Know Your Decades

Know Your Decades: 1940s clothing

March 31, 2016

It’s been almost exactly a month since my first Know Your Decades post about clothing from the 1920s and 1930s, so I figured it was time for a second one, this time about 1940s clothing! The forties is a decade that people seem to have a little more of an idea about in terms of style – but it also is a funny decade since the first five years are very similar to the 1930s in a lot of ways, and the last few years can definitely be seen as the beginning of the 1950s (which I will talk about next time).

1940s clothing

(clockwise from top left: two women in London, 1942 // Joan Crawford, early 1940s // French women, 1947 // A “land girl” working on a farm as part of the war effort, 1944 // Rita Hayworth wearing scandalous trousers, 1940 // Rita Hayworth in a swimsuit, late 1940s)

1940s clothing is still quite rare and hard to find in New Zealand, I guess when you think about it 1940 was actually 76 years ago though which is a huge amount of time for a piece of clothing to survive. Although the Great Depression ended in the late 1930s, World War II started in 1939 and continued until 1945 (with effects felt until at least the early 1950s), so in many ways the 1940s were a decade of frugality and making do with what you had. With men off at war, women were pulled into the workforce more than they ever had been, and this was shown in the way they dressed – for the first time it was acceptable to wear trousers in every day life, although this did cause a bit of scandal to begin with! In 1942, the “We Can Do It” poster featuring Rosie the Riveter was released, and although this wasn’t actually seen by large amounts of people until it was found in the 1980s, it is a great example of what women were actually wearing as they worked on things like mending planes.

1940s clothing

(The famous Rosie the Riveter poster, and a woman working on an A-31 Vengeance Bomber in Nashville, 1943)

Women dressed for utility and practicality, with silhouettes that looked strong and tough. An emphasis on broad, squared shoulders and narrow waists almost imitated a male shape – although the bias cut gowns of the 1930s were still seen, especially on the wealthy and the famous. Even when dressing up though, there wasn’t a lot of frivolity or extra detailing, as fabric and other haberdashery items (like buttons and zips) were rationed, and this continued after the war finished too. Hemlines went up a little from the 1930s, to at or just below the knee, and two piece outfits – a skirt with blouse, and sometimes a matching jacket became more popular than dresses for everyday wear.

Swimwear in the 1940s became a lot skimpier than previous decades, and looked a lot more like it does today. As with many trends, Hollywood lead the way in this, with stars like Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth wearing two pieces – always with a high waisted bottom, and often with a halter top.

In the US, ready to wear clothing with “of California” or “of Hawaii” in the brand name is often from the late 1940s through to the 1960s. California and Hawaii were seen as glamourous and exotic, with associations to Hollywood and beach movies, so even if brands had nothing to do with these places, they often had them in their names. Here in New Zealand, it was still seen – but also clothing brands with “of Melbourne” or “of Sydney” were much more common. If you see clothing with labels like this now, they look quite funny, as directly after the “of Melbourne” will be a smaller line saying “Made in NZ”. This is because New Zealand had laws around the import of overseas goods (frustratingly, I can’t find any actual information about this even though I know I’ve read about it before! If anyone knows more please let me know or point me in the right direction!).

If a garment from the 1940s has a zip closure, and its the original zip installed, then that zip will be metal, as nylon zips weren’t in use before the early 1960s. In the 1940s, zips were usually in the side seams of dresses (not the back), although some knitwear – especially that with a high tight neck – may have a short zip at the centre back neck.  Rayon was still a common fabric choice.

1940s clothing

(an Israeli girl, 1947 // two women dressed in sailor-inspired outfits, mid to late 1940s // Christian Dior’s famous New Look, 1947)

After the war came to an end and life returned to its previous structure, with men in the workforce and more woman back to staying at home caring for family, a more tailored and feminine look slowly came into fashion. Then, in 1947, Christian Dior released his first collection in one of the most dramatic moments in fashion history. He called it the “Corolle” line but the American media referred to it as the “New Look” and this name stuck. It was a complete change from what people were used to, with rounded shoulders, wasp waists, padded hips and pointed busts – and longer, very full skirts which used huge amounts of fabric.

To begin with, people really didn’t like the New Look, seeing it as wasteful and scandalous as it used so much fabric after the rationing during the war. In time though it was embraced as a return to prosperity and glamour, and those who had worn the same old items for years, making do and mending and reusing everything they could saw the appeal of a new, sexier silhouette and less utilitarian style. The New Look was really the beginning of what people think of when they think about 1950s fashion.

A last note – if you are interested in any sort of New Zealand history, make sure you check out Te Ara – the online encyclopedia of New Zealand. It is really searchable and has lots of interesting little snippets that you can’t find anywhere else!

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1 Comment

  • Reply Lee April 25, 2016 at 11:31 pm

    Thanks, Juliet! It’s really interesting to see how these things were on the other side of the world.
    When I first stared with my blog I also found it difficult to distinguish between the 30s, 40s and 50s. Now I think that the 1940s was a very important decade that left us several great ideas.
    Yes, people kept wearing their clothes from the 1930s in the beginning of the decade, but when those wore-off, a completely new, minimalist style was born and if you know the features, you need just a couple of seconds to recognize it among others,
    think denim overalls with plaid shirts, Kitty Foyle dress or first high waisted bikinis.

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