Ladies Clothes in the 1940s

Updated November 21, 2016

Ladies fashions in the 1940s were cut to create a feminine and romantic silhouette that celebrated the female form. Beyond a feminine cut, though, fashion historians recognise two distinctly different eras of fashion within the decade of the '40s. Clothing during World War II was far more sombre and conservative than the celebratory fashions that came into vogue after the war.


Women wore dresses more commonly than slacks in the 1940s. The basic daytime dresses had wide shoulders, with puffy short sleeves or shoulder pads. They were narrow at the waist, often accentuated with belts. Beyond these details, daytime dresses were often rather simple in design, especially during the war years of the first half of the decade. Fabric was rationed and not used to excess during this time. Dresses had more narrow skirts and no cuffs or collars. After the war, collars returned to daytime dresses, as did pockets and buttons on the bodice.

Evening Wear

Evening gowns in the 1940s were inspired by the glamour of Hollywood. Women wanted to look feminine and beautiful but respected the sombre mood felt throughout America during the war. A typical evening gown of the era was wide at the shoulders, very narrow at the waist and draped down the body in folds of luxurious fabric like satin or silk. This style was modified during the war, and material such as rayon was used instead. Hemlines for evening gowns were long, even floor-length. Following the end of the war, these dresses became more daring, with off-the-shoulder designs and plunging necklines and backs.

Suits and Sweaters

Tailored suits were all the rage with ladies in the '40s. The two-piece look celebrated a woman's growing sense of independence while still fitting her curves. Suit skirts fell below the knee and were narrow, and jackets ranged from short-sleeved to long-sleeved and were quite fitted. During the war, suits were often made in dark, sombre colours. Women even married in suits during this time of national sacrifice. Sweaters were coming into style at the time and were worn with suit skirts for variety. These sweaters were curve-hugging and made popular by "sweater girl" starlets like Rita Hayworth.

Working Women

The iconic image of Rosie the Riveter, in a work shirt with rolled-up sleeves, told the truth of the day. Many women went to work while their men were off at war. They wore slacks with high waists and wide pant legs. The practice began as practicality, but women began to wear slacks and tailored blouses outside of work as well. Women who did hard manual work also wore overalls or jumpsuits. They wore bandannas to cover their hairstyles, which typically consisted of rolls and pin curls, to keep the hairdos from getting dirty.

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