The 1940s Fashion in a Nutshell

Last updated on March 17th, 2024 at 10:59 am

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This post is 1940s fashion silhouettes cheat sheet, for the lack of better words, for those who are new to the world of vintage fashion popular in and post WWII.

If you have a predilection for learning about fashion history, in particular pertaining to the 1940s and the 1950s, don’t miss the articles listed below.

  1. History of the American Look
  2. The 1940s DuBarry dress
  3. The History of Handmacher suit
  4. History of CC41-The Utility Clothing Scheme

DISCLOSURE: As of October 2021, (I published this article in 2016) I’m part of an affiliate program, and I get a small commission for purchases made through some links in this post. That’s how I keep my website alive, for which I’m very grateful to you. All opinions expressed here are mine! 

The 1940s Fashion in Britain

The slogan “If you don’t need it, don’t buy it!” may well have been familiar to a woman living in 1940s wartime Britain; a time polar to the opulence of my beloved 18th Century and yet a period that still holds enormous sway over my own personal sense of style.

1940s CC41 dress

Here is an example of an early 1940s dress bearing the CC41 tag.

The real 1940s fashion decade was a tumultuous time, a now-forgotten casualty of war with scarce raw materials to work with and clothing factories that were turned over to military purposes.

Lana Turner in Keep Your Powder Dry (1945) Costume supervisor; Irene Maud Lentz.

Lana Turner 40s fashion

Austerity And The CC41 Utility Clothing Scheme

In Britain, the real 1940s fashion saw restriction after restriction on what could be produced and yet more restraint was still needed. So British Austerity Regulations sought to narrow fashion choices further by introducing a set of rules for clothing.

As a way to help people adjust to these limitations, the British Government introduced the Utility clothing scheme which offered to guarantee good quality price-controlled clothes affordable for most, if not all.

In 1942, leading designers of the time established the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (IncSoc) to promote British fashion abroad.

Together with the Board of Trade, the IncSoc designed CC41 suits, dresses and overcoats, following the rigid regulations which restricted designers to using very specific amounts of fabric on each garment. 

CC41 dress. Vintage fashion blogger

Find out more about the CC41 utility clothing scheme!

Two looks emerged from these wartime confinements. The military look consisted mainly of a jacket with broad shoulders, knee-length skirts, slacks and matching headpieces, which were worn mainly by women who served in the war.

The alternative was a utility look with tailored suits being favoured.

By 1943, when austerity had reached its peak, the policy became “Make Do and Mend!” which was the title of a pamphlet issued by the British Ministry of Information that became useful with its tips on how to take care of clothes and make use of old garments.

  • Readers were advised to create pretty decorative patches to cover holes in worn garments. 
  • Re-knit old jumpers into chic alternatives.
  • Turn men’s clothes into women’s, as well as darn, alter and protect against the ‘moth menace!’
  • Women also learned from the pamphlet that stockings that were very expensive and difficult to find could be created by drawing lines at the back of the legs to look like stocking seams.

CC41 Examples from My Personal Collection

Brief History of CC41


The 1940s fashion!

I paired the 1940s CC41 skirt with a 1940s-inspired blouse from House of Foxy, and Wolford tights. @Gregory Michael King

CC41 skirt
CC41 fashion
“Four young ladies enjoy a stroll in the spring sunshine along a shopping street in the West End of London during 1941.” Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer  © IWM (D 2937)
40s propaganda poster

Make-do and Mand poster © IWM (Art. IWM PST 4773)


The 1940s Skirt Suit

A vintage skirt suit from the 1940s or 1950s is one of the key pieces in the wardrobe of any vintage aficionado and is a perfect acquisition choice for those just starting their adventure in building that dream vintage wardrobe.


New to me 1940s Handmacher skirt suit.

1940s skirt suit

  • The early 1940s fashion was all about the military-influenced look; broad shoulders worthy of Joan Crawford, and a straight skirt, with a narrow waist, created a very feminine and sexy, without being vulgar, silhouette.
  • The two-piece suit known as a Victory or Utility suit was born of a tumultuous decade, a now-forgotten casualty of war when raw materials were scarce and clothing factories were turned over to military purposes.
Vintage fashion blogger

I accessorised this incredible 1940s Koret of California suit with a late 1950s Koret wicker purse. For clarification, the brand behind my purse is not the same as the one that made the skirt suit.

The A-Line Shape

  • The very flattering slightly A-line skirt suit of this era looked great on any body shape and was the perfect piece to mix and match be it with a jacket or a blouse, which is why I love it. I often mix original vintage skirts with tops and blouses from contemporary designers, always favouring Wheels & Dollbaby along with Vivienne Westwood and the House of Foxy.
  • This is precisely the reason why the skirt suit is my top-most contender when searching for vintage clothes. 

In the picture taken by Gregory Michael King, I’m wearing a late 1940s, early 1950s skirt suit paired with a French Sole leopard print purse, 1950s gloves and Megumi O sunglasses.

1940s skirt suit

“The New Look”

The seemingly endless rationing didn’t end with the war but was gradually eased, women were increasingly desiring a return to fashion that accentuated their femininity, and it comes as no surprise to learn that “The New Look” of 1947 was a huge success, although not everywhere, firmly placing designer Christian Dior at the forefront of the next fashion revolution with his use of sumptuous fabrics, fuller skirts that hung just below the calves and fitted jacket which emphasised a woman’s sexuality.

To quote fashion historian Jonathan Walford

Feminine luxury and elegance became a symbol of post-war prosperity and defined the silhouette of the coming decade.


Dior’s New Look wasn’t entirely new, and he wasn’t the first 1940s designer to introduce a wasp waist and full skirt.

I have been following American fashion pages pretty closely and they read like foreign language now. They are all talking about wasp waists and corsets, and this season is supposed to be striking for its glitter and masses of jewellery and bustles and things. It’s supposed to be the most extrabagant season for a long time. While here you don’t even get people bothering about cheap frocks-factory girls go to work in slacks.

A Mass Observation report for 1939-1940

The Lilli Ann Suits

It’s not the full skirt that I want to focus on here but rather the pencil skirt, which I’m incredibly fond of because it’s very comfortable, can be worn to every occasion, and is easily dressed up or down with the help of the right accessories and again is incredibly sensual, yet elegant.

One of my favourite brands of the 1940s and 1950s that created the most mind-blowing skirt suits is Lilli Ann which, to those already passionate about vintage needs no introduction, for newbies I recommend an article written on the subject matter by the fabulous Jessica Parker of No Accounting For Taste!

Lilli Ann Ads
Lilli Ann skirt suits.

The real beauty of the 1940s and 1950s skirt suits is that regardless of the season or current trends, which are of no importance to me but are still relevant to those who are in the process of finding their ‘look’, help to create a very sophisticated, sexy or reserved look, depending on what your aim is. And they look great on everyone no matter what height or body shape you are!

The Real 1940s Fashion Examples

Here are a few examples of early and very late 1940s skirt suits from my wardrobe.

Joan Crawford inspired outfit

My favourite, very early 1940s Koret of California skirt suit paired with a late 1950s Koret wicker purse and Wolford tights.

The American Look by Nina Leen for Life magazine
The American Look editorial for Life May 1945. Photography by Nina Leen.
CC41 clothes
The 1940s fashion in Great Britain. CC41 Utility Clothing Scheme.

In the picture, I’m wearing a 1940s skirt suit which I paired with my precious saddle shoes from SPITZ.

vintage fashion blog
The perfect skirt length for a Tokyobike ride.
  • Strong shoulders a la Joan Crawford
  • Knee-length A-line skirts
  • Sleeves ending above the elbow or full-length
  • Military inspired skirt-suit
  • In the 1940s trousers worn for comfort is the favourite garment amongst movie stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn
  • Button-down dress
  • Wrap dress-hugely popular in 1945
  • Shirtwaist dress with buttons covered in the same fabric as the dress

This is my favourite 1940s shirtwaist dress perfect for the casual look.

How to style a shirt dress

Example of one of my many 1940s Handmacher suits. Learn about the fascinating history of the Handmacher brand!

The American Look. Vintage clothing.
1940s-1950s women's suit
I’m a proud owner of this beautiful late 1940s, early 1950s grey suit purchased from Melissa’s Etsy shop; Savvy Vintage Spinster.
1940s-1950s women's suit
The 1940s Fashion in a Nutshell. The vintage outfit ideas.

The 1940s Lipstick

My post on 1940s fashion would be incomplete without me mentioning my favourite 40s-inspired lipstick by Besame.

I have a 25% discount for my lovely readers on all Besame cosmetics!

best vintage-inspired red lipstick

Fashion Inspired by the 1940s Styles

If you are not ready to add an original 1940s garment to your wardrobe, you can always opt for something inspired by the 1940s decade.

how to dress like a 1940s Femme Fatale

For the 1940s-inspired fashion look No.1, I chose;

  • Freddies of Pinewood blouse
  • 1980s slacks
  • Birds and Fresia hat

For the late 1940s-inspired fashion look No.2, I opted for;

Vintage fashion with a slightly modern twist.

  • The 1940s-inspired blouse from The House of Foxy is perfect for summer days which is why I own more than one.
  • The 1952 Handmacher skirt goes perfectly with a contemporary blouse.
  • Spitz Saddle shoes
  • 1950s purse
1940s Femme Fatale Look

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  • cafe
    August 17, 2023

    The collection looks so lovely! I really want to share the blog with my female friends.

  • Rose Evans
    February 25, 2017

    You look lovely in the dress! I’m a big fan of Lena!

  • bella lauren
    November 24, 2016

    You look really decent in this stylish greyish outfit.

  • bella lauren
    November 22, 2016

    Lovely collection of vintage,i really love this greyish outfit of vintage