How to Dress Like a 1940s Femme Fatale!

Last updated on June 7th, 2024 at 01:33 pm

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Outfit Ideas For Dressing Like a Femme Fatale!!

In this article, I will show you how to create a glamorous 1940s Femme Fatale look with the help of original 1940s and 1950s clothes, as well as vintage reproductions.

And for those of you who love to learn, I wrote a brief history of the Fatale women depicted in literature and paintings in the 19th and 20th centuries.

I don’t believe that there is one quintessential Fatale look. Black seems to always be the preferred choice for those trying to imitate the style of a Hollywood Fatale woman but I suspect that this is only because most of the iconic 1940s films were shot in black and white. 

I bet that you will get a bit of a shock next time you watch; The Postman Always Rings Twice, Leave Her to Heaven or Double Indemnity where the sirens are predominantly white!


DISCLOSURE: As of October 2021, I’m part of an affiliate program, and I get a small commission for purchases made through some of the links in this post. That’s how I keep my website alive, for which I’m very grateful to you.


femme fatale vintage fashion

Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven. The ultimate 1940s femme fatale.

A Brief History of the Femme Fatale in Literature & Painting

In the second half of the 19th century, Femme Fatales began to appear more frequently in European art, literature, poetry, plays and even operas, than in previous centuries.

So much so that by the end of the same century, the image of the evil, the destructive yet enticingly alluring woman had found its way into every aspect of mainstream culture from advertisements to appear as designs on porcelain, and even in jewellery.

The Deadly Seductress in Literature

The sources of inspiration for these potentially misogynistic male artists catering to their mainly male conservatively Victorian audience were, perhaps not surprisingly most often taken from characters in the bible.

Oh, Jezebel! You wearer of makeup! Judith, the beheader of men! And of course, Salome, who put on one hell of a good dance! They were all favourites, chosen for their personification of the dangerous, deceitful women who tempted men to befall disastrous fates.

In fact, the bible, its cup floweth over so much with Femme Fatales that while I’m at it, I may as well throw in Delilah who had the audacity to prove what I’ve always believed, a man’s strength really does lay in his hair!

And my personal favourite, Lilith, the first “wife” of Adam, refused to obey her man and thus was transformed into a daemon. Way to go Lilith!

Was the Dangerous Vamp Worth Dying For?

Heinrich Heine, Oscar Wilde, Gustave Flaubert and my beloved Baudelaire, all took inspiration from the bible but when flogging a dead religious horse became too tiresome, artists turned to more hedonistic sources, particularly those found in the shadow of Mount Olympus.

Greek mythology not only provided justification for scantily clad ladies but also served as a great literary source for such fun Fatales as those seductresses to beat all seductresses, the Sirens. Come on, luring sailors with song and smashing their boats on rocks for fun is a tough act to better.

However, if mythic was too incredulous for your audience, not a problem, simply flick through the pages of history and pick out some vamp classics such as Cleopatra.

What. Do you think bringing an entire empire into chaos using only your feminine charm would have gone without mention here?

Though the sources may have been varied, what’s fascinating is how similarly artists described Femme Fatales, be it through words or through an image on a canvas. Be it a half-woman half-beast or a figure from the sea such as a mermaid, these women were more often than not pale, mysterious, strong, destructive with stone-cold hearts and yet absolutely fascinating. (Worth dying for…)  

Algernon Swinburne, whom I personally would put on the pedestal of artists who best describe what a Femme Fatale is, by this, his description of a drawing of a woman’s head by Michelangelo.

Beautiful always beyond desire and cruel beyond words: fairer than heaven and more terrible than hell: pale withered and weary with wrong-doing; silent anger against God and man burns white and repressed, through her clear features… Her eyes are full of proud and passionless lust after gold and blood: her hair close and curled seems ready to shudder asunder and divide into snakes. Her throat, full and fresh, round and hard to the eye as her bosom and arms, is erect and stately, the headset firm on it without any drop or lift of the chin: her mouth crueller than a tiger’s, colder than a snake’s and beautiful beyond a woman’s. She is the deadlier Venus incarnate.

Femme Fatale Depicted in Paintings

As the 19th century drew to a close, Femme Fatales had seemingly reached their pinnacle, in painting at least. Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who died in 1882, had given us his visions of Lucrezia Borgia, Lilith, Helen of Troy and my favourite painting of his, Pandora (Knowing his obsession with red hair, I wonder if his obsession would have included me, had we met).

Meanwhile, Gustav Klimt was arguably the last major painter to choose a Fatale woman theme as the centre point of his paintings, “Judith and the Head of Holofernes” from 1901 being his most recognisable.

With the start of the 20th century, the painting world had moved on. 1905 possibly marking the date of its end to a fascination with FF with a painting by Kees van Dongen, creatively entitled… “Femme Fatale”.

This wasn’t however the last we see of these wicked women. No, not at all! Like shifting sands, they had merely migrated to a new medium, whose way was paved by the likes of real-life Femme Fatales, Cora Pearl, La Paiva and Lillie Langtry, women with reputations that were measured by the numbers of men whose lives they had ruined!

This new medium, of which I speak is, of course, film and here is where the Femme Fatale flourished. She became a creature of beauty, her powers of seduction now so seemingly apparent. Gone were the shackles of the stiff Victorian age, heretofore, we had a real woman!

What is the Femme Fatale Look

  1. Definition

Femme Fatale

a woman who is very attractive in a mysterious way, usually leading men into danger or causing their destruction

2. FF’s appearance characteristics according to me

Beautiful in her own way, mysterious, classy, irresistible, but never vulgar.

CLOTHES FOR THE GOTHIC FEMME FATALE



Femme Fatale

catches masculine hearts only to play a cruel sadistic game with them.

Helene Deutsch, The Psychology of Women Volume I


The Femme Fatale Style

The clothes don’t make the man, but they are certainly a big part of why the Femme Fatale is so irresistible.

  • Big 1940s shoulder pads and colossal sleeves are the perfect way to start the Femme Fatale look!

I used to hate my broad Joan Crawford-like shoulders. Now, I emphasize them with a 1940s jacket and massive shoulder pads for a very strong and dramatic look.

Joan Crawford look, Abbie Walsh necktie

For my Femme Fatale look, I paired the 1940s jacket with the Wheels and Dollbaby skirt and Abbie Walsh necktie.

  • A long and figure-hugging dress or skirt accessorised with a statement faux-fur piece and a tilted hat is really all you need to create a 1940s Femme Fatale look.
  • That being said, a pair of 1940s, or in the style of 1940s, slacks paired with a blouse with enormous sleeves will create a similar effect.
  • Don’t forget about your hair and make-up! All you need is a beautiful shade of red or orange lipstick, eyeliner and false eyelashes/lengthening mascara.
  • Every 1940s hairstyle I can think of will work for the Femme Fatale look so stick to what suits you best. If you are completely helpless with styling your own hair, I recommend you invest in a wig like the one below from Necia.

French Sole AW19 campaign shot by my husband, Gregory Michael King.

French Sole campaign shot by Gregory Michael King

The 1940’s Femme Fatale in Films

Here are a few of my outfit ideas inspired by 1940s sirens.

MILDRED PIERCE (1945)

“ He never loved you. It’s always been me. I’ve got what I wanted. Monte’s going to divorce you and marry me.”

Femme Fatale
Ann Blyth and my beloved Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.

My “Mildred Pierce” inspired look.

The colour black is, of course, synonymous with the 1940s Femme Fatale look, and it happens to be one of my favourites. I paired the 1940s skirt suit with a faux fur collar from Helen Moore and an early 1940s brooch, a gift from my mother-in-law.

How to dress like a 1940s Femme Fatale
The 1940s Femme Fatale look.

GILDA (1946)

Didn’t you hear about me, Gabe? If I’d been a ranch, they would’ve named me the BR Nothing.

How to dress like a 1940s Femme Fatale!
Rita Hayworth as Gilda looks fabulous in both black and white clothes.

If you are looking for a black silk gown inspired by Gilda, the best one I’ve ever seen and tried is from the Australian brand Wheels & Dollbaby!

Wheels & Dollbaby Gilda gown

The Wheels & Dollbaby Femme Fatale Dress.

Femme Fatale look

Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

I told you, you know nothing about wickedness.”

Rita Hayworth Femme Fatal
Rita Hayworth as Elsa Bannister in The Lady from Shanghai. (1946)

SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932)

It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.

It’s a much earlier film, but I had to include it as it shows the most incredible and inspiring wardrobe.

Marlene Dietrich Femme Fatal
My beloved Marlene Dietrich as Shanghai Lily, the ultimate Femme Fatale, in Shanghai Express. (1932)
marlene dietrich look
1930s kimono robe

Marlene Dietrich the ultimate Femme Fatale on and off-screen.

Marlene Dietrich Femme Fatale

The Marlene Dietrich- Femme Fatale Inspired Looks

In the picture by Gregory Michael King, I’m wearing; a 1940s skirt and velvet cape, paired with a Couture top from Veroni Deco, a faux fur hat, a scarf and muff from Helen Moore, Wolford tights and 1950s gloves.

Faux fur from Helen Moore
Dressing like a Femme Fatale.

How to dress like a 1940s Femme Fatale. I paired my favourite 1940s top with the fabulous loafers from the German brand SPITZ.

1940s Femme Fatale look

The Marlene Dietrich-inspired look.

CLOTHES

  • Original 1940s blouse
  • 1980s slacks
  • SPITZ loafers

Proper foundation garments under vintage clothes are a real game-changer. I hardly ever leave the house without one of my Orchard Corsets. I paired the mesh corset with a Dita von Teese bra and Vedette underbust bra booster that prevents back bulges. The “Bleeding Heart” necktie from Abbie Walsh really ties the look together. No pond intended. 🙂

How to dress like a Femme Fatale!

LINGERIE

  • Dita von Teese bra
  • Orchard corset
  • Abbie Walsh tie
Orchard Corset paired with Dita von Teese bra.

SHOP ORCHARD CORSET


I’m wearing Wolford high waist panty, an authentic Victorian cape, a Dita von Teese bra and a vintage hat designed by Irene Sharaff and worn by Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest.

Femme Fatale look

Vintage Femme Fatale.

LINGERIE

  • Dita von Teese bra
  • Wolford knickers
  • Original Victorian mourning cape
  • The hat was designed by Irene Sharaff for Faye Dunnaway in ‘Mommie Dearest‘.

 

SHOP LINGERIE FOR FEMME FATALE


The Makeup

The Fatale look would be incomplete without red lipstick! The vintage-inspired makeup brand Besame has the most luscious lipsticks in the most delicious shades of red!

My lovely readers get 25% off the entire order!

BUY BESAME MAKEUP HERE

RELATED:

How to create Femme Fatale makeup!

femme fatale makeup

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946)

As you can see, the colour white can be as dramatic as black!

how to dress like a femme fatale
Lana Turner as Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice
Femme Fatale Look

 

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945)

More inspiration for the Femme Fatale in all-white garments.

1940s femme fatale
Gene Tierney as Ellen Harland in Leave Her to Heaven

THE ONLY  WHITE PIECE OF GARMENT IN MY CLOSET

Old Hollywood Glamour. My only white, or actually more of a cream evening gown inspired by the one worn by Constance Bennet. Ironically it was her sister Joan who portrayed a Femme Fatale in many films.

how to dress like a 1940s Femme Fatale

 

DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)

Phylis Dietrichson is one of my favourite evil characters from the 1940s. Her wardrobe and hairstyle are immaculate.

How to dress like a Femme Fatale
Barbara Stanwyck as Phylis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity
1940s Femme Fatale Barbara Stanwyck

 

My Barbara Stanwyck Femme Fatale-Inspired Look

In the picture, I’m wearing a 1940s skirt suit with huge shoulder pads paired with a 1940s hat with a veil. Let’s face it, at my age I should be wearing a veil all the time.

Femme Fatale look. Dominique de Merteuil vintage fashion blogger.

How to dress like a femme fatale!

One of my all-time favourite 1940s dresses.

Joan Crawford-inspired look.

  • Original 1940s gown
  • 1940s slip
  • Dior ring
1940s dress Joan Crawford look

Love is a fire. But whether it is going to warm your heart or burn down your house, you can never tell.

Joan Crawford

Vintage-Inspired Clothes & Accessories for the Perfect Femme Fatale Look

If you are new to the world of vintage, and instead of diving right into shopping for authentic 1940s pieces, you want to start with something vintage-inspired, there are a few brands I can wholeheartedly recommend.

SON DE FLOR & THE FEMME FATALE DRESS

My latest discovery, is Son de Flor, the sustainable Lithuanian brand that makes all of its garments from linen.

If you are looking for beautiful, high-quality, vintage-inspired dresses, Son de Flor is the brand for you!

I’m in love with the Classic Black dress you see me wearing in the picture, as it’s very versatile, perfect as daywear or evening attire depending on how you style it.

How to dress like Wednesday Addams.

how to dress like Wednesday Addams
The perfect Wednesday Addams dress and shoes.


The ‘Diane’ dress by Son de Flor is an excellent option for spring and summer. It is a lighter linen dress with short sleeves, which makes it a perfect alternative to the ‘Classic’ dress. You’ll love how comfortable and stylish it is for any occasion.

The dress was gifted to me by Son de Flor.

Vintage fashion blogger in MOOSH sunglasses by Oliver Goldsmith.
Vintage fashion blogger Dominique de Merteuil in Son de Flor ‘Diane’ dress and MOOSH sunglasses.

THE RETRO FEMME FATALE WITH THE HOUSE OF FOXY

The House of Foxy has many wonderful vintage-inspired clothes worthy of a Femme Fatale. I’m a big fan of their 1940s-style blouses. One thing to note, I always replace contemporary buttons with original 1930s ones for a more unique look.

1940s look

I’m wearing a 1940s-inspired blouse from the House of Foxy paired with the 1952 Handmacher skirt.

FREDDIES OF PINEWOOD

The Spellbound blouse by Freddies of Pinewood is a true wardrobe staple for the 1940s Femme Fatale look, regardless of the colour.

As you can see in the picture below, I own one in a lovely shade of pink, and I’m also desperately waiting for the brand to re-stock the Burgundy-Pacific Spellbound. I paired the pink perfection with the most magnificent Edwardian-inspired hat from Birds and Fresia.

how to dress like a 1940s Femme Fatale

Think Pink Look- Femme Fatal in Pink.

  • Birds and Fresia Edwardian-inspired hat
  • Freddies of Pinewood blouse in the most delicious shade of pink.
  • 1980s slacks
  • Original 1950s belt.

BIRDS AND FRESIA-FEMME FATALE HATS

Regina Bases is a milliner extraordinaire, and founder of Birds and Fresia, the brand that’s on every vintage girl’s lips.

All her hats are of superb quality, hand-made and often adorned with vintage birdcage veils, silk flowers and vintage organza.  Definitely a show-stopper!

birds and fresia hat
Birds and Fresia hat
Hat for a Femme fatale
The Femme Fatale look would be incomplete without a hat.

HELEN MOORE

The 1940s Femme Fatale look would be incomplete without faux fur from Helen Moore! I can’t praise the brand high enough, and if you wonder why, take a look at my article about the Helen Moore brand.

I paired the 1940s skirt suit with a luxurious faux fur stole from Helen Moore and Edwardian Edwardian-inspired hat from Birds and Fresia.

The Femme Fatale Footwear

SIMONA RUSK HEELS

I can’t think of more perfect heels for a 1940s Femme Fatale look than the decadent Allegra designed by Simona Rusk. The British shoe brand is my recent discovery and I’m thrilled to share it with you.

How did your business journey with Simona Rusk London begin?

“The sudden loss of my mother and my own serious illness made me question what I wanted to do. I had learnt to handmake shoes for fun and was wearing a pair when I was stopped by someone who admired them. I had lost a lot of confidence when I was ill and this simple gesture was such a boost. It made me realise that this could be a way to combine my love of design, to commemorate my mom and to do something that could also make other women feel beautiful and confident.”

What was the inspiration behind my favourite Allegra shoes?

“When I wasn’t well, I would spend time at the Wallace Collection in London to lift my spirits. In part, the Allegra mule was inspired by Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s iconic painting The Swing, which hangs in this beautiful museum. This rococo masterpiece depicts a young woman kicking off a pink-silk mule while gazing at her paramour. I love the romance and whimsy of the image and the casual decadence of a mule – a style favoured by Madame de Pompadour and Marie Antoinette.

The signature heel is inspired by a ceiling rose – in Tudor times, a rose carved into a ceiling symbolised the freedom to speak freely. In the same way, I hope my shoes are a way for women to express themselves and what makes them unique and beautiful. “

Simona rusk shoes


SPITZ  LOAFERS & SADDLE SHOES

It’s not a secret that I’m a big fan of the German shoe brand SPITZ, and as you can see in the pictures below, their saddle shoes and loafers go perfectly with vintage clothes and are the best alternatives for those of you ladies who can’t wear heels.

SPITZ loafers
The perfect loafers from SPITZ worthy of Marlene Dietrich!

FRENCH SOLE VELVET SLIPPERS

And last but not least, my favourite luscious French Sole slippers are the quintessential footwear for lounging in the boudoir.

I didn’t choose the 1930s kimono robe and the red slippers to match my hotel room, but what a happy coincidence!

marlene dietrich look

French Sole Cherub slippers and my new Diana Ribbon Collar from Hellen Moore to keep me warm.

Buy the perfect velvet slippers!



Helen Moore Diana Collar and French Sole slippers
 


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20 Comments
  • Sharah
    June 14, 2021

    I really liked the article. And Loved the pictures too!

  • Maria
    March 24, 2021

    Love it!

    • Dominique de Merteuil
      March 24, 2021

      Thank you!

      • Nikki
        May 30, 2021

        Love this article, very inspiring and you’re gorgeous! I need all those shoes and Kimono for myself, lol. I’ve always been drawn to the femme fatale and the style. I recently had to cut my long hair to shoulder length. I was upset about it at first but it actually frames my face more and I can wear more 1920’s-1940’s femme fatale hairstyles!

        • Dominique de Merteuil
          May 30, 2021

          Thank you for your comment!

          It is so much easier to create vintage hairstyles on shorter hair! I know from experience how difficult it is to part with very long hair. Mine was so long at one point that I could sit on it but cutting it, and changing the colour from raven black to copper red, was the best decision I’ve ever made. 🙂

    • Ellie
      November 30, 2021

      I love saddle shoes! What are the braces on the socks?

  • lenord
    February 3, 2021

    Really loved your content- your images and your write up! Going through blogs I have seen you are interested in vintage wear, I would suggest Malco Modes for vintage wear

    • Dominique de Merteuil
      February 6, 2021

      Thank you for your lovely comments. I had a look at your website, but I didn’t see any vintage clothes there.

  • Julia
    December 21, 2020

    Love, love, love all your pictures! The Edwardian hat and faux fur stole are breathtaking!