The primary influence on women's fashion in the 1940s was war. The effects of war would not only influence fashion in the 1940s, but would set fashion — from that point on — on a divergent path from which had been on before.

On September 1st of 1939, German invaded Poland. Two days later, England and France declared war on Germany. By June 14th, 1940, Germany captured Paris. The United States had remained out of the war overseas, but after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the United States declared war on both Japan, Germany, and Italy (Germany's war ally), and officially entering World War II.

Until Paris fell to Germany, most fashion designers copied their designs from the French, this included designers in the United States where the norm had been to make inexpensive reproductions. Without Paris, Americans were forced to be innovative and create their own fashions. In the end, America would rise as the sportswear capital of the world, and American fashion would be the strongest fashion influence on the rest of the world.

Characteristics of 1940s Fashion for Women

To help the American war effort, manufacturing goods to be used in the war became a primary focus. To help this, the War Production Board began to severely restrict the usage of raw materials and textiles in non-war products. Restrictions were placed on how much fabric could be used in clothing, and then, regulations were set on how clothes could be designed. The intent was to promote — as a "patriotic duty" — clothes which used little fabric, and which could be worn through most seasons of the year.

Certain fibers were heavily restricted, such as silk and nylon. Because of this, stockings were hard to find, and women resorted to use leg makeup to compensate. Leather was also hard to find. As s a result, shoes were increasingly made from canvas, and heels and shoe soles were made from wood and cork.

Because of rationing, dresses and suits became slimmer with just enough fabric to be able to sit or walk. Skirts and dresses were knee-length. The most common color was "Air Force blue" and clothes had a sharp, almost military-like look. Many dresses hugged the waist, buttoned down the front, and were belted at the waist. Darts or gathers at the waist and shoulder were used, shaping full busts and keeping the waistline trim. Despite rationing, many dresses squared shoulders using shoulder pads. Feminine suit-like coats with padded shoulders were common, as were single strap dresses with an uneven hemline.

Because of the need to reduce the number of clothes items that people owned, and the need to use those clothes items throughout the year, American designers introduced the idea of separates and coordinating components. By mixing and matching different items, this gave the illusion of having more outfits than actually existed.

With the men overseas at war, women entered the workforce to take over the jobs the men left behind. Because of this, women had to choose clothes practical for work. For the first time, it became acceptable for women to wear pants. Women also began to wear overalls for more heavy work. Hair had to be pulled back and covered to prevent it from being caught in machinery. Often, snoods and handkerchiefs were used to achieve this. By convenience, women began to wear these outside of work resulting in fashionable snoods being designed to be worn as evening attire.

Besides work clothes, other casual attire in the 1940s included house dresses. House dresses would be worn for doing house work, but would also be worn for lounging in the house or in the yard. A house dress could also be worn for casual visits to a friend's house, but frequently women would choose a dressier house dress for this.

Evening dresses were often simple short dresses without too much decoration, but frilly short dresses were not uncommon. High-heeled ankle strap shoes would often be worn with a satin evening suit. A satin evening skirt would often be combined with a lace blouse.

Sportswear became popular on college campuses where they spread to the wider population. Women would frequently wear tight rayon or cotton shorts and playsuits during hot weather.

Accessories, Hair, and Makeup in 1940s Women's Fashion

Women had been transitioning away from the corset for a couple decades before the 1940s. It was in the '40s that transition to two separate undergarments was finally complete — the bra and the girdle. At the end of the war, wire was introduced into bras. Stockings also came back onto the market after the war, initially setting off "nylon riots" as women fought to get the newest shipment. Padded bras also made an appearance at the end of the decade creating a fuller and pointed look to the breasts.

Translucent powders were used to powder the face while red lipstick was the most popular color. Besides lipstick, red nail polish was frequently used. Eyeliner was usually always black.

Throughout the 1940s, women wore their hair long, even though working women were encouraged to cut theirs short. Hair was often styled with the pageboy, in barrel rolls, or the Victory Roll. Hair was often netted in the back, usually using a snood, folded at the ear, pinned on top, or twisted into braids.

The New Look

In 1947, the war had ended, France was liberated, and Christian Dior — an unknown designer in France — introduced his first designs. The fashion he introduced (which would be called "The New Look") used large amounts of fabric, softened women's shoulders, emphasized their breasts and hips, pinched-in waist, and a full skirt. It was an extravagant use of material in much the same way the men's zoot suit made use of fabric.

At first, many people thought it was scandalous. Many saw it as an excessive use of material; people were still in the rationing mind-set which had dominated during the war and the Great Depression which preceded it. Others thought that it was a throw-back to the stuffy fashions at the start of the 1900s. Most people were outraged. The outrage was felt most strongly in Europe where people were still recovering from the war and food and clothes were still very hard to obtain. During a Paris photo shoot in March of 1947, women began rioting and attacking the photo shoot. One of the models was seized, stripped of her New Look dress, and then was severely beaten by several infuriated women. However, over time, the New Look began to become popular, more-so in places such as America where fabric shortages were not as much of a problem.

The New Look was a contrast to the conservative fashion of the war years, but it would help set the beginning of the fashion trends of the following decade.

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