A fully illustrated history of 1940s fashion and style for women, from 1940 to 1949. The trends, designers, dresses, shoes, hairstyles, makeup and stories from the WW2 era and post war Paris.
Concise Illustrated History of 1940s Fashion and Style for Women
1.1940s Fashion Trends
2.WW2 Fashion – 1939 to 1945
a.WW2 Dresses – Utility Clothing
b.US War Restrictions on clothing
c.1940’s French Fashion under Occupation
d.German Fashion under the Nazis
e.1940’s American Fashion
3. Dresses, Skirts and Pants
4. Evening Dresses
5. Coats and Jackets
6. 1940’s Lingerie
8. 1940’s Hairstyles
9. Dior New Look 1947
Ilsa: I wasn’t sure you were the same. Let’s see, the last time we met was…
Rick: La Belle Aurore…Paris. I remember every detail. The Germans wore grey, you wore blue.
Ilsa: Yes. I put that dress away. When the Germans march out, I’ll wear it again.
Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart – Casablanca 1942
What did Women Wear in the 1940’s?
- 1940s fashion for women can be summarized as two distinct silhouettes.
The wedge silhouette of the early 40’s : wide masculine shoulders ending in a narrow waist, often decorated with Peplum detail over an A-line single pleated skirt.
- The hourglass silhouette of the late 1940’s, most famously represented by Dior’s New Look Corolle (flower) collection in 1947 : an overtly feminine bell shape skirt flaring out from a tightly cinched waist.
There is scant attention given to such frivolous matters as women’s fashion, when the history of conflict is recorded.
Since the Second World War had such a seismic impact on humanity, we do history a disservice to exclude fashions significance. I would contend that fashion is the absolute expression of a generations life experience.
We perceive the past visually, and women’s fashion gives as much insight into a period, as any visit to a military museum. The First World War blew away the corsets. The more military influenced styles paved the way for the gamine look of the 1920’s flapper. 1940s fashion for women is preserved endlessly on screen.
Women in WW2
The iconic femme fatale portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity 1944) .The brave and beautiful Lauren Bacall in ( T0 Have and Have Not 1944) . Deborah Kerr as the plucky MTC driver in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp 1943. These film images have helped cement the memory of the 1940’s woman, as well as 1940s fashion.
Silhouette Changes in the 1940’s
The 1940’s saw a major shift in style. Perhaps not as seismic as that which followed WW1, but a significant change nonetheless.
1940s fashion evolved from the inventive make-do and mending in the first half of the decade, to a renaissance in women’s style in the post war years. The New Look both celebrated the romantic styles of the past and embraced a forward thinking philosophy of a confident modern and glamorous woman.
1.1940s Fashion Trends
- Utility clothing: tax free basic all day suits dictated by official fabric restrictions
- Ladies Pants – high waist : now a socially accepted alternative to skirts
- Bolero jacket: padded shouldering and slim waist emphasis. A very popular style feature of the 1940’s
- Peplum jacket: over skirt attached to boxy jackets or blouses
- The shirtwaist dress; tailored collar and defined waist
- Bullet Brassieres
- Dirndl skirts
- The Trench Coat – a military influenced style
- The Pompadour and Victory Roll hairstyle
- Seamed hosiery – or painted seams due to Nylon shortage
- Sportswear – play-suits and swimsuits
- 1947 New Look from Paris
2. WW 2 Fashion – 1939 to 1945
At the outbreak of war, Paris was still the undisputed leader of world fashion. The commercial buyers headed as usual to the Parisian Autumn Haute Couture collections. The collections that year reflected the reality of what was to come, with women’s day wear looking more and more ‘masculine’ and tailored. The whimsical broad shouldered suits of 1938 now became boxy and military. Luxury evening wear was produced more for the American buyers, rather than for European.
For a while in the early 1940’s, fashion designers in London and Paris fell over themselves to come up with clever clothes for ‘women at war’. Garment names even hinted at exciting times ahead – shelter pajamas, siren suits, and so on. Even a handbag which converted into a gas mask! However the horrible reality of war put a stop to frivolity. The 1940 Paris autumn collections were completed just before the German occupying forces swept their way into Paris that June.
Influence of Hollywood Fashion
Despite the Unites States entry into war in 1941, the fashion industry flourished with the help of Hollywood, and while Paris’s star was fading under fascist occupation, American fashion became the prominent player during the war years.
Make Do and Mend
Women’s wardrobes were kept to a minimum in the early 1940’s .An emphasis on frugality and versatility. Looking at wedding photos of that period, they were simple affairs, very often with the bridesmaids in uniform. It was the utility clothing era, the ‘make-do-and-mend‘ era, when a woman’s style was hindered by budget and rationing. In England, some interesting novelties appeared such as luminous buttons for blackout conditions.
Nylon – the new wonder Fabric
The luxury synthetic Nylon, introduced in May 1940 had revolutionized 1940s fashion, and in particular, hosiery, only to be diverted to war production and labelled a luxury. A pair of Nylon stockings in the early 1940’s were a sure way to a young British or French girls heart and in 1944 American servicemen arrived with kit bags copiously filled with them.
WW2 Dresses – Utility Clothing
In Britain during the 1914 – 1918 war, the rationing of commodities including clothing, brought about the idea and subsequent late introduction of “standard clothing” in 1917. It was dropped shortly after the war ended as imports and manufacturing returned to normal.
Perhaps anticipating a long conflict, in 1941, the Board of Trade introduced the CC41 label ( or ‘controlled commodity’ but generally referred to as “civilian clothing”). Any clothing bearing the CC41 logo was tax free and made primarily from cotton and wool.
The Utility Dress of the 1940’s
In 1942 the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers or Inc.Soc comprising some of Britain’s notable designers such as Edward Molyneux, Norman Hartnell, Hardy Amies, Victor Stiebel and Elspeth Champcommunal . They submitted thirty-two designs which were modeled by volunteering female war-workers. The previous year a promotional film shot in lavish color by Jack Cardiff showcased many styles in cotton by these top designers.
Learn how the iconic Blitz Girls lived, the units they served in, the world war 2 dresses they wore, their hair and beauty rules, and so much more in the 1940’s WW2 Women Guides.
1940’s Wedding Dresses – War Brides
Despite rations, a typical 1940’s wedding dress was still glamorous. Often re-purposed from her mothers or Grand mother’s wedding gown.
A staggering estimate of 70,000 war brides left Britain during the 1940’s to be with their husbands.
From Coupons to Couture
The designs received such praise in Vogue that soon women were snapping up the colorful dresses. They were described by Vogue as “serenely perfect”. This shift to CC41 clothing restrictions was done with such style by Hartnell and Co, that they inadvertently introduced designer fashion to British high streets.
“The utility brand was a sartorial success,”says historian Julie Summers.“The government was convinced fashion could help win the war – by keeping morale up on the Home Front.“
Also it was thought that with Paris couture under constant threat of being moved to Berlin, this was London’s chance to become Europe’s new fashion capital.
As the war deepened, constrictions on fabric forced the Board of Trade to impose severe austerity in what was allowable in design. Non essentials included the amount of pleats on a skirt, as well as limitations on the amount of buttons, seams and ruching.
Using her annual allocation of sixty-six coupons, a woman could procure the following. An overcoat for 14 coupons, single dress for 11 coupons. Blouse for 5 coupons, a skirt for 7. Camiknickers for 4 coupons, a pair of wedge shoes for 5. Two bras for 2 coupons, and six pairs of stockings for 12 coupons.
By the end of the war, the annual allocation had reduced to just 24 coupons. While these measures helped, by 1943 even Utility and Austerity wasn’t enough. So the Board of Trade launched its Make-Do-and-Mend campaign.
The various women’s reserve units held an understandable appeal to women who otherwise could not afford a decent suit. The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The Women’s Royal Naval Service(WRNS or WRENS). The Auxiliary Territorial Service ( ATS) and The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA).
The uniforms may not have been as couture as their American counterparts, but British, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian women in the forces certainly cut an impressive figure. Early 1940s fashion is inextricably intertwined with the military look.
US War Restrictions on Clothing
In 1942, in the USA, the War Production Board introduced restrictions on allowable fabrics. They banned cuffs, hoods and limited the circumference of ladies skirts, jacket lengths and hems. Even the height of your heels were under observation ! Swimsuits had the midriff cut out to save fabric and the two piece swimsuit ( though around in the 1930s, became more the norm ).
1940’s Clothing Restrictions in the US
- Dress/Skirt Hems – Maximum 2 inch depth
- Jacket Length – 28 inches or less in length
- Heel Height – Maximum 1 ½ inch
- Skirt circumference – Maximum 84 inches
- Slack Bottom Width – Maximum 14 ½ inches
- Blouse Sleeve Width – Maximum 14 inches
- Bathing Suit – 10% reduction in fabric
Despite restrictions, American women in uniform were quite glamorous, compared to their British counterparts. The uniforms of the WAVES, was the envy of all.
1940’s French Fashion under Occupation
The recent revelation of color photographs by photographer Andre Zucca of Paris under Nazi occupation appear to be in direct contradiction to Paris’s collective memories of this period. The images of glamorous Parisians and Nazi uniformed soldiers mingling in apparent harmony resulted in an outcry of “Nazi propaganda.” This public fraternization with German soldiers brought about an ugly retribution against many women accused of collaboration horizontale post liberation in 1944.
Closure of Paris Salons during WW2
The invasion of Paris however laid siege to the fashion industry for the duration. During the four year occupation of Paris many fashion houses closed. However just as many remained open. Lucien Lelong, president of La Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture later defended salons remaining open under Nazi rule, declaring that the livelihoods of thousands would have been destroyed; from designers, seamstresses, embroiderers, milliners and models, to the satellite industries such as corset, shoe, button and ribbon makers etc. His argument being that this was a gesture of defiance to the occupier as well as a contribution to the survival of Frances economy.
However this did not stand up too well after the war when it became clear that many salons had continued to create luxury clothing for wealthy clients in a time when most French citizens were living in severe austerity and rationing. Christian Dior wryly remarked that “many of these nouveau riche customers should have been shot in their little black dresses!” (Emmamuelle Dirix – 1940s Fashion Sourcebook).
To Lelongs credit he successfully fought Hitlers expressed desire to shut Paris’s fashion houses down and remove the entire operation to Berlin. As a result major fashion houses remained open in occupied Paris, including Lelong, Jeanne Lanvin, Jean Paquin, Jacques Fath, Pierre Balmain, Worth and many more. Some twelve thousand workers held on to their livelihood as a result.
Coco Chanel and the Nazis in occupied Paris
However many non french designers fled the country. Schiaparelli moved to America, Molyneux moved back to Britain. The House of Chanel remained closed for the duration. Chanel’s own behavior during the war, her criticism of the French Resistance and close association with the Nazis severely tarnished her reputation for many years.
It has become clearer in more recent years, just how close that fraternizing had become; her long affair with embassy attache Hans Gunther von Dincklage, the director of propaganda for the Reich, and how she was in fact considered an ‘agent’ by the Gestapo who had used her association with Winston Churchill to try and influence Britain.
Historian Hal Vaughan in his book Sleeping with the Enemy summed up Chanel’s attitude perhaps most accurately.”Chanel didn’t care about Hitler or politics or Nazism. She was a consummate opportunist. She gravitated toward power and the Nazis were in power.”
During the round-up of fraternizers that followed the liberation of Paris, her fame clearly saved her from imprisonment.
German Fashion in the 1940’s
Often overlooked was how the 1940s fashion industry in Germany fared under National Socialism. Weimar Berlin was a city of Haute Couture in the 1920s. German Expressionism in art, design and film was hugely influential across the world. But when the Nazis took power, they began a concerted effort to return style to the Trachdenkledung or ‘traditional dress’ . Also from 1933 onward, a concerted effort began to oust Jewish designers, and fabric suppliers from the industry. Notable Jewish photographers like Yva or Else Ernestine Neuländer-Simon had disappeared from all the magazines by 1937.
Despite the 1934 country-wide tour by the propaganda label Adefa (Association of Aryan Garment Producers) most wealthier German women continued to buy from non-Aryan designers in order to look chic.
The Dirndl Dress
Trachten für Damen mode ( dubbed Gretchen by its detractors) was promoted in newsreels, showing fresh faced healthy girls wearing Dirndl dresses, though German fashion magazines like Beyers Mode Fur Alle and Mode und Heim largely ignored them and carried on featuring Paris designs.
The Tyrol Look did however briefly become a la mode in the USA, updated by designers like Claire McCardell and often seen in Hollywood movies. The dirndl dress and skirt has its place in 1940s fashion history.
The Adefa Clothing label finally achieved its aims after Kristallnacht on 9th of November 1938. Thereafter Jewish establishments were rapidly sold or closed, and when Paris was occupied, Magda Goebbels was said to have remarked that “elegance will disappear, along with the Jews from Berlin”.
1940’s American Fashion
Now with Paris firmly smothered, the American fashion industry, fueled by Hollywood, took over. You only have to compare 1940s fashion magazines of the war years; from the sparse European issues of L’Officiel de la Mode to their abundant and colorful American counterparts such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, to clearly see that Paris had lost its star.
Paris Loses supremacy to the American Look
The days of couture copying of fashion designers by the 1940’s were gone. America firmly developed her own look.As in Britain, new 1940s fashions were dictated by scarcity and rationing of fabric, but also by the huge influence of Hollywood costume designers
During the war years, it was in sportswear and separates where US fashion made its mark. Designers like Hattie Carnegie, Claire McArdell, Pauline Trigere and Nettie Rosenstein became household names, their simple designs employing the shirtwaist dress making a comeback in stores across the country.
The American Look had evolved steadily in the late 1930’s, energized by Hollywood, with wide shoulders, slim hips and rising hems led by the likes of costume designer Gilbert Adrian.
Costume Designers like Renie Conley helped cement the ideal American white collar female with her Kitty Foyle Dress, as popularized by Ginger Rogers in the 1940s film of the same name.
Jantzen began adding colorful sweaters, shapely girdles and play suits to their swimwear line by the 1940’s, and were the most recognized swimwear brand in the world.
Women now regularly wore pants, again popularized by Hollywood stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn and Carole Lombard. A novelty in the 1930s, pants were now a staple item in 1940s fashion.
Military Fashion in 1940’s USA
Military fashion following the US entry in the war, made quite an impact when it came to 1940s fashion and glamour. The Women’s Army Corps (WAC), the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services (WAVES), the United States Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARs). Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), United Service Organisations (USO) and their glamorous recruiting posters, all epitomize a fashion era that is uniquely American and very non-French.
In particular, the two Navy auxiliary units – the WAVES and the SPARS were the envy of all; they had their very own New York couturier – Mainsbocher !
Rosie the Riveter
In 1942, artist J. Howard Miller created the inspirational image of Rosie the Riveter to help boost worker morale. The We Can Do It poster is now confirmed to have been inspired by a widely circulated photo of a young San Franciscan factory worker Naomi Parker. Her icon red polka dot scarf has since become a 1940s fashion icon. The name “Rosie” though was first attributed to Norman Rockwell’s later poster from 1943, which featured a more masculine woman.
WW2 Women – Memorabilia
For anyone interested in memorabilia of American women in service in WW2, their fashions, uniforms, hairstyles, lifestyles and so much more, you can now download direct to your device 1940s US Wartime Womens Guides. Rare restored handbooks, sewing guides, magazines, beauty and hairstyle advice.
The leading light by a long way in 1940s fashion in the USA was Claire McCardell. In 1943, her utility themed pop-over dress at just $6.95 sold in the thousands. In Claire McCardells designs, a woman went to work smart!
Parisian Haute Couture however did quietly make advances …during the war years, with 19th century lines increasingly taking hold. As a result, by the end of the war, as Allied troops marched into the city they were greeted by excited women sporting a whole new silhouette.
Gone was the boxy military lines – waists and shoulders had narrowed and hips had widened, and when Christian Dior produced his Corolle Collection in 1947, dubbed The New Look, all eyes had turned to Paris once again.
The Cheongsam dress
One piece of Asian dress to make an impact in Hollywood fashion during the 1940’s thanks to actresses like Yoshiko Yamaguchi and Li Li-Hua was the Chinese Cheongsam, a tight fitting adaptation of the traditional Qipao which materialized during the 1920’s and unlike the shapeless shift dresses of the flapper, hugged the curves of the body. In China this dress was hugely popular throughout the Republican era of the 1930’s and on into the 1940’s.
3.1940’s Dresses, Skirts and Pants
With a distinct war era and post war look (discussed later), women’s dresses, skirts and pants in the 1940’s were defined by the silhouette.
And that look was often quite masculine, even militaristic. The style was of a newly empowered but still feminine woman.
The war era suit, with its tailored look, nipped in waist and boxy shoulders was worn with short bolero jackets for formal, and cardigans and jackets to just below the waist for informal.
Hips were given attention by wearing tunics and by 1944 peplums became a regular feature which heralded more shapely times to come.
1940’s skirts had less pleats and hems were high – just to below the knee and the simple shirtwaist dress echoed the freedom of the 1920’s. The military influence was evident with belts and collars and an overall mannish feel to the ensemble.
In England, women were encouraged to wear the utility dress and many had joined the forces and were mostly seen in uniform.
In the countryside, the Women’s Land Army ( formed during the 1914-18 war) fondly remembered as the Land Girls, with their heavy overalls, woolen sweaters and headscarves were a common sight astride haystacks and at the wheels of tractors.
Women’s Pants in the 1940’s
In America, the various women’s reserves, with their considerably more glamorous uniforms helped galvanize a new industry. Everyday the growing popularity of women’s pants in the 1940’s, in sports wear and understated separates. At the beach in summer, short pants were also increasingly acceptable. They would evolve into the short shorts of the 1950’s and reach their height, so to speak, in the risque hot pants style of the early 1970’s.
The ever popular shirtwaist dress was reworked using utilitarian fabrics and the wearing of trousers with woolen sweaters and cardigans was now a quite acceptable and respectable mode for day wear in the 1940’s.
Though the Paris silhouette had changed to a more classical feminine silhouette by the end of the war, with peplums and draping on most outfits, it wasn’t until 1947 that Christian Dior’s Corolle line, dubbed as ‘the New Look‘ moved the line back to more feminine curves. American designers like Adrian initially hated the frau frau of post war Paris, and few women had the figure to adopt it, but by the end of the decade, Paris would soon be on everyone’s radar again.
4. 1940’s Evening Dresses
By 1939, Paris evening-wear was taking on a distinct 19th century tone again with corseted waists and full skirts. The outbreak of war however put paid to this frivolity in anywhere but wealthier class circles and in of course Hollywood movie-land. During the war, for the average woman, formal evening dresses were abandoned due to strict austerity measures and the 1940s fashion silhouette remained boxy.
Film – 1940’s Evening Dresses – Fashion Trends
In this mid 1940’s dress film, two young American girls discuss what each of them should wear for a dance occasion. How much ornamentation, their makeup, their hair. Important stuff indeed. A gem to watch for fans of 1940s evening dresses.
It was acceptable to wear the same dress on a Friday or Saturday evening, if going out after work. The work suit could be glamorized by a pretty hat or a fur collar, and of course the ever important red lipstick.
After liberation the Paris couture houses who had continued to cater for wealthy clients during Nazi occupation, had to tone down their lines for exporting to countries where austerity measures were in place.
In Paris, while the fuller and longer skirts with side bows, peplums, back yokes and waist cinchers were being studiously designed, it was considered to be somewhat of a revelation to the rest of the world in the post war years.
5.1940’s Women’s Coats and Jackets
1940s coats and jackets screamed “masculinity”, with coats sporting hoods and deep pockets, inspired by Schiaparelli’s ‘cash and carry’ line of 1939.
Broad shoulders and mannish lines were the order of the day in 1940s fashion. The gabardine raincoat, belted single breasted coats and double breasted coats. Capes were common for both girls and older women and in America, sporty ski jackets were a favorite. Sears catalogue was full of imitation furs which feminized the more mannish coat styles.
The aforementioned belted gabardine trench coats with their military mannish silhouette were very much in vogue as a winter coat on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as faux furs which helped add a little pre-war glamour to otherwise utilitarian suits.
The standard set of 1940’s lingerie when wearing a dress comprised a brassiere and pantie girdle, worn under a slip. Women in uniform were advised to limit their underwear to a simple pair of directoire knickers and vest made from fine wool. With the make do and mend edict in full swing, women would often hand knit their own.
Simplicity in 1940s Lingerie
Many women cherished a good corselette if they had a slim figure. It helped a uniform sit better with easy fasteners for stockings. That being said, as many women wore trousers for large parts of the day, often doing heavy manual work, so less restrictive underwear was preferable.
Most young women possessed a good pull-on pantie girdle which could be worn with skirt or pants. A simple slip was generally worn over bra and panties and you were good to go.
7. 1940s Accessories
The 1940’s woman made an art of accessorizing, in particular with hats and gloves. Author Grace Morton declared that “wearing hats is our method of singing in the dark!” Bags were large and functional and as useful as the larger pockets in coats.With zips unavailable, the draw-string bag was the alternative. Leather shoes were hard to come by but thanks to the innovations of the likes of Italian designer Salvatore Ferragamo, there were many alternatives from reptile skins to straw!
Many women saved their precious nylons by resorting to woolens or in the warmer months, cosmetic leg paint – liquid stockings, of which there were many varieties available.With the increasing austerity of war in Europe however, many had to resort to mixtures made from tea, cocoa or gravy.
Once the legs were painted, the seams were painstakingly drawn up the back of the calf. For younger women, the alternative was to simply wear ankle socks. In the USA, women handed in their used stockings for use in war production, and various cotton stockings were back on the market once more with colored prints and meshes offering novelty in a time of restrictions.
During 1946 there was literally a run on stockings across the world when nylons became available again, with large queues outside department stores. Nylons were back with a bang and women the world over snapped them up.
1940’s Shoes for Women
The most severe restrictions in 1940s fashion during WW11 applied to footwear. Leather was to be exclusively used for military boots – no exception.
Though high 1940s fashion shoes, for those who could afford them, were extremely stylish and in leathers of various kinds, for most women, wooden, synthetic cork soled shoes were a reality. In general, 1940’s shoes were plain and designed for long term use. Most women would have one of at least three types of shoe: Oxfords, Pumps and Sandals.
Oxfords came in service type with round toes and leather heel; Dress Tie with a Cuban heel; and Two eyelet with square toe and leather heel.
Pumps came in Kidskin with Cuban heel; Calfskin with wedge heel; and for the lucky – patent leather with a high continental heel.
Sandals came in fabric upper with a pyramid heel; Calfskin with wedge heels; and Sling type with French heel.
Where to get 1940’s style shoes today
In America, peep-toes were popular and satin mules were a must for the boudoir. After the war, with the advent of the New Look, massive platforms and wedges were out and replaced with daintier narrow pumps again, slingbacks and sandals.
Above are some beautiful examples of popular shoes form the 1940’s by the excellent Moscow based site Shoe Icons. It’s a treasure trove for shoe lovers.
If you’re fed up trawling through thrift stores for vintage women shoes from the 1940s, then try Royal Vintage Shoes for beautiful bespoke vintage style shoes from the 1940s like these pictured below.
“Wear it at a jaunty angle” was the advice, no matter what your choice of hat, and there were many. The advent of up-do hairstyles and in particular pompadours, hats one could pin such as the pillbox became more and more a la mode. Adding a certain mystique to a woman’s hat and face were the addition of hat veils and were extremely popular again since the mid 1930’s. Modeled above by Gabriella D on [email protected]_wake.
Hats were not rationed, but expensive and many women considered the pillbox a tad frivolous, and chose to wrap their hair rolls in snoods, ( made popular by Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind ) turbans and head-scarves instead. These were more practical and safe when working in factories or farms.
The 1940s Turban or Headscarf epitomizes the war era woman, and was worn as a simple solution to long hair by the Land Girls or factory workers. And of course it adorns the many iconic images of Rosie the Riveter.
The 1940s beret briefly was ‘a la mode’ thanks to General Montgomery, whose successes with the Desert Rats in North Africa, made him a war celebrity.
In America crocheted skull caps by milliner Sally Victor made it to the cover of Vogue magazine in 1944.As in the 1920s, hairstyles and hats dictated to each other what the next mode was to be, and by the end of the decade, with cropped hair and shingles back in again, hat styles obliged with cloche styles and wide berets.
Despite it’s shortage during the war, DuPonts Nylon became the worlds first ‘celebrity” fabric.Hollywood movies pushed the boat out with a raft of new starlets in figures to die for. 1940’s Swimwear adapted to this new pin-up figure of small waists and pert breasts.
These new look ‘Esther Williams inspired’ swimsuits were not available to the public until after the war and Nylon was freed from conscription.
Nevertheless, vintage swimwear designers side stepped fabric restrictions and produced the ‘two-piece’ and began to redesign swimsuits to fit the Hollywood ideal. With Lastex out of the picture, they introduced boning and cinching, and with pin-up stars like Betty Grable, Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth, the 1940’s saw a huge leap in swimwear styles.
Notable designer swimwear names included Tina Leser, Claire McArdell and Carolyn Schnurer. The most notable item of swimwear of the 1940s was the bikini, launched in 1946 by French designer Louis Rèard, and named after the infamous US Atom bomb test on the Island of Bikini, the indigenous occupants of which had been forcibly removed.
As in the 1930’s, the 1940’s saw a marked rise in sports & leisure wear. At the beach, these comprised of early versions of the mini skirt, which could be worn under a wrap-over skirt.
Make-up in wartime, was important to moral, and in particular to a woman’s moral. US Army Nurse Corp nurse Ruth Haskell in her entertaining memoir Helmets and Lipstick ( available free on the Internet Archive) described a particularly poignant Christmas in 1942 when she was stationed in Algeria. ” A friend of mine who knew me rather well sent me two beautiful lipsticks, and I did welcome them! As I had once told my C.O, if ever I should stop using make-up there would be nothing left of my morale!”
The reality for many women in Europe, during and after the war, was that a trusty lipstick and powder compact was about the height of luxury that a girl could expect and pair of vivacious red lips was her statement of defiance and courage.
For women working in munitions factories, the phenomenon of skin yellowing from working with toxic chemicals daily, called for women to use heavy creams to shield their skin. In the USA, Max Factor regularly sent free supplies of make-up to factory workers which certainly boosted morale.
8.1940’s Hairstyles – Victory Rolls and Pin curls
In general hairstyles in the early 1940’s moved toward up-dos, with hair off the collar. In particular, the increased demand for women in manual work, and the shortage of hair products meant that women covered and tied up their hair in turbans and snoods when working. For the everyday woman hair was generally shoulder length and cut in many layers to enable easy styling.
Parting was usually to the side and styling elements consisted of soft waves, curls and rolls. Victory Rolls became a popular choice in the USA. The Pompadour hairstyle involving lots of back-combing and hair rats, was briefly popular but not practical. Accessories included bobby pins, combs and grips. Bumper hair bangs rolled forward or in reverse over hair rats were another popular coiffure in the early 1940’s.
Victory Rolls – An Iconic 1940’s Wartime Hairstyle
The term victory hair, was coined by Lana Turner in 1942. Victory Rolls were achieved by rolling reverse rolls ear to ear around a central parting. The front could be rolled and pin curled in reverse or forward bangs. The style wasn’t new, but the jaunty pin curls became more prominent and were enthusiastically adopted by millions of women during the war years.
The middy baby, middy or middy plus haircut were the three basic cuts throughout the 1940’s. The middy baby being adopted by college girls, and the others by older women. There’s more on how to do victory rolls plus vintage tutorials you can get.
The 1940’s up do hairstyle was accented by smaller more ornamental hats – in particular the pillbox. By 1945, the flat top hairdo replaced the pompadours, and a variety of side partings allowed for shorter coiffures.
The New Look from Paris finished off the decade in 1949 with a whole new silhouette yet again – the sheath and the shingle. Boyish haircuts were back !
9. The Dior New Look 1947
In 1945 and 1946, a travelling exhibition of miniature wire framed dolls from Paris called Theatre de la Mode, quickly asserted that Paris was on the rise again.
The exhibition was the brain child of Robert Ricci, son of designer Maria Nina Ricci and featured fresh new designs from 40 Paris couturiers, including young guns Cristobal Balenciaga, Jacques Fath and Pierre Balmain. The dolls themselves were designed by Elaine Bonabel and realized by sculptor Jean Saint-Martin .
The collection, believed lost for many years, can now be seen in all their restored glory at the MaryHill Museum of Art in Washington. Among the dolls was one particular polka dot dress from Lucien Lelong and it is almost certain this dress was by Christian Dior who still worked for Lelong. “He did not design himself, but worked through his designers,” Christian Dior later wrote.
The New Look 1947
In the early months of 1947, on the 12th February to be precise, a 42 year old Christian Dior astounded the fashion world with ninety silhouettes comprised in two lines: En Huit and Corolle.
It was an uncompromising change of silhouette. Harpers Bazaar editor Carmel Snow was overheard by a Reuters correspondent to exclaim to Dior afterwards “It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian, your dresses have a totally new look!“
The story goes that she seized the slogan, scribbled it on a note and threw it to a courier who posted it to the US that very day.
The newness of the dresses, in particular the bar suit, was reported in US papers before they appeared in France. Shoulders were narrow, waists were nipped using a waspie and skirts were enormous in their fullness. The ‘bar suit’ was featured in Vogue and represented a new year zero in fashion.
The Dior Bar Suit Photo Myth
The famous “New Look” photograph of Dior’s bar suit was immortalized, according to fashion historian Jonathan Walford – not in 1947, but in 1957 by model Renée Breton in a photo taken by Willy Maywald (image right).
This suit was an updated version made by Dior in 1955 for a lecture tour. It has a notched collar, instead of the original shawl collar from 1947, and flares out at the waist similar to the suit displayed at the V&A museum. Breton did model for Dior from 1947, but not in the bar suit.
The Original New Look Photo
The original bar suit ( image left) by Dior was reproduced for Vogue magazine April 1947 edition by Serge Balkin. The jacket has Six buttons – not five. This is displayed by the Met Museum. Walford also notes that in the Maywald photo, the shoes worn by Breton were captured in another photo taken in 1957. I do love a good detective story!
With the fuller silhouette and lower hems, there was perhaps nothing entirely new in this ‘new look’. It harked directly back to the Romantic eras.
Paris’s radical shift away from the austere linear silhouettes of the war years, made it impossible to ignore. Despite some furrowed brows and protests from American designers like Gilbert Adrian, the New Look was to developed two distinct silhouettes by the early 1950s; the gamine and the circular.
British designers like Edward Molyneux and Hardy Amies enthusiastically embraced the new romantic styles, adding nipped waists and softer lines to their first post war designs.
By 1949, the 1940s fashion silhouette had changed dramatically. The wide shouldered trend, begun back in the late 1930’s was over. With an end to war, femininity had returned to fashion.
That’s all !
© Stevie McGlinchey Glamourdaze.com
Fashion Since 1900 – Valerie Mendez / Amy de la Haye
1940s Fashion Source book – Emmanuelle Dirix & Charlotte Fiell
Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project
A Concise Illustrated History of Fashion – 1900 to 1919
Concise Illustrated History of Fashion – 1920 to 1929