Styles of women's dresses in the 40s & 50s

Written by laura wood
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Styles of women's dresses in the 40s & 50s
Dresses in the early 40s had straight silhouettes. (George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

Women's dresses in the 1940s and 1950s were greatly influenced by the social and economic factors of the time. The Second World War in the 40s completely changed the role of women at home as they were left to look after families and work in factories, and the style of dresses reflected this change. Likewise, changes during the post-war 50s meant dresses went from practical to glamorous.

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Military and House Dresses

In the 40s and early years of the 50s many women wore military-inspired dresses that came in the form of tailored two-piece dresses or one-piece utility dresses. The padded shoulders, buttons down the front, and trimmed belts resembled military uniforms worn by men. For casual-wear house dresses were created with plenty of pockets because woman had to think of work, domestic chores, and child rearing, and needed pockets to carry lots of items.

Hour-Glass Style

Women's dresses started to bring back the feminine hourglass figure towards the end of the 40s and beginning of the 50s. As soldiers returned from war women wanted to show off their female curves and make an effort with their appearance. Hemlines fell from knee to calf length and the waist was cinched in to exaggerate the hourglass look. Swing skirts were worn, created with loose panels to give the bottom of the dress flow.


By the 1950s women's dresses fully embodied the changing post-war society. Fashion was less about the war's influences and more about Hollywood glamour. Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds became style icons women wanted to copy. The two main styles of dress in this era were full skirts and pencil skirts. Both placed an emphasis on the narrow waist, which added an air of glamour and femininity to the dresses.

Designers Influence

Fashion designers heavily influenced dresses from the late 40s and throughout the 50s. Christian Dior faced criticism in the late 40s for designing dresses with lots of fabric; this was seen as wasteful when fabric rationing still took place. By the late 50s, however, attitudes changed and women were mimicking Dior's slim styles. Slim skirts with a dropped waist, similar to 20s fashion, became popular. Givenchy produced a straight, waistless shift dress that started to change the silhouette as the 60s approached. The trapeze dress, which was triangular in shape, and empire line dresses made their first appearances and would later be mass produced in the 60s.


Clothing and material were rationed during the 40s. Women were encouraged to make garments out of household items; for example white pillowcases were turned into white blouses for dresses. Cotton was one of the items not rationed, which encouraged people to mend clothing. Dresses were made from parachute nylon, wool, lace net and cotton. By the 1950s even though the war had finished cheap fabrics were still being used. Nylon, polyester and acrylic fabrics were readily affordable. As the era drew to a close the introduction of luxurious fabrics like silk, chiffon and tulle were used for evening dresses.

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