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Fashion of the 1940’s

This decade emphasised the fact that fashion is more than the need to cover up. It is a way to express emotions, communicate who we are and how we want to be perceived. It was caused by the outbreak of world war 2, rationing fabric and fear of what tomorrow will bring. Nevertheless fashion managed to react to these terrifying events by colour and creativity. Let’s now take a closer look at fashion of the 1940’s.

We can divide this decade in two parts – war time and recovery. Each of them featured a characteristic style in fashion, drastically different from previous decade.

Fashion of the 1940’s – war time

Usa led the way in terms of the aesthetic and visual landscape of WW2, due to political situation around the world. France was detached from the rest of the world by occupation and UK designers experienced severe rationing of fabrics. As a result, the style of each country differentiated tremendously.

Fabric rationing led to more utilitarian clothing. It restricted how many buttons can be used, how long hemlines can be and the overall amount of fabric used for a single piece of clothing. Nevertheless people still wanted to look good to forget about the cruelty of war. And the best way to do so, and at the same time boost morals was by colours and prints. Both of them were bold and saturated, giving hope for a better tomorrow. Red, bright blue, yellow were very prominent.

On the other hand we have so-called combat colours. It wouldn’t be surprising that in times of war brown, green, navy or dove grey were widely used as colour blocking on fabric, or in the form of camouflage. Women wanted to feel stringy, hence clothes during World War 2 featured strong shoulders and weren’t quite feminine.

Fashion of the 1940’s – recovery of haute couture

After World War 2 haute couture came back to Paris in the form of the legendary Theatre de la mode. Couturiers showcased their collections on mannequins in miniature form. In 1947 the New Look of Christian Dior changed the direction of fashion world. Choosing waist as a focal point he created voluminous dresses leading to hourglass silhouette.

Fashion of the 1940's  Theatre de la mode 1945
Theatre de la mode 1945;
Source :
Fashion of the 1940's  Theatre de la mode 1945
Theatre de la mode 1945;
Source :
Fashion of the 1940's  Theatre de la mode 1945
Theatre de la mode 1945;
Source :

Although it was called “New Look”, the collection was titled Corolle. As to clothes themselves, they were highly inspired by 18th century romanticism dresses. Christian Dior was able to achieve this silhouette by using stiff and structured textiles and sewing padding directly into the garment.

Fashion of the 1940’s – Designers

Pierre Balmain

Another important designer who launched his business in this decade is Pierre Balmain. He opened his mansion in 1945, presenting a style similar to Dior’s New Look, but in a subtle manner. His garments were elegant and sharp, something that we will now call Parisian chic. 

Claire McCardell

On the other side of the ocean, Claire McCardell led fashion in the USA. She understood that fashion in America shouldn’t be the same as that in Paris.

She believed that fashion should be functional and proposed the concept of capsule wardrobe, by creating separates. One garment could be worn in many ways, responding to the needs of her clients.

Her most regarded design is popover dress, which she created as a response to Harper’s Bazaar challenge.

Claire McCardell popover dress;
Source : Pinterest

Norman Norell

Another designer who changed the perception of how American ready-to-wear was both viewed and made was Norman Norell. What differentiated him from others was the expertise in using couture techniques for ready-to-wear clothing. 


Accessories at least in America were not being rationed, hence women used them ubiquitously. One of the ways to make a statement was by wearing a hat, everyone wore a hat in the 1940’s. They could be more or less sophisticated, including motives of flowers or birds. Turbans were also a very popular accessory. Apart from that shoes became chunky, with short, square platforms.

Men’s fashion

Men’s fashion remained almost the same as in the previous decade. However we can point to some innovations that have taken place in the spectrum of men’s attire. Ties became wider, with bolder patterns that range from art deco designs to tropical themes. Surprisingly, oversized zoot suits became a new trend in America regardless of fabric rationing. At the end of decade garments started to transform into more casual and sporty.

Curious how the next decade looked like? Check my post, where I write Everything about Fashion of the 1950’s


“Fashion history from the 18th to the 20th century” -The collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute

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