40s Style Clothing

May 8, 2012

The 1940s: from utility clothing to Dior

1940s clothing styles were constrained by the Second World War. European countries and the US had limits on the fabric that was available for clothes manufacturing. Some materials, like wool and nylon, were used almost exclusively for military purposes and as a result nylon stockings became extremely difficult to come by. The same went for certain dyes that were used for uniforms, thus even the palette of clothes was defined by the needs of the army. Japanese silk was banned outright from the US after the Pearl Harbor bombing.

The elaborate trimmings of the 1930s were out, and garments had few buttons, small contrast collars, and patch pockets.

The hemlines remained fairly long very early in the 40s. Skirts were worn knee-long, straight, flared or single pleat plaid. In the true spirit of ‘mend and make do’, many women were sewing their own skirts, and the simplest one to make, the circle skirt, could be seen everywhere. The daywear was made of easy-care synthetics, wool, cotton, and linen. Subdued, even somewhat dull colors prevailed.

Practicality and functionality were the two governing criteria of the 40s clothing style. Thus it is not surprising that pants entered women’s wardrobes and steadily gained popularity throughout the decade. The pants, initially used for strictly utilitarian reasons like work safety, were far from flattering, with waist well above the belly button, straight wide legs, large front pockets and buttons on the sides. Furthermore, they were sewn from wool blends, cotton denim, and seersucker in browns, greys and blues.

The silhouettes, both in men’s and women’s fashion, kept the 1930s trend of broad shoulders and narrow hips. If anything, the masculine undertones increased even more to resemble military uniforms.

Once every aspect of clothing became heavily regulated and the amount of yardage to be used per garment was restricted due to defense industry needs, designers were forced to design outfits that would remain wearable for multiple seasons. This also spurred design of separate items that could be worn in different combinations to compensate for the limited amount of clothing. American designs for women’s suits featured much shorter straight skirts and short jackets or cardigans without extra pockets, trimmings, pleating or flaps. The same fabric restrictions made sheath dress the predominant eveningwear.

Since French couture houses were closed or cut off, American designers no longer looked to Paris for their inspiration. The absence of the overpowering influence of the French designers left a void to be filled by American creative powers on their own. The formality of French couture was rejected in favor of much more relaxed, casual approach to fashion that resulted in the ‘American Look’. Claire McCardell rose to prominence and is acknowledged as the creator of this distinct trend, designing affordable, comfortable, democratic, ready-to-wear clothes. Together with Bonnie Cashin and Anne Klein, she transformed the very concept of sportswear and ready-to-wear clothes from second-best and shabby to elegant, stylish, and contemporary.

The designs for the US market were sportswear-oriented. Sportswear became very popular across college campuses and trickled down to all layers of society by the mid-40s. The US has not relinquished its status of the sportswear capital of the world ever since.

It took over two years for the fashion world to recover from the privations of the war. It was not until the 1947 Corolle collection by Christian Dior, dubbed ‘the New Look’, that fashion returned to the pre-war level of style, luxury, and excess in clothes. The collection featured hourglass silhouettes that were in stark contrast with masculine and austere designs of the war times. Long skirts and dresses sewn with excess of fabric were a throwback to the antebellum styles. This seminal collection defined not only the close of the 1940s but also fashion trends of the 1950s.

Although the lavishness of the 1930s garments has not returned in full, the late 1940s style clothing was feminine and romantic. Peplum was in vogue, in several distinct styles. Suit jackets, fitted at the waist, had an overskirt extending beyond the waist. Popular peplum styles included butterfly, gathered, and bustle peplums. Ruffles and lace decorated hemlines and necklines. Blouses with full or puffy sleeves often had bows in their design. Floral prints and vibrant colors were back, enlivening 40s style clothing toward the end of the decade.

Style icons of the decade include Vivien Leigh, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Hedy Lamarr, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Jean Kelly, Betty Grable, Lana Turner, and Desi Arnaz.

The 1940-s inspired print dresses, pointed-collar blouses, and pleated skirts featured prominently in the 2011 Ralph Lauren and Miuccia Prada collections. Stop Staring!, reVamp vintage clothing, My habit, Vintage Martini, Davenport & Co are some of the online retailers offering genuine vintage as well as reproductions and 40s-insipred garments.

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