OVERVIEW

Womenswear

The Victoria & Albert Museum in their “Introduction to 20th-Century Fashion” writes of this period:

“During the Second World War clothing was subject to quantitative and design restrictions that aimed to conserve scarce resources while also retaining some element of style. These clothes, produced within the Utility scheme in Britain and under L85 regulations in America, do not reveal any marked historical or cross-cultural influences.

In 1947 Christian Dior launched his New Look collection which, in direct contrast to wartime clothing, revelled in the unashamed luxury and corsetted styles of the late 19th century. His `Bar’ suit from the spring of 1947 in cream silk tussore and fine black wool crepe is made to fit a tiny 45.5cm corsetted waist and exploits just under 7.5m of fabric in the skirt alone. Although a minority of women considered it anachronistic, the New Look was a resounding success among the war-weary population, for whom it evoked the stability of a previous era and embodied hopes for a better future. The promotion of an exaggeratedly feminine figure was in keeping with the prevalent view that women should give up the paid employment they had undertaken as part of the war effort and return to the home.”

Of  1940s womenswear specifically they write:

“As a result of the war there were severe fabric shortages, which lasted until the end of the decade. Clothes were made with a minimum of fabric, few pleats and no trimmings. Skirts were a little below the knee and straight, worn with boxy jackets and broad, padded shoulders. Many men and women wore uniforms. From 1942 onwards some clothes were made under the government Utility Scheme that rationed materials. They are identifiable by a ‘CC41’ stamp, which is an abbreviation of the ‘Civilian Clothing Act of 1941’. During the war, accessories were important because of their relative affordability; tall platform shoes or sandals, and tall flowery hats were fashionable. Hair was worn long, with stylised waves and rolls on top of the head. In 1947, Christian Dior introduced his ‘New Look’, which revolutionised 1940s fashion. Skirts became longer and fuller, and boxy shoulders were softened to become sloping. Waists were cinched and hats grew wide and saucer shaped.”

Men's Fashion Illustration

Fig. 1 - Artist unknown. Men's Fashion Illustration, c. 1940. Source: Pinterest

Menswear

Of 1940s menswear the V&A notes:

“During the war, most men wore military uniform of some kind. Hair was short at the back and sides, and most men were clean shaven. Men in civilian clothing were often dressed in lounge suits with broad shoulders, with wide trousers belted high at the abdomen. After 1945 many men leaving the armed forces were issued with a ‘de-mob’ suit, consisting of shirt, tie, double-breasted jacket and loose fitting trousers.”

CHILDREN’S WEAR

References:

Historical Context

Wikipedia: 1940-1949
Events:
  • 1940 – Ties become wider, with bolder patterns that range from art deco designs to tropical themes.
  • 1942- Rosie the Riveter is the star of a song that praises the American women working in factories. Her much-admired practical image has her dressed in blue coveralls, hair concealed underneath a red spotted scarf.
  • 1943 – The Zoot Suit riots explode in Los Angeles, California. White sailors and marines take umbrage at young Mexican-Americans wearing suits that use large amounts of cloth.
  • 1944 – Rationing becomes severe, and where economies in designs can be made, they are. Fabrics are cheap and cuts are sparing. A highly visible, military presence provides inspiration for designers during wartime. Civilian fashion seeks to emulate the uniform of servicemen and women.
  • 1946 – The first Paris collections after the war foreshadow Dior’s New Look of 1947.
  • 1947 – Princess Elizabeth of Great Britain marries Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten; her Norman Hartnell wedding dress is the main topic of conversation. Dior shows his first collection, immediately named “The New Look” by American fashion editor Carmel Snow, putting Paris back on the fashion map.
  • 1948 – The 21st academy awards introduces an award for Best Costume Design.
  • 1949 – Dorothy Shaver, president of Lord and Taylor department store, launches a line of casual but elegant sportswear dubbed “The American Look.” It is based on an earlier advertising campaign featuring designs by Claire McCardell, Clare Potter, and Bonnie Cashin.

Primary/Period Sources

WOMENSWEAR

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Menswear
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Secondary Sources

Also see the 20th century overview page for more research sources… or browse our Zotero library.

Books/Articles
Pinterest