1940s Inspiration for #vintagepledge

Today I have a guest post dedicated to 1940s fashion. Lisette has put together an amazingly comprehensive post, so if you love this era or want to learn more about it, read on...

Hello to all the lovely sewists! 

My name is Lisette and I blog over at What Would Nancy Drew Wear? I love all decades of fashion, but the 1940s hold a special place in my heart so I am here to provide you with some 1940s pattern inspiration and history. 1940s patterns are great for sewists of all levels of experience. They are very wearable and blend easily in a modern wardrobe, whether you’re working in your victory garden, hosting a tea party or working at a desk. Partly due to the war and partly due to social changes, they often require little to no undergarments specific to that period. No petticoats, bullet bras or girdles required! Even the rationing of silk and nylon meant that many women did without pantyhose or stockings. Yet despite all this, they still have the glamour and retro kitsch that we love when we think of vintage.

In the 1940s there are three distinct silhouettes: the Pre-War look, reminiscent of the late 1930s; the War Era, when rationing and an increase in women’s physical activeness led to drastic changes in fashion; and the post-war “New Look” by Christian Dior.  

(Please note, I will be discussing these dates from an American historical position since I will be using American pattern companies as my examples. I will also only be discussing women's styles. All Images from the Vintage Pattern Wiki, unless otherwise noted)

Early 40s Pre-War (1940-1941)
This is a very short period of time as the pinch of wartime was being felt despite America not having yet officially entered the war. If anything, it was the leftovers of styles from the late 1930s. The silhouette was usually a fitted bodice with a high neckline, and a somewhat full skirt, often with many small gores or pleats, that fell around mid-calf. Yokes and shaped waist seams are a delightful feature during this time. Puff sleeves, elbow darts, matching cuffs and collars and very fitted sleeves are common details. Gathers and some draping are used in softer styles, requiring charmeuse or chiffon and sometimes resulting in a sheer dress over a solid underdress. Overall, they feel more quaint, prim and conservative, an effect achieved through ruffles, small bows, diminutive buttons, dainty collars and such trim as rick rack or petite lace.

Mid 40s War Era (7 December 1941-2 September 1945)
America's participation in the war started in December of 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor. It ended in 1945, but for some the effects of the war would last until the end of the decade. War meant rationing and lots of it. Less fabrics, less dyes, less buttons and metal closures like zippers, less patterns being printed and probably less time to spend at one's sewing machine (and yet a greater reliance on women to be making their own clothing) meant styles had to change. Shorter lengths, more fitted silhouettes and less detail in styles make them seem much more modern. 

In addition to rationing, many women's roles in society changed dramatically. Some donned uniforms as WAACS, WASPS, and WAVES or worked in the medical corps, which required military or hospital dress. Those who went to the factories had to wear clothing suited to hard physical labor around heavy and dangerous machinery. Even women who stayed home found practical clothes more suitable for doing such activities as tending their Victory Gardens or bicycling to save on gas. Besides, if you dressed too luxuriously you could be looked upon as being unpatriotic.

This chart was produced by the War Production Board in March of 1942 to show the official restrictions on women's clothing. The only clothing that did not fall under these restrictions was bridal, maternity and clergy wear. These restrictions can be seen in sewing patterns.
Late 40s Post-War "New Look" (12 February 1947-1949)
Dior introduced the New Look on this specific date in his Spring-Summer 1947 fashion show. The silhouette features a cinched waist accentuated by a full skirt, emphasizing a rounder bust and hips achieved with lots of underpinnings. However with fabric rations still affecting the general population, its popularity continued into the 1950s as more women became able to afford such styles over time. Compared to the pared down, masculine and military-inspired clothes of the war, it is no surprise that many women were ready to rush into the arms of such extremely feminine styles. It must have been a breath of fresh air.

Day Dresses

Here is a side by side comparison of day dresses in the 40s. Each pattern shows the significant points of the silhouette from its era. Puff sleeve, strong shoulder and rounded shoulder; semi-full a-line skirt, fitted skirt, very full and long skirt with rounded hips; dainty details and trims; almost no details; bold details such as the large open collar.
Suits (sometimes called two-piece dresses) are just as telling. Note the mid-40s pattern has an option with no collar, cuffs or even a dickey! The late 40s pattern, reminiscent of Dior's Bar Suit, has a jacket and sleeve cut in one that would have taken a lot of fabric.

House Dresses

I was unable to find a pattern for the early 40s specifically labeled as a "house dress", but I did find this smock pattern. I've noted many smock patterns during the 1930s but after that they begin to fade out. During the war years, however, patterns for house dresses were plentiful and often actually depicted women doing housework. Wrap styles were common because of the rationing of zippers and other closures. Appliqued bow motifs were popular. Once the war was over, the women in pattern illustrations went back to their demure stances, more often modeling "brunch coats" than dresses fit for housework.

The label at bottom center can be found on a group of patterns produced by the Advance Pattern Company which are featured in a pamphlet called Work Clothes for Women, available free to read through Google. It was issued in 1942 by the US Department of Agriculture. It advises women on how to dress for jobs they might not have ever dreamed of doing - such as driving farm machinery.
Work Clothes

Just about every pattern company was putting out these "work clothes" patterns. Simplicity 4754 features the "new narrow slack" and shows the same "war plant hat", made from a single bandana, released as 4700. Vogue 9016, while being more on the fashionable side with its wider leg offers a "regulation waist-line" and masculine suspenders.

Simplicity 4104 is great because it shows a woman holding a wrench while wearing drop-seat coveralls and a military cap. The Advance pattern's "coverette" is from Work Clothes for Women as well and is totally different in that it is a wrap style. They suggest making it out of seersucker because "...it requires few undergarments and thus cuts down on washings..."! Butterick's is the only one specifically advertised as an air raid suit; "You'll find it a most suitable costume for any defense work or outdoor activity."
Nurse uniform patterns also abounded. 4326 is an early 40s pattern, evident in its fuller skirt and is an official Red Cross nurse's aide uniform. 4178, just listed as a nurse's uniform, is more mid-40s and includes a coronet, coif and veil that you can make to match your cuffs and epaulets.

 Hollywood 1097 is more casual, as it is an American Red Cross home nursing pinafore and canteen apron. Note the single row of top-stitching as opposed to 4326's double row of topstitching which would use much more thread. McCall 7869 from 1949 shows just how different women's clothing, even when it came to practical garments, had become by the end of the 1940s. They are even wearing stockings again. 
McCall 4641 from 1942 isn't pictured, but can be found on the Vintage Pattern Wiki and I'd like to point it out because of the description: 

"American Red Cross Volunteer Special Service Corps Washable Uniform. For: administration, production, braille, canteen, home service, hospital and recreation and paid staff workers except hospital workers.  Must be in poplin.  Veil may be made in chiffon, georgette, voile, or lawn." 

If you've ever read the Cherry Ames books you know how specific nurse uniforms can be based on their job title! 

Patriotic Clothing
When a woman wasn't at work, she might still want to show her patriotism and so the "V for Victory" motif was born. McCall 1090 has a fun inspirational poem on the pattern: "Tie this apron round your waist, And join the Victory war-on-waste; Plan your meals for zest and vim. And Don't forget Ye Vitamin! Remember that the right nutrition, Is Uncle Sam's best ammunition." The Simplicity pattern feature "V" shaped embroidery, "V for Victory" embroidered on the waistband and embroidery of the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The hat pattern on the right is a little more subtle!

And of course, dressing like your men in uniform was a great way to show support. Sailor styles prevailed, including Simplicity 3673 which has become popularized by Wearing History as a reproduction. Hollywood 599 even looks a lot like a WASP uniform.


Let's get back to regular clothes, though. Outerwear throughout the decade was truly fabulous from the swing coats and hooded capes of the early 40s to the luxurious redingotes and voluminous swagger styles of the late 40s. Of course, the mid-40s meant the development of jackets as we know them. The "bomber jacket" (not pictured, see Vogue 5610 at Vintage Pattern Wiki), "windbreaker" (above) and "battle jacket" or "Ike jacket" (below) were obviously inspired from military styles.


Early 1940s night wear was very feminine. Even pajamas were not cut in the men's style yet, but rather had a voluminous smock top. Once the war hits, though, that is almost exclusively what one finds in patterns: straight-legged men's style pajamas. 1300, while one of the few nightgowns, is creative in its lack of pants and shockingly short length which makes one wonder how many women actually made it. Some of the menswear styling continued into the post-war years as you can see in the bottom right pattern, but the bagginess and added robe put it definitively in the post-war wardrobe. Nightgowns once again flourished, but with the new silhouette in mind, such as in the gathered hip panels below.


Certainly the most important development of the 1940s was the brief acceptance of women wearing trousers. There are a few 1930s and early 1940s pants patterns, but they had lots of volume and a very low crotch, which really made them more of a bifurcated skirt. On the other hand the middle and late 40s produced an abundance of pants patterns. War era trousers were usually tapered because they were intended to be worn around machinery and needed to not catch in the gears. They have a slim waistband and gently sloping hip. 

Post-war pants fall directly into the New Look with a much tinier waist and rounded hip produced by wearing a girdle or corset. Note the more rounded stomach and the flatter behind in the illustration, also part of a girdled silhouette. Sadly, pants nearly disappear in the 1950s with the exception of capris and shorts. I questioned a woman who was a young mother during the war in France and America and she informed me that once the war was over it was not acceptable to wear pants unless you were odd or eccentric (for example, Katharine Hepburn came up, and she still insisted that trouser-sporting Hepburn probably was a homosexual). Shorts and pedal pushers were okay, but wearing pants regularly became unacceptable, at least until the late 1960s.

Evening Wear

Finally, evening wear, which is one of the best things about the 1940s. Some of these early 40s patterns show a practice still popular today of offering two dresses, one for day wear and one for evening wear, from the same pattern. While still similar to the fluffy, ruffly, overdone hollywood gowns of the 30s they are already simpler in style. The McCalls in the upper left is a particular favorite, it could easily be seen on the red carpet today and not look out of place.

Mid-40s Dresses

Less full skirts, a lot less trim and the sweetheart neckline - yes the mid 40s have arrived! Small sections of gathering instead of an entirely gathered bodice or sleeve add just a bit of dressiness. Small attached bustles like in the lower right pattern are a fad that continue into the late 40s, possibly from the influence of movies like Meet Me In St. Louis, which were set during the bustle period. Perhaps most notable, however, is the long slim skirt of 4890, a very new silhouette for women's evening wear.

Post-War Dresses

With the war over, women's evening wear soon turned to gorgeous princess-like styles that would epitomize the 1950s. Early styles were a bit more subdued, as on the left, and younger women's and teen's style's like in the middle often had a "country" or rustic feel to them rather than outright glamour. One begins to see a variety of fabrics and textures that seemed to disappear during the war. Laces, satins, tulle and lots of flounce. As Dior put it "I have designed flower women."
I hope you all are enjoying Vintage Pledge and my tour of 1940s patterns. Just a reminder: please post your finished makes and links to them on the Vintage Pattern Wiki so that others searching for a pattern can access reviews and images of garments made from it. This post wouldn't exist without it and it is a wonderful resource that we should all be supporting.
Thank you so much Lisette! The evening wear is beautiful but I really love the day wear too, plus the patriotic items are really fun.

Hope you all enjoyed reading about the 1940s. If you feel inspired to pick up a 1940s pattern (or a pattern from any era!) don't forget about the 20% off at Adele Bee Ann Patterns - see sidebar for link and code.

We also have the Simplicity vintage pattern giveaway, where you can win 3 of their vintage reissue patterns, plus Marie posted a fascinating pattern stash interview with Lauriana of Petit Main Sauvage where she shared her vintage pattern magazines.

K x


  1. I always thought the 1950 where my favorite period but this post has changed my mind. I love how the fashion changed so fast to accommodate the change during the war. But I think it’s so weird that pants became unacceptable again after the war.

  2. The 40s will always be my favorite era. Thanks for this great post.

  3. Thank you so much for this concise yet informative post. I love 1940s clothing so much, and am enjoying making pieces from my small collection of '40s patterns.

  4. I've always loved 40's fashion and enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for all the great info :)

  5. That's a great post, thank you!
    As a history geek, I'm often puzzled by blog posts about lovely 1940's styles in which no mention is made of the state of the world at that time (not that everyone does that, certainly not). I think you put things in perspective really well.
    I myself live in the Netherlands, Europe. In this country, WWII started on 10 May 1940. Despite that, I can easily see in my vintage magazine collection how the fashion designed before that still looks kind of 1930's.
    And just how masculine the silhouette got during the war years. Giant shoulder pads! Here, the New Look took some time to take hold. Fabric was rationed until 1950 and initially, women thought the longer fuller skirts were unflattering and aging. After a year or so though, most came round.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, it is really interesting to see how fashion was shaped by social history isn't it?

  6. Really interesting post and I'm now reassessing my views of the 1940's patterns. It's good to know a little of the history and reasons behind the styles. I do have a question though, I absolutely adore the McCall pattern in the top left of the "Evening Wear" set of photos. What number is it?

  7. Such a great post. Always so interesting to read about the link between social history and fashion. Plus I just make a 40's (repro) blouse. X

  8. I really enjoyed reading this! It was especially interesting to see the effect rationing had on fashion through sewing pattern illustrations. The mid 40's silhouettes are my favourites from this era. I think their simplicity makes them more modern and wearable for today.


Thanks for reading and commenting - I love to hear what you have to say