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40s 50s Fashion iconic and timeless trends and styles

March 8, 2019

40s 50s fashion decades set the trends for new colours, shapes and directions that have continued to influence retro and vintage revival dressing to this day.

40s 50s fashion trends

Be inspired by 40s 50s fashion trends and traditions to inject heritage dressing into your wardrobe today, influenced by the wealth of exquisite styles, silhouettes, fabrics, forms and embellishments that made 40s 50s fashion so iconic and transcendent.

40s 50s Fashion - Two young women at the races, Brisbane, 1940.jpg

Two young women at the races, Brisbane, 1940.

1940s Influences

Fashion, in the 1940s, was largely conceived and created during a time of strife and turmoil. The war years had a strong influence on early 1940s style, which saw women moving out of their homes and participating actively in the war effort, donning uniforms and sturdy workwear as they laboured in factories, on farms and everywhere else they were needed.


As an escape from the trials and tribulations of the war years, 1940s fashion was also a way for women to raise their spirits and brighten their lives by emulating the vintage dresses, line dresses, day dressing with a full skirt and all the other styles made famous by Hollywood starlets which remain popular to this day.


After the war was over, the 1940s woman wore fashions that flattered her figure, using foundation garments to support the form-fitting fit-and-flare dresses, tea dresses and classic pencil skirt suiting of 1940s fashion.   These looks amplified her elegance quotient and a nipped-in waist over a full skirt was a fool proof way to look and feel feminine for work and play.


Dress styles, The Ladies' home journal,1948

Dress styles, The Ladies’ home journal,1948

 40s 50s Fashion – The Top 1940s Trends:

Fit and Flare

 Vintage dresses in the 1940s were all about a fitted waist over a full skirt that was gathered, flared or pleated and fell to knee or below in terms of hem length, simulating the classic hourglass figure. Sleeves were puffed and padded to further emphasize the fit-and-flare silhouette made famous by Christian Dior.


40s 50s fashion trends included ever-popular shirt-dresses, which remain popular to this day.  This iconic style followed the classic fit-and-flare shape with a snug fitted top over a full skirt, with the addition of a shirt collar, full-front button-up, tie waist and pockets. Sleeves were usually long or elbow length, with cuffs to finish the look.   The shirtdress is as trendy today as it was in 40s 50s fashion, reincarnated in denim, calico, cotton and linen as the most popular fabrications.


40s 50s fashion also saw the pervasive and stylish tea dress, another takes on a full skirt over a nipped-in waist, this time in a vast array of fabrics, prints, hem lengths, sleeve styles and lengths, all designed to fit a variety of occasions and personal tastes. Vintage dresses like the tea dress were worn in whimsical prints like polka dots, florals and gingham for a very ladylike yet eternally playful look.

Inspired by Menswear

Menswear heritage fabrics and weaves like herringbone, hounds tooth, plaid, Glen Check, Prince of Wales Check, tweed, wool and worsted; and menswear inspired cuts and styles like high waisted wide legged pleated trousers, broad cuffed hems and button-up striped or solid shirts were all the rage in 40s 50s fashion circles.

Blackout Accessories For Sale, Selfridge's, London, England, C 1940

Blackout Accessories For Sale, Selfridge’s, London, England, C 1940

Accessories the 1940s Way

 40s 50s fashion accessories included lashings of pearls worn at throat, wrist, ears and on fingers, patterned silk neckerchiefs knotted around throats or worn over twin sets and sweaters, white wrist or elbow gloves for day wear, straw boater hats embellished with ribbons or flowers and shoes with block heels in rich brown or patent black for day, kitten heels for night.

Woman modelling a summer dress, 1954

Woman modelling a summer dress, 1954

40s 50s Fashion – The Top 1950s Trends:

1950s Dresses

The “New Look” made famous by Christian Dior was ultra feminine and will remain popular through time for its ability to fit every female form and figure and flatter the wearer. A full skirt was worn under a small waist and full sleeves emphasized the hourglass shape, giving rise to the fit-and-flare silhouette. Inspired by the Victorian era but with a modern twist, this was a look that every and any woman could wear and feel beautiful in.


The other classic dress shape of the 50s was the form-fitting sheath dress or line dress, usually worn with a high waistline and a mid calf length fitted skirt. Today’s sheath dress is less fitted and more skimming but either look was an easy way to be fashionable yet timeless in a one-and-done outfit.


Then there were the 1950s cocktail dresses, a spin on daytime tea dressing or sheath dressing, but in a rich fabrication like heavy silk, taffeta, velvet or lined lace and usually worn in black and white, embellished with classic and sophisticated pearls or gold jewellery. The look was finished with high heels, gloves and a clutch.


And finally, there was the hostess gown, worn when a lady was hosting a casual event at home. Hostess gowns were a combo of Capri pants and a skirt, making the look classy yet comfortable, worn with feathered mules and costume jewellery.

40s 50s Fashion -  Young woman wearing a skirt and striped cardigan, 1940

Young woman wearing a skirt and striped cardigan, 1940


1950s Skirts

Take the 40s 50s fashion vintage dresses, slice off the top and you are left with the classic 1950s full skirt called a circle skirt.Worn over multiple gauzy petticoats and in a range of fabrics and prints from plaid wool for winter to pastel cotton for summer, the look was finished with a wide belt emphasizing a small waist into which a fitted blouse was tucked.


As an alternative to the full skirt, women could opt for the figure-hugging pencil skirt worn to mid calf length with a slit in the back for added effect as well as practical function. These sexy skirts were usually worn in solid or heritage prints and colours with a cardigan or fitted sweater on top.

1950s Twin Sets

The quintessential 40s 50s fashion twin set is still alive and well today. This classic look is all about elegance and upper crust style, with a simple short-sleeved sweater worn under a matching elbow-length or long-sleeved cardigan, usually in pastel shades with pearl buttons. The twin set wears well with a full skirt, a pencil skirt, cigarette pants or any other shape or style of skirt or trouser.

Two women putting on hockey equipment, 1940

Two women putting on hockey equipment, 1940

40s 50s fashion Tops and Sweaters

Ladies could choose from tailored blouses to knitted tops with Peter Pan collars, usually worn cropped. Blouses were either classically simple and structured or Victorian-inspired lacy, frilly affairs.


Sweaters were thinner, made of synthetic fabrics rather than wool, and fitted to emphasize a tiny waist and full figure. Alternatively, textured knits remained in style and reflected the handmade aesthetic, worn warm and cosy in colourful yarns, patterns and shapes.

40s 50s fashion - Fashion Photo of Woman modelling black Astrakhan coat by Erik Holmén, 1945

Fashion Photo of Woman modelling black Astrakhan coat by Erik Holmén, 1945

40s 50s Fashion Coats

Winter coats over vintage dresses were styled in heritage fabrics like wool, tweed, fur and fleece. They came in shapes that catered to a full skirt and layered tops underneath, like the swing coat that had a full flared shape and oversized buttons up to a large, wide collar.


The swagger coat took a different direction, fitted at the waist with a full skirt.


The trench coat was and is a classic topper that will remain popular forever. It went with everything and its wide buckled belt emphasized the hourglass silhouette of the vintage dresses worn beneath.


Short jackets were a modern cultish trend in the 50s, worn over pants or skirts. They included leather bombers, parkas and moto jackets, with fur collars, pockets and tie or buckle belts. They came in menswear inspired leather or suede, or in a more feminine spin in pastel satin ala Pink Ladies.

Woman modeling undergarments, 1949, photo, Stanley Kubrick.

Woman modeling undergarments, 1949, photo, Stanley Kubrick.

40s 50s Fashion Under Garments

To support the 40s 50s fashion silhouette, foundation garments like the bullet bra, full tulle or net petticoats and silky slips were essential elements of a lady’s closet. The cone-shaped bullet bra created a full figure over a small waist. These bras were strapless under evening wear or padded under fitted sweater, designed for every look and occasion.


Girdles or boned corsets ensured a girl could fit into her narrow-waisted vintage dresses, skirts or cigarette pants, giving her a smooth mid section, free from the dreaded panty line.


And petticoats came in stiff net or soft tulle, in a rainbow of colours, meant to be worn multiple at a time under a full skirt, ensuring the skirt would billow out from the nipped-in waist. Or a silky slip under a pencil skirt, showing a hint of lace below hem or peeking out from the skirt’s back slit, added that extra touch of feminine glamour.


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