About the 1940s


Fashion in the 1940s was dominated by World War II (1939 - 1945), as the war years continued, there were significant shortages of fabric, leather and metal to make garments of all descriptions and their fastenings. As most women could sew and many households had a sewing machine; dressmaking and revamping garments became a necessity. Most dresses would be made from Rayon, a fibre produced from regenerated cellulose; one of the first artificial dressmaking materials. It was available as Rayon Crepe, which draped well and held its shape; Rayon Satin was used for evening and cocktail dresses in place of silk.

Cotton fabric was used for summer clothing and wool was used for jumpers and coats. As silk stockings were in short supply, and nylons were still quite rare; women wore short socks or coloured their bare legs with tea dye and painted a line down the back of their legs to imitate stockings.

The war began to have an effect on the way the population dressed and in June 1941, when the government introduced the Civil Clothing Order and garments carried the CC41 mark. The leading fashion designers of the day grouped together to produce a range of designs under the CC41 label; Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell showed women they could look stylish and smart and still be patriotic.

Coupons were issued for the rationing of everyday items; including food and clothing. Many women still could not find the money for clothing, so a thriving black market for coupons existed. Babies under 4 months old were exempt from coupons, as were many essentials for everyday living. Sewing thread, elastic, men's trouser braces and ladies suspenders were among the items that did not require coupons.

The motto 'Make do and Mend' became a byword for patriotic thrift and ingenuity regarding clothing. 'Mrs Sew and Mr Sew' appeared on advertisements encouraging women to find ways of turning old clothing to new purposes; a pillowcase could be an attractive pair of summer shorts, garments were made with the minimum of fabric, no turn back cuffs, no deep hems, no unnecessary pleats or wastage of fabric.

Coupons were saved for special outfits, particularly wedding dresses. As the clothing factories turned their production to uniforms for the troops, camouflage tarpaulins and parachutes, less fabric was available for dressmaking, so the Utility range of clothing and patterns enabled women to at least feel they were fashionable and supporting the war effort. Garments used less fabric, particularly skirts, so hemlines rose a little and a slimmer silhouette emerged. It became a patriotic duty to wear clothes unadorned with lace, frills and trims, and the government urged women to make the most of themselves with 'smiles' and a little make up. Women wore trousers for the first time when they wore them in the munitions factories; this new freedom in fashion barely made up for the hardships in styles and fabrics, but it did mean a welcome change from stockings and skirts.

During the air raids, everyone wore a 'siren suit'; a jumpsuit style garment made from warm cloth and worn over the clothes in the air raid shelters. The Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret wore theirs to encourage children to do the same, and even Winston Churchill wore his in the underground bunkers. Several designers including Pucci made a feature of the jumpsuit after the war, using silks and soft fabrics.

Hats, turbans and exotic hairpieces became fashionable as hairpins became hard to find and undressed hair a daily annoyance. The emphasis shifted to a particular elegance and ingenuity that has not been matched since those difficult days.

The war ended in 1945 and Christian Dior in Paris began work on his 'New Look', a much longed for change in silhouette showing a full skirt, nipped in waist and fitted jacket. The skirt was bouffant in style, hat and gloves were worn, and shoulders were more rounded after the straight, more military look in previous years. The look was softer and relied less on constraining undergarments, a relief for many women. Garments using more fabric gradually crept in, bias cut dresses, pleats and gathers, lace inserts and trims returned and a softer more elegant look became the norm. However many women in Britain still could not afford the new styles and such extravagances were frowned upon in post war years.

As many women married in the years following the war, they wore elegant suits if they could not afford the fabric for a wedding dress and men wore their 'demob' suits, the only suit they had after years of wearing uniforms.

The tailored look with the emphasis on detail remained the day to day fashion for most women, clothing and food rationing continued until the 1950s, whilst the country was still recovering from years of austerity. It was many years before the majority of children wore clothing that was 'new' instead of reworked 'hand me downs' and women were able to buy printed fabrics and leather goods again.