Many people both young and old, think that fashion began in the late 1950s and 1960s as families became more affluent, the younger generation demanded more freedom and found their voice. They consider it was only with rock n roll, Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando, the United States blossoming fashions at High School and College proms across America, Flower power, Woodstock, Levi Jeans, and in the UK, Teddy Boys, Mods and Rockers, swinging sixties, Carnaby Street and the mini skirt.
But you might be surprised to learn that the increasing numbers of vintage clothing shops that are being founded are being asked to uncover women’s fashion garments from the 1940s. In addition, today’s fashion houses are making increased nods and references to the 1940s in their new season’s collections rather than dipping back in to later decades. Part of the reason that this surprises us is that in non-fashion documentaries about the post-war years, a picture is painted of austerity, rationing, and a dull, drab, colourless world that still needed to shake off the horrors and the privations of the six years of war. But while that may have been true to some degree, there were green shoots of progress all over America and Europe, and that included clothes.
Women’s fashion in the 1940s combined style and practicality to achieve a lasting effect of elegance. While post-War fashion was indeed a challenge as materials were still in short supply and money was hardly on tap, the designers of that decade achieved some remarkable and time-less looks.
One thing that had happened during the war and in the two years after it in the US was that sportswear became more common as clothing in non-sporting situations and women used a lot of ingenuity in mixing separates to make a wardrobe seem more diverse than it was. Homemade accessories and elaborate curls allowed women to show their flair without expense or waste. Indeed curls and bright lipstick kept a feminine look and drew attention. With jackets shorter, the peplum became hugely popular, which was a short gathered or pleated strip of fabric attached at the waist of a woman’s jacket, dress, or blouse to create a hanging frill or flounce. It helped to narrow the hips while showing off a trim waist. Clothes were simple and practical, but women still managed to look attractive.
As materials became available again, the Paris couturiers, in hibernation during the occupation of France, once again took the fashion helm. Christian Dior pioneered the New Look, which featured a nipped waist, longer lengths and fuller skirts, with yards and yards of fabric used and to create a more classically feminine image. This was the Dior 1947-9 “New Look” built on Dior’s desire to let the curves of the feminine body be moulded by the clothes, with the style itself being less important.
Characteristics of the New Look includedskirts wrapped tightly over the hips,narrow (sometimes corseted) waists, sloping shoulders rather than the shoulder pads seen earlier in the decade, plus full skirts and full busts.
Rosie the Riveter pioneered women’s trousers- slacks. Film star Marlene Dietrich wore trousers in the 1930s and it was considered shocking. But for more casual wear slacks became a staple part of the wardrobe that continues to this day.
By looking online you can find many shops specialising in vintage clothes including genuine or reproduction styles from the 1940s. There’s also a whisper that next year’s collections will see peplums being used in new designs for the big fashion houses.