How to Date Vintage Clothing: the 1940s

For the second instalment of our dating vintage clothing series, we will discuss the 1940s.  The fashion trends of this era were distinctly divided into two categories: Wartime and Post-Wartime.

(via Adored Vintage)

World War II and Rationing

The second World War affected just about every household during the forties.  Everyone was encouraged to support the war effort in any way they could, and most often this meant through rationing.  Rationing was the idea that cutting back on the consumption of certain goods and supplies would help provide as many materials (raw or otherwise) to the war effort as possible.  Many factories that had been producing goods for public consumption had to switch to producing products supplies for the war.

Each household was allotted a certain number of ration coupons per year and purchasing decisions had to be made very wisely to conserve these coupons.  Due to this, homemade clothing was as popular as it was in during the 1930s.  Feedsack fabric was still widely used, and re-fashioning old garments to suit the new silhouettes and styles was very common.  The phrase “Made Do and Mend” came about due to this.  Everyone was encouraged to restyle, refashion, and repair the items they already possessed.

1940s Wartime Silhouettes

You will find many similarities in fashion between the late 1930s and the early 1940s, as fashion was not necessarily a top priority during the war years.  The silhouette was generally the same in the early forties, though emphasis on a strong shoulder became more prevalent.  Shoulder pads were very common in garments from suits to dresses and blouses. The “look” of the early forties tended to be very military-inspired, as it was a direct reflection of the world events at that time.

The two-piece suit became very popular in women’s fashion during the war.  You will find that the skirts from this point in time tend to be quite narrow, A-line in shape, and the hemlines hit at or just below the knee.  This was intended to conserve fabric that could be used elsewhere for the war effort.  Basically, all fashion choices the general public made were based upon being patriotic and helping out wherever they could for their country.


(Examples of early 40s wartime fashion, both via Just Skirts and Dresses)

Women’s suit jackets were snuggly tailored at the waist and broad at the shoulders.  The peplum became extremely fashionable during the forties in jackets, dresses and blouses.  Women also began to wear pants. (Side note: women’s pants were usually referred to as “slacks” and men’s as “trousers”.)  These pants were quite wide through the leg, all the way from the hip.

(Dresses with peplums, via Vintage Patterns)

(Film star Katharine Hepburn wearing a pair of 1940s slacks, via Va-Voom Vintage)

1940s Post-WWII and “The New Look”

As the war ended and rationing was lifted in America, the fashion industry began to regain its momentum.  (It is important to note that it took much longer for rationing to be lifted in most parts of Europe.)  One event in particular changed everything for post-war women’s fashion: Christian Dior’s “New Look”.  This was based on a collection released in 1947, featuring a long, full circle skirt and nipped in waist – the very opposite of fabric conservation!  Women had grown tired of the fashion restrictions through the war and Dior was their answer.  His influence completely changed the silhouette from the broad shoulder, short skirted, military-influenced look to a soft, romantic hourglass shape – with much more fabric used.  This concept through the latter years of the forties is what influenced the typical 50s silhouette of a very full skirt and an emphasis on a woman’s figure (which will be discussed in the next post!)

(Dior’s “New Look” via The Dreamstress)


Metal zippers with cotton twill tape were the fastener of choice during the 1940s.  Buttons were made from plastics such as bakelite, celluloid and lucite, as well as glass and metal.  Zippered and buttoned openings were still most often found in the sides of garments, though toward the latter end of the decade they were sometimes seen at the center back of certain items.

(A variety of 40s plastic buttons and belt buckles, via A Makey ‘Do’)

Seam Finishing and Fabric

Seam finishing on items of this era were the same as any garments made before the mid-1960s.  It is very rare to find a piece from this time that has serged edges.  However, it started to become more common to find garments with “pinked” edges.  This means that the fabric was cut with pinking shears, which created a zig-zag pattern, thus preventing the material from fraying as quickly as a straight-cut edge.

Printed fabrics were very common in the handmade clothing of the era, with florals being highly favoured.  In manufactured goods however, prints were not nearly as common.  Designers favoured more muted colour palates and simplicity over bright and bold prints.

Due to rationing, the use of silk became highly uncommon (silk was conserved to make parachutes for the airforce.)  Cotton was also rationed, though not quite as heavily.  Due to these restrictions, rayon was the number one choice in fabric for women’s fashion during the forties, as it was readily available and inexpensive to produce.  Manufacturers of this fabric found ways to make it resemble satin, among other materials, making it ideal for day, evening, and formal wear.

(Novelty print dress, via Blue Velvet Vintage)

(Novelty print pinafore-style sun dress, via FemaleHysteria)


Labels were still embroidered, as they were in the 1930s.

Other Tidbits:

The House Dress was still in full swing during the 1940s, and the more functional, the better.  Hats were very much a staple in the wardrobes of most women all throughout the forties.  Styles ranged from simple and casual to avant-garde.  Hats were worn for both day and evening wear.

(A couple of halo-style 40s hats, via Wayfaring Girl on A Mission)

Also popular throughout the era was the playsuit, also known as a sunsuit.  This was an outfit consisting of 1-3 pieces to be worn during the summer months, much like a bathing suit.  Playsuits were usually made of vividly printed cotton and were typically worn by the younger crowd (though more classic looking designs for women of all ages did exist.)

(Norma Jeane (a young Marilyn Monroe) sporting a two-piece playsuit, via Mary Van Notables)

(Dorothy Lamour in a one-piece playsuit, via Mary Van Notables)

Lastly, it is important to briefly mention footwear.  It is often thought that the 1970s was the era for the platform shoe, when in fact, it started long before then in the 1940s.  Film stars such as Betty Grable and Carmen Miranda popularized the platform shoe.  Also common were pumps with a sturdy heel and the peep-toe shoe with a much smaller peep-toe than we would typically see today.  Most women typically wore heels of some sort, unless they were wearing oxfords (or saddle shoes) which were the casual shoe of the era.  In the Summer, sandals were commonly worn as well.

(A snazzy pair of 40s platforms, via Retro Threadz Vintage)

(Early 40s shoe ad, via I’m Suzianne)


We hope you’ve enjoyed our overview of the 1940s.  Check back next week for a glimpse into the 1950s!


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