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40s womens fashion flash back that still inspires us today!

May 26, 2019

40s womens fashion was about more than just tea dresses, bright coloured floral print, evening cocktail dresses, or padded shoulders that powerful women often wore.


It’s true that high waist tops and the full skirt were a favourite among 1940s women. But that really doesn’t define what 1940s fashion was all about in that decade. 40s womens fashion was also about highlighting women’s figures and bringing women out from under male-dominated fashion in the 1940s.

Silk velvet and silk satin Christian Dior ballgown, 1947

Silk velvet and silk satin Christian Dior ballgown, 1947

1940s style flashback

One of, if not the, most iconic accomplishments attributable to women’s fashion from the 1940s, is the focus on the hourglass silhouette. Before 40s womens fashion caught on, the remnants of depression era 1920s and 1930s saw scant development in what women wore.


It’s true, fashion trendsetters of the prior era, like King Edward VII and Wallis Simpson, left their unique mark on the 1940s womens fashion scene. But that was nothing compared to the fashion revolution that French fashion designer Christian Dior unleashed on 40s womens fashion.


As we look back at predecessors’ of 1940s women, we see that some ideas of what lay ahead were already being toyed with. For instance, some characteristics that would later emerge in the 1940s dress, were already popular in the 1930s. Women wore dresses with wide sleeve caps as early as 1932; while coats that featured broad rounded shoulders were in vogue as late as 1939.


These trends were probably precursors to fashion in the 1940s.  Some would also argue that it was these trends that inspired designers of 40s womens fashion, and as a result, they came up with the concept of padded shoulders for women of the 1940s. Whether this was 40s fashion imitating the 1930s or building upon it, the 1940s certainly saw many newer fashion ideas brought to fore, including knee length skirts and dresses and high waist tops.

Two women dressed for work, 1940s

Two women dressed for work, 1940s

40s womens fashion basics

Fashion designers, for women clothing of the 1940s, were restricted by official fabric “rations” stemming from the post-war fallout. So, most of the design ideas were formed as a result of being practical, as much as they were from being glamorous.


Knee length skirts are a prime example: Because of fabric shortages, no longer were long, flowing dresses and mid-calf or ankle-length skirts practical. Instead, the shorter version of the indominable skirt was born. The full skirt still had a place in women’s wardrobes, but as more revealing fashion became socially acceptable, women started gravitating towards knee length dresses and skirts.


And instead of using additional yardage in puffing up sleeves, jackets and coats with padded shoulders came about during the 1940s. As a result, outerwear pieces of 1940s style, like the Bolero Jacket, with its emphasis of big shoulders and slim waist, became extremely popular.


As full-length dresses and skirts started fading away, A line skirts in plaid, paired with button down tops and blouses became a staple 1940s dress item for the everyday woman. The necklines of 40s womens fashion also got a “face lift”. You could see women in offices, malls and in shopping plazas sporting sweetheart, square, V or keyhole cutouts.

Young Woman wearing knee length skirt and striped cardigan, 1940s

Young Woman wearing knee length skirt and striped cardigan, 1940s

40s fashion slants

The war, and ensuing depression, had its influence on how women in the 1920s and 30s dressed. The full skirt was a hallmark of the that era, with women workers in mills and factories dressing more like their male counterparts – sporting overalls and thick trousers and jackets. However, there was a much more feminine slant to 1940s dress styles. The boxy war era styles were slowly but surely being shed during the 1940s.


40s womens fashion embodied a subtle shift towards womanly fashion. And though floral print dresses and shorter length skirts became popular, women’s fashion designers of that era were rather modest – by today’s standards! – in their designs. For instance, the necklines of dresses with padded shoulders were designed to be eye-catching, but revealed little skin. Even designs of the knee length skirt, which 1940s women wore to work as well as after-work, were slanted towards modesty.


And while traditional flats were giving way to more lady-like peep toe pumps, wedges and sandals, 1940s women fashion didn’t entirely do away with its “manly fashion” roots. In fact, the masculinization of women’s wardrobes could also be considered a slant on a 1940s womens fashion statement.


Ladies pants with high waist cuts became ever popular, especially as more women entered the workforce. No where is the male influence on 40s womens fashion more prominently demonstrated, than in the popularity of the trench coat. Women fashion designers undoubtedly were inspired by military styles of the previous era, and channeled that inspiration in 1940s dress styles for women.

Woman wearing day dress, ironing, 1941

Woman wearing day dress, ironing, 1941

Daywear for 1940s women

By some measures, 1940s style could be considered a precursor to a more “liberated” women’s fashion that followed in the decades to come. However, the tea dress was usually what women favoured as daywear. Unless it was an extremely intimate or more formal occasion, pin-up dresses and evening gowns were restricted 1940s dress pieces.


The polka dot and small floral print were probably the most preferred in 1940s dress styles. Women of the 30+ age group preferred their tea dress to be in solid colours, and loved them with pockets and rick rack or piping.  Unlike knee length skirts that were fast becoming popular with women in the workforce, 1940s women preferred their tea dress and other daywear to have slightly longer hemlines.


40s womens fashion for daytime wear also popularized the shirtwaist dress. This was a house dress or tea dress that combined a skirt and top into a single piece of daywear. It was a practical piece of 1940s style that allowed women to slip it on without help from anyone, while they easily buttoned it up in a jiffy!


The popularity of the tea dress meant that women could more easily and quickly dress for most daytime events. Whether it was a stroll down the block, a day’s shopping at the mall, or to run a quick errand, the easy slip-on and off tea dress was the ideal garment for the purpose. Available in pointed collar or Peter Pan collar styles they didn’t feature padded shoulders as we know them today. However, puffed-up, frilly shoulder versions weren’t uncommon to see either.

Tulle and feathers, Pierre Balmain ,Angel evening dress, 1946

Tulle and feathers, Pierre Balmain ,Angel evening dress, 1946

Pulling off 1940s style

So, whether it’s daywear or the nigh time that you want to dress for, how best do you pull off 40s womens fashion?


The cocktail dress

If this is a super formal evening event, nothing says 1940s style like a nice vintage cocktail dress. Undoubtedly more elegant-looking than run of the mill daywear, like the tea dress or A line skirt, this piece of evening wear should be worn to mid-calf level, or perhaps even something with a knee length hem. You can enhance your look if your cocktail dress is reinforced with chiffon or tulle, with a bodice that’s low-cut.


If this is an outdoor chilly evening event, you could accessorise your cocktail dress with a woollen wrap or shawl to give it that authentic 1940s womens fashion finish. Wedges are out, because they really don’t fit in with the theme of a cocktail dress.  Stick to higher heeled footwear instead!

 Women working along men in shell production for the war effort, Midwest. USA, 1948

Women working along men in shell production for the war effort, Midwest. USA, 1948


1940s women workwear

Who says you can’t pull off 40s womens fashion at work even today?  Sure, everyone knows about wearing dresses and jackets with padded shoulders, but you don’t have to power-dress to create that authentic 1940s office girl look. Just think squarer shoulders, narrower hips, and knee length skirts and dresses – and you’ll be on your way!


If you love wearing skirts for work, think A line skirts! And even if you’re not particularly inclined towards power jackets or coats, a simple white blouse with padded shoulders will more than compliment your authentic 40s womens fashion look.


For pants-lovers, you can still pull off that 1940s look by wearing trousers (or “slacks” as they were called back then) to office. Remember though that office wear fashion in the 1940s wasn’t particularly figure flattering.  But you don’t have to strictly comply with that rule!


Pick pants that sit at your natural waistline, but to give it that authentic 40s fashion look, make sure your pants are straight-legged and have a wide waistband. If you fancy it, you could wear pants with loops, and finish it off with either a patent leather or matching cotton belt. A final word of caution: Authentic 1940s dress pants weren’t cuffed at the hem.

Women's shoes publicity advert, The Ladies' home journal, 1948

Women’s shoes publicity advert, The Ladies’ home journal, 1948



Believe it or not, despite the gorgeous floral print dresses, and tactfully cut spaghetti-sleeved cocktail dresses that shows some skin, it was women’s feet that became the centre of attention in the 1940s. The A line skirt encouraged women to wear their skirts higher, an obvious attention came to their feet!


The war had left shoe-making materials, like traditional leather and hides, in short supply. This lead 40s womens fashion designers to improvise on lady’s footwear. While wooden wedge heels and pumps gained popularity, leather footwear was still prized.


T-straps and the peep toe

Two innovative ideas, that adhered to leather rationing while still being fashionable, were T-straps and the peep toe.  Instead of fully covered toes, lady’s shoes were designed with the toes peeping out – hence the name peep toe!  The T-strap designs also meant that a lot of skin was left uncovered around the ankle and at the base of the foot.


For those looking to pull off an authentic 40s womens fashion style, you might want to consider wearing a peep toe as your footwear of choice. Its versatility means you can pair it with high waist pants or, if this is an ultra-casual event, wear your peep toe along with a super short knee length skirt or dress.



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