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Doing more with less: The story of 1940s fashion trends

January 4, 2019

CC41 inspired 1940s fashion trends to evolve in the face of rationing and shortages, which lead to creating fashion history during that decade and outlived the 1940s

The story of how 1940s fashion trends evolved is, in many ways, a story of man’s (women’s, actually!) ingenuity and resourcefulness. Fashion in the 1940s was plagued with fabric shortages and clothing restrictions. Yet 1940s women did all they could to defy the odds to write their own version of fashion history


British Board of Trade CC41 symbol

British Board of Trade CC41 symbol

Utility style vintage clothes

1940s fashion trends were predominantly dictated by a paucity of fabric and clothing materials to support Britain’s World War II efforts.  The government enacted a bill – CC41 – that provided strict guidelines around how 1940s fashion trends evolved. Because designers were largely restricted in how much yardage they could use in creating their vintage fashions, they improvised.


As less yarn, fabric and fashion accessories were available for civilian use, fashion in the 1940s took on a minimalistic look. Prominent fashion designers like Christian Dior and many of his peers decided to move away from long, flowing ankle length skirts and dresses. They instead dedicated their efforts to producing CC41-compliant utility style fashion.


Knee length fashion is thought to have been inspired by the war years. And it was utility styles that defined 40s fashion trends thereafter. Designers needed to come up with new ways to use less yardage in producing their creations. While there was not much, in the form of minimalism, they could do in terms of influencing 40s fashion in warehouses and factories, they turned their attention to 1940s dresses.


The most striking of 1940s fashion trends that resulted from this “new approach” was knee-length skirts and dresses. Dior’s New Look pencil skirts, which are still looked on today as how vintage clothes should look like, quickly caught on. And the rest, as they say, is fashion history!

Lillian Eugenia Smith ,1944

Lillian Eugenia Smith

Resilient 1940s fashion trends

But shorter length skirts and the figure-defining “New Look” day dress were not the only thing that stood out during the World War II years.  Some trends, that were arguably seeded in the 1940s, went on to score fame beyond 1940s women fashion.  And one of those very resilient 1940s fashion trends has to do with how womens clothing designers of the time created the shoulders of women’s dresses and tops.


Until the 40s fashion era took hold, women wore dresses with rounded shoulders. 40s fashion trends changed all that. The sleeves of womens dresses and tops no longer hugged the contours of women’s shoulders. Instead, 1940s women could be seen wearing blouses, dresses and tops with bolstered squarish-looking shoulders. The era of the padded shoulders had just arrived!


Many believe that some 40s fashion trends, like the square-shouldered look, were inspired by World War II uniforms that many women had to wear while serving. As those women walked into civilian life, they yearned to feel “powerful” again – and knee-length skirts and smartly cut jackets with padded shoulders seemed like a way to give women what they needed!


By some accounts, it was that “powerful looking” 1940s womens fashion, with ladies in their jackets, blazers and tops with padded shoulders, that survived the war years and went on to create a fashion trend beyond the 1940s. Such was the resilience of 1940s fashion trends, that in later years the padded shoulders of the 1940s would be credited for yet another chapter in fashion history: The power suit!

1940s fashion trends - Photo of Gene Tierney, April 10, 1945

Photo of Gene Tierney, April 10, 1945

Repurposed 1940s vintage clothes 

The war year shortages meant that women had to do mostly with vintage clothes from past decades. But that wasn’t good enough for women looking to embrace the new look – with a shorter hemmed day dress and skirts that ended higher up their legs. They had to do something to get what they wanted.


That’s when the idea of repurposed vintage clothes took hold. Since the 1940s dress didn’t need all that yardage, women took to altering and refitting older garments and creating 1940s womens fashion pieces from them.


Fabric from the 1920s and 30s was light and colourful – perfect for that day dress that the 1940s working woman craved for. A few cuts from a scissor, and a few more nips and tucks, and a new addition to 40s fashion trends emerged. Whether it was for an evening out, or for a stroll in the park, the home-made, repurposed 1940s dress had just emerged!


In many ways, womens 1940s fashion trends owed a debt to men folk too! Since CC41 enforced a shortage on fabric and clothing materials, many women used old mens suits to inspire them. By now, fashion in the 1940s for women also included trousers and pants too. Women helping in factories and warehouses, as part of their contribution to the war effort, wore them at work – so why not after work?


Since many men were off to war, their suits were repurposed and re-fashioned to create 1940s women suits and trousers. And that’s what lead to yet another one of those memorable 40s fashion trends.

1940s fashion trends - Office of War Information. USN safelty poster, 1943 - 1945

Office of War Information. USN safelty poster, 1943 – 1945

Pants with high waist and wide legs

One of the distinctive 1940s fashion trends was, of course, women’s pants. As a result of the World War II efforts, more women found themselves in the workforce than in any previous generation. And invariably, you wouldn’t find a woman in a 1940s dress working alongside a man! So, women started wearing what men wore: Coveralls, Overalls, Dungarees for work…and yes, pants with a high waist for socialising after work.


But these women’s trousers were different from the ones you saw even just a decade or so later. 1940s fashion trends saw women’s pants carved with pleated, wide, and free-flowing legs, and they featured a side zipper.  The high waist usually came with loops that meant they could be held up with a belt. 1940s womens fashion saw belts with a much thinner profile than the broad belts of later years.


Aficionados of vintage fashions will probably love the unique vintage 1940s style black high waist Rosie wide leg pants. Unlike the side zipper version that defined 40s fashion trends for women and pants, this one was a front button-up design with side pockets.

1940s Two-piece beige wool dress

1940s Two-piece beige wool dress

Knee length skirts

Because of World War II, and the ongoing fabric shortage and rationing, 40s fashion trends evolved to make do with less. And one piece of vintage clothes that became insanely fashionable, as a result of the “do more with less” motto, was knee-length skirts.


Until then, it would have been unthinkable to wear anything other than ankle length skirts. But the war changed all of that! Fashion designers like Christian Dior used creative designing to inspire fashion in the 1940s. The “New Look” was quickly embraced by women all over the world as something that celebrated women’s figures.


Encouragement to adopt 1940s fashion trends for shorter hems also came from influential women of the Big Screen, including Doris Day and Rita Hayworth. Both were powerful figures in their own rights, and women quickly embraced the short-hemmed day dress and knee-length skirts they saw these iconic women wear on the Silver Screen.


Vintage clothes admirers will love what Etsy has to offer in terms of plaid woollen ruffle hem skirts. The pencil style is fashioned as a knee-length skirt, and comes complete with wooden buttons to give it that authentic 40s fashion trends look.


For winter, you can wear this piece of fashion history with tights and heels or your favourite pair of boots. Or simply wear your 40s fashion icon to work in summer with sandals, flats or heels.

1940s fashion trends - The Ladies' home journal (1948)

The Ladies’ home journal (1948)

1940s dress trends

It’s true that 40s fashion trends had women warmly adopting the high waist trouser and higher-hemmed skirts. But 1940s dress styles also evolved as a result of the post-war fashion renascence. The pin-up influence of icons like Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable, in 40s fashion that cemented the femme fatale image of confident women, took 1940s dress lovers by storm.


The 1940s movie Gilda, in which Rita Hayworth wore her iconic black dress, pushed her onto the film and fashion stage. Bombshell Rita was such a powerful figure of vintage fashions, that an image of ger character, Gilda, was painted on the first nuclear device tested post World War II.


As homage to 1940s fashion trends inspired by Ms. Hayworth, The House of Foxy offers a 40s Hayworth Evening Dress that’ll truly stir lovers of vintage clothes. The gown on sleeves design supports a sweetheart neckline, and has a pair of darts just below the bust to tuck this 1940s dress in at the waist.


This piece of fashion history produces the perfect 40s silhouette, and is amongst the best of wartime women’s fashion.



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