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1940s Fashion Evolution: Decade Highlights from Dresses to Slang

The 1940s marked an era of profound change worldwide, and the fashion industry was no exception. During World War II, fashion faced constraints like rationing of materials, which subtly influenced the designs and styles of the decade.

Despite these restrictions, iconic trends emerged. For women, the style was characterized by practicality and simplicity due to wartime austerity. Dresses often had squared shoulders, narrow hips, and knee-length hems.

However, the late 1940s witnessed a fashion revolution when Christian Dior introduced the “New Look,” featuring rounded shoulders, a cinched waist, and a full skirt, which played a pivotal role in reestablishing Paris as a fashion capital.

A Bustling 1940S New York City Street Scene With Men And Women Wearing Stylish 1940S Fashion, Including Tailored Suits And Elegant Dresses, With Classic Hairstyles And A Vintage Movie Theater In The Background

In contrast, men’s fashion saw less drastic changes, focusing instead on refinement of existing styles. Suits remained an essential wardrobe staple, though they were cut to conserve fabric.

Military-inspired clothing became a part of civilian attire, indicating the inescapable influence of the global conflict on daily life.

Outside of fashion, popular culture was thriving with Hollywood movies featuring 1940s actresses who set beauty standards for women worldwide. The decade also resonated with the sound of 40s music, and technological advancements began to shape a new lifestyle in both America and Europe.

Key Takeaways

  • The 1940s introduced functional fashion for women and refinements in men’s fashion due to wartime constraints.
  • Christian Dior’s “New Look” became emblematic of the decade’s fashion, highlighting the era’s cultural shift towards glamour post-war.
  • Hollywood and 40s music were integral in popularizing the era’s style, influencing beauty norms and everyday life.

1940s Fashion Overview

The 1940s was a decade where fashion underwent significant changes, especially due to the impact of World War II.

Early in the decade, the silhouette was defined by broad shoulder pads and a nipped-in waist. Mid-way, there was a shift towards more practical designs, such as the “Victory Suit” for men and utility clothing for women, emphasizing quality and practicality.

Women’s clothing experienced a transformation from strictly functional to a softer, more feminine silhouette post-war.

The iconic “New Look” by Christian Dior, introduced in 1947, highlighted a cinched waist and a full skirt, revitalizing haute couture with luxurious fabrics post-rationing. This vintage fashion style persisted, influencing clothing design for several years.

Accessories like hats, gloves, and handbags were essential to complete one’s ensemble, adding a touch of elegance and personality.

Simple and natural makeup styles were embraced, with bright red lips making a bold statement during these challenging times.

1940s fashion was not only about appearances—it mirrored the era’s social changes and was a response to wartime constraints.

Thus, while maintaining a balance of function and form, casual wear grew in popularity, leading to a laid-back yet refined style that reflected resilience and adaptability.

Women’s Clothing

The 1940s were a significant period for women’s fashion marked by resourcefulness and adaptability. This era embraced materials like rayon, cotton, and wool, adapting to wartime constraints while evolving women’s clothing to reflect a mix of comfort and style.

Dresses and Skirts

Women in the 1940s commonly wore A-line skirts and dresses that emphasized an hourglass figure, often with padded shoulders to enhance the silhouette.

Dresses ranged from practical daywear to elegant evening styles, including the popular cocktail dress and more formal attire. Day dresses typically featured buttons down the front and a modest Peter Pan collar. Wool and rayon were widespread fabrics due to their availability and durability.

  • Day Dresses: Cotton or rayon, knee-length, often with sweetheart neckline.
  • Evening Wear: Longer lengths in silk or rayon, frequently seen with a halter top.

Blouses and Tops

Blouses were an everyday staple, often made of cotton or rayon and adorned with modest embellishments.

Tops had features like padded shoulders and were worn tucked into skirts to maintain a neat, defined waistline. The blouses projected simplicity and femininity, often highlighted by delicate floral patterns or small, discrete ruffles.

  • Key Features: Peter Pan collars, padded shoulders, slim-fitting.


Women’s outerwear consisted of coats and jackets tailored to align with the prevalent hourglass silhouette. Wool was a principal material, providing both warmth and structure.

Shorter bolero jackets gained popularity, particularly when worn over dresses. Fur, although less common, was still used for trims and collars on more luxurious items.

  • Coats: Tailored wool, often with a cinched waist.
  • Jackets: Bolero style or fitted blazers in wool or rayon.


1940s lingerie aimed to create a smooth, structured foundation for outer garments.

Bras and girdles were essential for shaping the desired figure, while slips made of silk or rayon prevented dresses from clinging.

Socks and stockings were also important, particularly with the scarcity of nylon during the war years.

  • Bras and Girdles: Enhancing the hourglass silhouette.
  • Slips: Silk or rayon, worn to ensure dresses hung correctly.

Men’s Clothing

In the 1940s, men’s fashion was signified by sharp suits, practical casual wear, and robust outerwear, reflecting a period that was vastly influenced by WWII. Sartorial choices were driven by rationing and utility but maintained style and class elements.

Suits and Trousers

Men’s suits in the 1940s exhibited broad shoulders and a nipped waist, emphasizing a masculine silhouette.

The Victory Suit, a wartime adaptation, removed excess fabric like cuffs and vests to save on materials.

Trousers were wide-legged at the top, tapering down to the ankle, and were typically made of wool or a wool blend.

Common colors for suits included navy, grey, and brown. Ties were a crucial accessory, often striped or with subtle patterns.

  • Colors: Navy, Grey, Brown
  • Materials: Wool, Wool Blends
  • Accessories: Ties (striped, patterned)

Casual Wear

Casual attire grew in popularity with the introduction of sportswear.

Denim became more commonplace, especially in the form of overalls and workwear worn by men off-duty.

Casual shirts were loose and comfortable, often plaid or single-color, paired with wool trousers or slacks.

The hat remained an indispensable accessory, with the fedora being a popular choice.

  • Shirts: Loose, Comfortable, Plaid
  • Bottoms: Wool Trousers, Denim
  • Accessories: Fedora, Caps


Outerwear in the 1940s was built for both function and fashion.

Men sported coats and jackets made from heavy fabrics for durability.

Surplus military-style garments like the bomber jacket became fashionable civilian wear post-war. Leather also featured prominently, offering both warmth and a sense of ruggedness in outerwear styles.

  • Styles: Military Bomber Jackets, Heavy Coats
  • Materials: Heavy Fabrics, Leather

Fashion Accessories

During the 1940s, accessories were not just fashion statements but practical elements that complemented the overall attire of men and women.

With raw materials often redirected for wartime efforts, the fashion industry adapted, leading to innovations in style and materials.

Hats and Headwear

Hats were a staple of 1940s fashion, with a variety of styles being popular.

Women often wore snoods, turbans, and head scarves, both for their decorative appeal and for practical purposes, such as keeping hair out of the way during work.

The snood in particular became a fashionable and functional choice, as it could stylishly contain longer hair.

Men’s hats included the classic fedoras and trilbies, which conferred a sense of dignity and sharpness to an outfit.


Footwear during the 1940s had to balance practicality and style amidst material shortages.

Leather was rationed, leading to the use of alternative materials.

Women’s shoes, such as wedges and peep-toe pumps, often had wooden or cork soles and were paired with nylon or rayon seamed stockings — when they weren’t being hoarded as a result of the nylon shortage wartime caused.

For men, loafers and oxfords were the norm, often worn with socks that matched the color of their suits for a cohesive look.

Bags and Gloves

In the 1940s, handbags and gloves were essential accessories for both day and evening wear.

Leather remained a luxury for handbags, but as the decade progressed, new materials like faux leather and fabrics became more commonplace.

Women’s gloves were typically worn for various occasions, ranging from short cotton gloves to more elegant long satin or nylon gloves for formal events.

Men, on the other hand, might have carried simple leather gloves, particularly in colder climates.

Beauty and Hairstyles

In the 1940s, beauty trends reflected a mix of practicality and glamour, influenced by Hollywood and wartime resilience.

Women balanced wartime austerity with a desire to maintain a polished appearance, often epitomized in the meticulously styled hair and defined makeup looks of the era.

Makeup Trends

During the 1940s, makeup was characterized by its emphasis on a natural, yet enhanced complexion.

Base foundation was used to create a smooth canvas, often topped with a light dusting of powder to mattify the skin.

The cheeks were given a healthy glow with rosy blush, a subtle hint to a youthful and fresh-faced look.

Eyes were defined by neutral eyeshadows and a winged eyeliner that provided a dramatic flair indicative of Hollywood’s influence.

However, it was the lips that became the statement feature, with bold red lipstick becoming synonymous with the decade, symbolizing both the allure of the silver screen and the tenacious spirit of the ‘Rosie the Riveter’ archetype.

  • Complexion: Natural foundation, light powder, rosy blush
  • Eyes: Neutral eyeshadows, winged eyeliner
  • Lips: Bold red lipstick


1940s hairstyles are a distinctive representation of the era’s duality between functionality and elegance.

Women often wore their hair at a length that allowed for both work-friendly updos and glamorous curls for evenings out.

With resources limited during the war, improvisation led to the popularity of hair accessories such as snoods, which kept longer hair neatly tucked away while working.

Iconic victory rolls and the pompadour style showcased the creativity and resilience of women during this time, creating volume and shape that enhanced the face and complemented the makeup trends.

Hollywood stars often sported these hairstyles, their waves and rolls impeccably in place, becoming fashion trendsetters for women across the country.

  • Practical Updos: Snoods, simple buns for work
  • Curls: Soft waves, often set with rag curls or pin curls
  • Iconic Styles: Victory rolls, pompadours

Fashion in Society

The 1940s pivoted fashion in society, intricately linked with Hollywood glamour and the austere demands of World War II. This dynamic era witnessed a transformation in clothing, influenced by both celebrities and wartime necessities.

Hollywood and Celebrities

Hollywood in the 1940s was a beacon of fashion trends, with actresses like Rita Hayworth setting style standards.

Their on-screen attire often led to off-screen imitation, translating feminine silhouettes and glamorous details into everyday wear.

Movies like “Gilda,” where Hayworth donned stunning gowns, significantly impacted public fashion sensibilities, resulting in a surge of demand for similar designs.

Despite rationing, Americans yearned for the sophisticated elegance they saw in theatres, making Hollywood a powerful fashion influence.

World War II Impact

World War II left an indelible mark on 1940s fashion. As rationing took hold, materials like nylon became scarce, causing Americans to innovate with fabrics and designs.

This scarcity birthed “Make Do and Mend” practices, encouraging them to repurpose existing clothing.

Utility clothing was introduced by the American government, featuring simple, economic designs that adhered to fabric allowances.

Meanwhile, American designers flourished as European fashion houses struggled amidst the war, allowing for a fresh, American perspective in fashion that emphasized practicality without compromising on style.

Popular Entertainment

The 1940s was a vibrant decade for entertainment, with Hollywood producing classic movies and the music scene seeing a surge in records of popular songs that defined the era.

1940s Movies

The film industry in the 1940s was dominated by Hollywood, experiencing what is often referred to as its “Golden Age.”

This period was characterized by significant growth in movie production and the rise of iconic studios.

Notable 1940s movies include Casablanca and Citizen Kane, which showcased the era’s love for drama and romance infused with glamour and sequins.

The decade also witnessed the introduction of technical innovations in audio and visual effects, enhancing the cinematic experience for viewers.

Music of the Era

Music in the 40s witnessed the popularity of big bands and the beginning of the swing movement.

Records became the primary medium for audiences to enjoy music, leading to an increase in sales and a cultural shift in audio consumption.

Some popular songs in the 1940s that topped the charts included “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby and “Take the ‘A’ Train” by Duke Ellington.

These songs from the 40s resonated with the optimistic and sometimes sentimental spirits of the era.

Music from the 1940s was often experienced through live performances, radio broadcasts, and jukeboxes, which became popular fixtures in diners and soda shops.

Cultural Trends

The 1940s saw unique cultural expressions that were evident in the language and naming conventions of the time. These aspects offer a glimpse into the era’s zeitgeist, influenced by significant historical events.

1940s Slang

In the 1940s, slang terms were often grounded in the socio-economic and political climate.

For example, terms like “gobbledygook” referred to language that was overly complex or jargon-heavy, a comment on the bureaucratic talk of the time.

“Take a powder” meant to leave or disappear, which could refer to soldiers going away to war.

The use of “buzz”, meaning news, rumors, or gossip, grew popular possibly due to the increased importance of staying informed during wartime.

Names and Naming Trends

Names in the 1940s often mirrored society’s admiration for iconic figures or values.

Naming trends showed a pattern of classic and strong names, such as James, John, and Mary, which were among the most popular.

“Mary”, always a classic choice, carried religious significance while also signifying wholesomeness, a quality valued during the uncertain times of the 1940s.

Other popular names like “Patricia” and “Barbara” were favored for their sophisticated yet approachable tones.

These trends in naming reflect broader societal tendencies towards tradition and stability amidst a world at war.

1940s Technological Advancements

The 1940s was an era marked by significant technological advancements that greatly impacted various industries. Notably, the period saw revolutionary changes in automobile design and the development of new textiles that expanded functionality and influenced fashion.

Automobile Design

During the 1940s, car manufacturers introduced vehicles with aerodynamic styling and improved engineering.

The design of 1940s cars featured ponton styling, which fully integrated the fenders into the body of the car, creating a sleeker profile.

Innovations in safety, like the padded dashboard, and convenience features, such as automatic transmission, became more common.

For instance, the Oldsmobile “Hydra-Matic” launched in 1940 marked the industry’s first fully automatic transmission.

Advancements in Textiles

The decade observed a remarkable shift in the textile industry with the introduction of synthetic fibers like nylon, rayon, and modified cotton.

Originally developed in the late 1930s, nylon’s production surged during the 1940s, especially for use in parachutes and other military supplies during World War II.

Post-war, nylon found a place in the consumer market, revolutionizing women’s hosiery and eventually leading to its use in a variety of garments.

Similarly, advancements in rayon and cotton allowed for more durable, easy-care fabrics that mirrored the qualities of more expensive and delicate materials like silk and wool.

These textile innovations had a profound impact on both fashion and everyday clothing.


The 1940s era remains a significant period in cultural history, marked by distinctive trends across various domains.

Fashion in the 1940s was profoundly influenced by World War II, leading to the popularization of utility clothing. This clothing focused on efficiency and fabric conservation.

Despite the austerity, creativity flourished and was epitomized by Christian Dior’s groundbreaking “New Look,” which introduced a silhouette emphasizing the feminine form.

Women’s hairstyles during this decade often featured victory rolls; these bold and voluminous curls exemplified the ingenuity of personal expression amidst rationing and shortages.

Across the Atlantic, 1940s NYC emerged as a vibrant cultural hub, its energy captured in contemporary movies of the era that often reflected the prevailing style and sensibilities of the time.

France, especially post-war, experienced a renaissance in haute couture, with Paris reaffirming its status as the epicenter of fashion.

1940s hairstyles and fashion—from the utilitarian to the elegant—significantly influenced modern style, underscoring the decade’s enduring legacy.

The arts flourished as well, with music from the ’40s laying the groundwork for future genres.

Popular songs resonated with the spirit of the time, mirroring the decade’s complexity.

In this environment, 1940s actresses not only entertained but also captivated audiences with their performances and appearance, contributing to the era’s iconic status.

Reflecting on this decade, it is evident that the 1940s were a period of profound transformation that continues to fascinate and inspire.

From austerity to glamour, the decade’s influence on style and culture remains evident in today’s fashion and entertainment.