1940s Fashion History


For more information on this decade in fashion history, check out our list of books and reviews at Recommended Reading. Also please visit our Links page.

For bibliography referencing, the author of this page is April Ainsworth.


Women's Vintage Fashions of the 1940s

Silhouette     In the first half of the decade, a trim waist and hips were contrasted with a broad chest and women's shoulder pads became a must.  Hair was curled or rolled and shoulder-length or slightly longer.  After the New Look debuted in 1947, shoulders sloped, waists cinched, and skirts flared wider and wider since wartime fabric rationing ended.

Common Designs in Vintage Clothing

  • The fitted jacket-and-skirt suit, with a peplum to the hip
  • One- and two-fabric day dresses with 3- or 4-sided squarish curved necklines, the bust shaped by soft gathers above or below, and sometimes swags or drapery on the skirt
  • Lace and taffeta eveningwear with asymmetric, bouffant styling
  • Cap-sleeved cotton or rayon blouses and matching tap-style shorts or wide-leg pants for recreation


Fabrics Available     Natural fibers (linen, cotton, wool, and silk), rayon, acetate, and nylon. Light- to medium-weight fabrics used, with light and sheer materials for nightwear.  Nylon was seen as net overlays on formals and as the sole material in some sheer day dresses.


Popular Colors and Prints     Most daywear was in conservative colors, though some morning dresses had bright or bold floral or abstract figured prints.  Evening saw more soft shades, and also classic navy and black.  Casual clothes were sometimes boldly colored, with a lean towards western motifs.

Trims and Detailing    Little trimming appeared on clothing during this era, excepting some evening wear. Instead, fancy covered buttons, extra tailoring details, or fabric contrasts provided variety. One standard was two large hip pockets at either side of the waist, a regular fashion into the 50s.


Hemlines Day and Night     For day, just below the knee was standard, but some dresses fell to mid-calf.  At night, at least ankle-length was necessary except for the cocktail hour.

The Latest Fads    Hats of every shape and size were fashionable, and was a style that began in the previous decade. One novelty hat fashion was the 'doll hat', a miniature version of a ladies' hat worn by grown women for toyish effect.  Shoulder pads occasionally reached wide, pointy, or hollowed proportions.  Hot items were alligator accessories, platform shoes, and marten stoles (long fox-like animals strung together).



  • Four new synthetics: saran (1941), metallic (1946), modacrylic (1949), and olefin (1949)
  • Technology developed to stop crocking in suede

From Our Archives     Interview with Janine Pons, Model in Paris 1948-1950