on "green" innovation and sustainable technologies in the fashion industry. With almost ten years of expertise in media and publishing, Konstantina's articles have been published by leading digital fashion magazines in various languages, such as The VOU, Estro, Rewind Vintage Affairs, IndieGetUp, SustainablyKindLiving, and more.

Caroline Evans is a professor emeritus of fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, a constituent college of the University of the Arts London, and a visiting professor at the Centre for Fashion Studies, Stockholm University. Caroline specializes in the history of 20th-century fashion and has written about the rise of streetwear in the 1980s and the trend's influence on contemporary fashion.

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