You might be interested to read the other posts in this series: 1950s
The 1940s were a time of international war, which in Britain was followed by many years of rationing and rebuilding in the face of massive social changes, such as the return of servicemen and the reshuffling of women’s roles in society. In nations such as Australia and New Zealand, shortages also continued for a period of time post-war, while the changing roles and interactions of men and women coloured the end of the decade across the world. Austerity and the disruption of life and society was reflected in the clothing of the 1940s.
In the first half of the 1940s, women in nations such as Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and then the USA took on a range of work roles that had previously been closed to them, as they filled in for men who had gone away to war. Women, having previously been restricted to housework, child rearing and a small range of ‘suitable’ jobs, were suddenly employed in such diverse occupations as farming, driving buses and trains, working in munitions factories, manning searchlights, and undertaking all the necessary day to day running of their nation.
Women’s clothing was affected by two key things: the need for clothing to be suitable for women’s new roles and jobs; and the rationing of clothing, shoes and fabrics as material was diverted to the war effort.
As a result, silhouettes narrowed, with broader shoulders matched with nipped in waists and slimline skirts such as A-line and wiggle styles.
Wide legged trousers were also a welcome addition to the working woman’s wardrobe, becoming as they did acceptable for women of all classes for the first time. As fabric became harder to get, women sometimes cut down and reworked old trousers that had belonged to the men of the family.
As a result of both the reworking of men’s clothes, and the pervasiveness of military uniforms, masculine detailing on women’s clothes became very popular. Details such as military style buttons were seen.
While hats were exempt from rationing in Britain, the fashion was for small, jaunty hats, often fashioned on military caps such as the side cap style.
For women working in roles where hats were unsuitable, decorative and protective alternatives included headscarves, snoods and turbans.
Some women wore all-in-one boiler suits for their work as mechanics or factory workers, while others were outfitted in uniform skirt, jacket and tie for their work with the women’s branches of the military.
For women who worked on farms, trousers were often paired with home made cable-knit jumpers, typically in earthy tones such as mustard and ecru. A snood or headscarf kept hair clean and neat.
When off duty, home knitted twin sets made from wool unravelled from older jumpers, floral print cotton and rayon dresses.
Unlike the past, when only the poorest or the most rebellious women went stocking-free, the diversion of silk and nylon to the war effort meant that many women now went without, with some young women using gravy or purpose-bought dyes to paint their legs in a facsimile of stockings. A steady hand was needed to draw a straight ‘seam’ line using an eye pencil!
In shoes, low platforms, block cuban heels and low to mid height heels with details such as straps and laces were all popular in leather and suede.
Women still wore gloves in the 1940s, though net gloves had started to take over from suede and kid leather. An easy and cheap way to dress up in the face of rationing was costume jewellery, with ‘paste’ jewel brooches, necklaces and earrings available.
Handbags were small and boxy, typically in blue, brown or black leather or suede.
Calf length skirts and dresses were common because they used less fabric than full length. Many women reused old clothing, taking it apart and resewing it into something new.
When getting new clothes, it was cheaper to buy fabric and sew your clothes yourself than to buy ready-made clothing. Cheaper fabrics such as rayon, which came in pretty, bright prints, were popular, while fabric-saving vee and sweetheart necklines were accessorised with brooches and corsages of flowers for evening wear.
Peplums began to gain popularity as a way of dressing up a simple, narrow evening dress or a simple, nipped-waist jacket.
Underwear may be home knitted from a pattern, or ready bought rayon or cotton. “Tap pants” and longline bra vests/singlets were popular styles, while rayon slips could be worn under dresses.
By the late 1940s, Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’, with its voluminous skirts and narrow waists, was all the rage. However, the continued rationing and cost of fabric meant that it was the movie stars, not the ordinary women, who were wearing the latest fashion from 1947 onward.
To follow soon, Know Your Decade: The 1960s