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Pulling off that 1940s mens fashion look is easier than you think!

September 20, 2014

1940s Mens fashion was defined by the Second World War which started in 1939 and ended in 1945. Most 1940s men spent the 40’s in uniform, therefore 1940s  fashion for Men was utilitarian. British Army Uniform for the 2nd World War consisted of Battle Dress. WW11 battle dress was a wool uniform in shades of khaki or brown. It was designed to be easy to move in, warm in cold climates and relatively comfortable when wet

Mens 1940s clothing and Army Uniforms

Army uniforms were based on ski-wear, which had been popularly worn at the time. There were high-waisted trousers, a jacket and a shirt beneath. The trousers were designed with numerous packets for different functions including a map pocket. The sleeves of the jacket were set so that it was comfortable shouldering a rifle, or with the arms forward while driving.


When a soldier stood straight, this sleeve design didn’t look so tidy. Braces were sometimes added, and boots and puttees, and a tin hat or officer’s hat completed the picture. Originally designed with luxuries like a fly front to the trousers, and pocket flaps, but the extra material involved in this meant that the design became stripped down to basics, and plastic buttons were substituted for the original brass ones.

mens 1940s fashion - ww2 uniform

ww2 uniform

1940s Mens fashion and The Utility Clothing Act

In a similar vein, The Utility Clothing Act, an oft amended law that restricted the way that clothing was made, came into force in 1941. This act restricted civilian men’s 1940s clothes, as well as women’s 1940s clothing. Suits had to be made single and not double-breasted. Any extra fabric details were banned, so pleated or darted pockets on coats and jackets were out. Hems were narrowed all over, trousers could only have one pocket, and they could feature no turn ups. Waistcoats, of course, were completely outlawed. Critics suggested that this was a false economy and that men would simply wear a pullover instead of a waistcoat. In addition, turn ups and pocket flaps helped garments to last longer by concealing baggy pockets and worn out trouser cuffs.

1940s fashion men wore often -utility suit

utility suit

Make do and mend and Zoot suits

The government issued 66 clothing coupons to each person. It limited the amount a man could buy in a year to only one overcoat. In addition other clothing items were limited to one only. These includes one jacket or blazer, one pair of trousers, one vest, pair of socks, sweater, pair of pants, and one pair of shoes. Understandably because of rationing, men as well as women were urged to “make do and mend”.


The situation was similar in the US during the 1940s, and as a form of revolt African-Americans adopted the Zoot Suit. These were brightly coloured and using a huge amount of fabric, in contravention of regulations.


Men were issued with Demob suits after the war and on leaving the army. Stringent regulations imposed because of severe shortages defined how Demob suits were made. As a consequence demob suits were mass-produced, ill-fitting, and either brown or navy.

1940s suit - Demob suits

Demob suits


After the war, rationing remained in place until well into the Fifties. As a result this meant that few advances in 1940s Mens fashion were able to take place until after the end of rationing.


Whether it’s with a collared shirt and matching necktie, or a double-breasted jacket or blazer and knitted tops – 40s mens fashion is back in vogue and still going strong.


Iconic 1940s fashion images include the indomitable double-breasted jacket and baggy Zoot-inspired suits. If you were a working-man in the 1940s, you were also most likely to be seen wearing a collared shirt and tweed slacks. And more likely than not, your spin on casual 40s mens fashion would include a wide-brimmed hat and a chequer scarf around your neck to go with your navy blue jacket.

1940s mens fashion goes mainstream

But such liberties weren’t visible just a few years prior to the 1940s. WW II, which started in 1930 and ceased in the mid-forties, meant that 40s mens fashion didn’t come into its own until around 1945.

Here are three 40s mens fashion trends that thrived and survived the post WW II era.

1940s tank top

1940s tank top

Gentleman’s 1940s tank tops

What…? I hear you shout. Tank tops…for gentlemen? That’s absurd!


Well, technically 40s mens fashion was really the harbinger to what is now commonly known as tank tops.  But in the 1940s, this piece of men’s fashion wear was called a slipover. Unlike modern-day tank tops, which have acquired a “gangsterisc” reputation (called “wife beaters” in the USA due to their predominance in American wife-abusing gangster movies), this gentle outerwear from 1940s mens fashion was a very noble piece of clothing.


Typically, they represented knitted-by-hand Fair Isle pieces that men often wore underneath a double-breasted jacket or suit. If you’ve ever watched a 1940s movie, you’d probably spot every male character donning tank tops over a collared shirt and tie.  A navy blue jacket, complete with a hanky stuffed in the breast pocket of the jacket, would often round off the look.


Fast forward to later decades, and the tank tops that you see are far different from what were an integral part of 1940s mens fashion.  Bruce Willis in his Die Hard roles, and George Michael on stage, epitomize how tank tops no longer need to be paired with a pointy collared shirt or a necktie. Even female action-figures, like Angelina Jolie in her Lara Croft roles, can now be seen in tank tops.


Today, however, it’s easier than ever to pull off that 1940s mens fashion look wearing tank tops. On a chilly day, you could still wear tank tops then under a double-breasted jacket or blazer. You don’t even need a necktie to pull that look off. Just wrap a scarf or bandana around your neck – and off you go!

Mens 1940s shirts

Mens 1940s shirts

The ubiquitous collared shirt

Shirts with collars are almost taken for granted today. Everywhere you go, you’ll see men sporting a collared shirt for every occasion.  In fact, if there is a single piece of 1940s mens fashion that’s left an indelible impression on how men dress, it’s the ubiquitous collared shirt.


Typically, today, as was customary for men in the 1940s and even later, men prefer shirts with collars for most formal occasions. 1940s mens fashion was no different. You would often see a man dressed for work, wearing either a suit, or perhaps slacks and a sleek double-breasted blazer. Underneath though, there was always a collared shirt.


The beauty of 1940s mens fashion, which popularized shirts with collars, is that they are extremely versatile. If you had a navy blue tweed dress suit on for work, for instance, you could easily pair it with a pale blue or white collared shirt.  Usually, along with a suit and collar, came a necktie. You could also colour-combine your tie with your shirt.


When it came to shirts with collars, a double-breasted blazer also afforded great pairing opportunity. Blazers, which were a hallmark of 40s mens fashion, were routinely worn over a collared shirt. This look provided men in the 40s an ideal way to be formal and casual at the same time.


Picture a man in a navy blue blazer or a double-breasted cotton jacket, over a white or pale grey collared shirt. A favourite 1940s mens fashion look would have men wearing a necktie, for formal occasions, or a scarf around their necks, under their collared shirt and blazer. Alternately, they would insert a handkerchief in the breast pocket of their double-breasted jacket to complete their work and play look!

Officials in double breasted suits confer on the Zoot Suit Riots, 1943

Men in double breasted suits confer on the Zoot Suit Riots, 1943

The versatile double-breasted top

When it came to men’s tops, 1940s mens fashion offered great flexibility is dress choice. Among the most sought-after piece of outer wear was the double-breasted look.


The 1940s man was hardly ever seen without a suit. Whether it was for work, or to go to church or other social events, high-waisted pants and double-breasted jackets were a staple. 40s mens fashion brought about a slight revival of Zoot too, with pleated baggy trousers and hats with wide brims.


While 30s fashion favored narrow cut jackets, coats and blazers, 1940s mens fashion was more about wider cuts. That’s why double-breasted suits were especially endearing to men in the 40s – because it made them look “bigger” than a single breasted coat would.

1940s mens fashion – The 1940s Blazer

Typically woven from tweed or worsted wool, the navy blue blazer was a particular favourite among men. This double-breasted classic was usually worn with a pair of knitted or worsted grey pants, over a plain white or neutral coloured collared shirt.  Iconic casual mens fashion look might also include a stripped shirt under a double-breasted coat, with the slacks held up by suspenders.


The buttons on the navy blue jackets were usually gold, which made them stand out in contrast with grey or black pants.  In the 1940s mens fashion isles of many vintage clothing stores, you may also find double-breasted jackets and coats with shiny silver buttons – usually three or four on the breast and chest, and three on the cuffs.


Of course, 1940s mens fashion tops weren’t just reserved for navy blue blazers and jackets. You could see men wearing formal double-breasted suits too, including plain or striped versions.  Typically, men wore their suits over plain white collared shirts, with ties and breast-pocket handkerchiefs.  Unlike today, when more close-cut designs are in demand, 40s mens fashion was all about looser, wider cuts.


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