Under the influence of World War II, the 1940s fashion looks were characterized by utilitarian and practical styles.
Most clothes in the 1940s were army-inspired, functional, practical, and made from inexpensive materials rationed during the war.
The military also influenced women’s 1940s fashion looks, depicted as slim-fitting suits and dresses featuring boxy shoulders and nipped-in waists.
The most popular colors for civilian clothing in the 40s were navy blue, khaki, olive green, patriotic red, white, and army blue.
Overall, fashion during the 1940s was functional and practical, focusing on practicality and comfort.
During the world wars, fashion was dominated by rationing, which impacted the available choice of 1940s fashion designers.
As such, utility clothing and uniforms – available only with ration coupons – became the most ubiquitous forms of “fashion” during those times.
Nowadays, utility clothing describes garments designed for practicality and functionality rather than aesthetic purposes.
Mostly worn for work or outdoor activities, utility clothes are made from durable materials such as cotton, polyester, or nylon and are designed to withstand rugged or harsh conditions.
Utility clothing also comprises additional features such as reinforced stitching, water-resistant coatings, or multiple pockets for carrying tools or accessories.
Some of the most famous examples of utility clothing in the 1940s comprised general workwear, overalls, coveralls, and protective gear like hard hats and safety vests.
More utility clothing popular in the 40s fashion days were those used in the construction, farming, and manufacturing industries.
Tweeds & Plaids
Tweed is a rough, woolen fabric woven in a twill pattern, initially developed in Scotland, hence the association with highlands outdoor and country image.
In the 1940s war-like times, tweed was the primary material used to make jackets, coats, and outerwear.
Plaid is also associated with traditional Scottish and Irish clothing thanks to the crisscrossed horizontal and vertical band patterns in two or more colors.
Made from a wool blend, plaids were very popular in the 40s and used to make shirts and skirts.
During those times, tweed and plaid were popular fabrics for men’s and women’s clothing, often used in anything from 1940s skirts to party children’s clothing.
For men, tweed jackets, suits, and plaid flannel shirts were the norm, while women wore tweed and plaid jackets and skirts.
Both tweed and plaid were worn for outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing and for both casual and formal occasions.
Sequins are tiny, shiny, disc-shaped beads made from metal, glass, or plastic and used to decorate clothing and accessories.
Sequins are attached via sewing, gluing, or heat-sealing and used to augment figure clothing, 1940s handbags, and even 1940s wedding dresses.
In the 1940s, sequins were used to add a touch of glamour and sparkle to evening wear, such as formal dresses, gowns, and cocktail dresses.
Sequins were also used to decorate dance costumes and performance wear, mixed with other embellishments, such as beads, pearls, and lace.
Sequins were also used to add sparkle and shine to accessories, such as shoes, handbags, and jewelry.
The ‘Popover’ Dress
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, summery fabrics such as 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.
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 of the time.
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.
The ‘New Look’ Silhouette
The “New Look” silhouette was a fashion trend introduced by the iconic French designer Christian Dior in 1947.
The “New Look” style 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.
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 utilitarian clothing style of the second world war, the “New Look” advanced more luxurious and feminine aesthetics.
The “New Look” also had a cultural significance, depicting the shift from the masculine, militaristic style of the war years towards feminine aesthetics.
The ‘American’ Look
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.
The Utility Suits
The “Utility suits” were a type of military uniform worn by American soldiers during World War II.
The “Utility suits” were made of durable, wrinkle-resistant materials designed to be functional and practical for the soldiers.
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.
The Zoot Suit
The “Zoot Suit” was a popular clothing style in the 1940s characterized by long, wide-legged pants, a long jacket with wide lapels and wide 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.
The “Zoot Suit” was predominantly worn by young African American and Hispanic men living in Los Angeles and New York City.
Often associated with jazz music and the emerging subculture of the “cool cats, the “Zoot Suit” was perceived as rebellious and nonconformist.
However, the “Zoot Suit” became controversial in the 1940s when race riots were sparked by tensions between the local minority groups and young, white servicemen.
The Shirtwaist Dress
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.
The Edwardian Style
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 utilitarian styles.
In the 1940s, the Edwardian style made a brief resurgence due to the influence of classic Hollywood films, which often featured actresses dressed in Edwardian-style clothing.
Many women in the 1940s, especially those in the entertainment industry, wore Edwardian-style dresses, gowns, and accessories as a nod to the glamour and sophistication of the past.
1940s Fashion FAQs
What Was Fashion Like in the 1940s for Men?
World War II’s military and practical fashions influenced men’s forties fashion looks.
Double-breasted jackets were tailored with a narrow, streamlined silhouette and were made of wool or synthetic materials like rayon or gabardine.
Shirts were button-down collars tucked into pants worn at the natural waist but cuffed at the bottom.
Neckties were a staple – worn even with bomber jackets – made of silk or synthetic materials.
Outerwear included overcoats, trench coats, and pea coats, which were popular due to their practicality and warmth.
Footwear included loafers, oxfords, wingtips, and boots for casual or outdoor wear.
Hats were also popular, with fedoras and trilbys being the most common choices.
Overall, the 1940s saw a more formal and polished style for men, focusing on practicality and functionality.
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 fashion.
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.
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.