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  • The 1940s and the explosion of female fashion

    In this blog, we are moving on to look at the fashions associated with the 1940s. Unlike during the first world war, when fashion development slowed down, female fashion developed rapidly during the second world war. Men’s fashion coincidentally did not change much at all.

    International Fashion in the Forties

    There were many glamourous female figures who showcased these fashion trends, such as Ava Gardner, Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn and Doris Day. They particularly highlighted the American trends, but Britain developed its own style. 

    Image of Ava Gardner

    Ava Gardner (Flickr, Lexinatrix)

    The development of British fashion mainly occurred because the French fashion houses were inaccessible to Britain under the German occupation of France. The French fashion houses kept going because if they closed down they could be taken over by the Germans. But they were only able to sell their clothes to the Germans.

    Utilitarian fashion designers

    At the start of the second world war, strict rationing on fabric was introduced. Clothing had to be bought with rationing coupons. What made this such a success was that the British Government got leading London designers involved with creating the clothes for people to buy. 

    What this effectively meant was that everyone wore a very similar style and it was all based on designs by the leading Saville Row fashion designers of the time. These were people such as Norman Hartnell (who designed Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress for her marriage to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1947), Hardy Amies and Edward Molyneux.

    The designs were submitted through the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (also known as Inc. Soc.). The clothes the designers came up with were utilitarian pieces, known as Utility clothing, with bright colours. This is not always obvious from the black and white pictures of the time (see above) but the clothes were often in rich blues, pinks, yellows and greens.

    The clothes were a simpler and more democratic approach to fashion. They were meant to last for years (which is why there is a market in ‘retro 1940s clothes’ and they can still be bought secondhand and worn). They were high-quality and very well-made despite the rationing. A British Utility dress could be bought for 7 coupons.


    Changes in dress design

    The dresses of the 1940s were shorter: knee-length instead of the mid-calf length of the 1930s. They created a much more masculine appearance but with an hourglass silhouette. The details included:

    • shoulder pads (extending just past the edge of the shoulder); 
    • puffed sleeves, gathered at the top, extending down to approximately the elbow;
    • boxy/square neck-line/shoulder angle;
    • nipped-in high waist; and 
    • knee-length A-line skirts. 

    These features appeared in the shaping of all suit jackets, blouses and dresses. 

    The exception to this was the evening dress, which was either spaghetti-strapped or halter topped and revealed the chest and shoulders (with mild amounts of cleavage on show). The skirts of these dresses started long and sleek, but were much fuller by the end of the decade.

    Alla modelling a dress from Galitzine's collection at her showroom. (Kristine, Flickr)

    The introduction of trousers into mainstream feminine fashion

    Up until the 1940s trousers had been mainly worn by men. However, when they started working in the factories women needed clothing that was safe to wear around machinery and that would not get caught in the moving parts.

    To start with women wore men’s trousers, but fairly quickly manufacturers started making trousers specifically for women. The design still looked masculine, but it was also:

    • fastened with a button or zip down the side;
    • wide-legged with wide cuffs at the bottom; and 
    • made out of cotton, denim or wool blends. 

    Trousers soon became homeware as casual clothes and were acceptable for a woman to wear in public.

    Suited to work

    Due to the shortage of fabric, the popularity of two-piece suits increased. These suits were popular because the skirts, jackets and blouses could be mixed up, they did not need to match. Women could therefore have a ‘new’ suit to wear every day using the same clothes. This type of suit was called the Victory or Utility Suit. 

    After the war, these suits remained popular because they were comfortable and practical to wear. The skirts of the suits were A-line meaning they flared out gradually from the hip to the knee. In the early 1940s, there were no pleats or gatherings to the skirts because of fabric rationing. Later in the decade, pleats started to appear and a wider A-shape. Some skirts even had pockets!

    The suit jackets were made from the same material as the skirts but they could also be mismatched. As with the dresses, the jackets had wide, padded shoulders, a high neckline and a nipped-in waist, that flared out slightly at the bottom. The lower edge of the jacket reached down to the mid-hip. They were worn buttoned with variation in lapel widths, some had points or were shaped. It was not necessary to wear a blouse underneath the jacket but it was more comfortable to do so.

    A different style of jacket was the Bolero jacket. This was shorter with a rounded edge and long, narrow sleeves. It was worn over a blouse and rarely buttoned-up at the front. Leaving it to hang open showed off the blouse. 

    Blouses were either worn plain or with a light cardigan or jacket. They could be a solid colour or have a fun, striped pattern. They were either short or long-sleeved with puffy gathers and tight cuffs. They had buttons at the front and either small v-necks or a round collar neck opening.

    A Swimming Success

    Swimsuits in the 1940s were either one or two-piece affairs. The one-piece had a tighter fit than swimsuits in the 1930s. It also had a padded bra for support and either thin shoulder straps or a halter. The neckline was in the shape of a ‘v’ but with little cleavage on show. The halter-style was particularly popular. The bottom of the swimsuit came down to the top of the thigh and was either skirt-shaped or was in the form of slightly looser shorts.

    The two-piece swimsuit was like the one-piece suit but with the middle section removed so the shorts came up over the belly-button leaving a 4-inch space between the top and bottom piece. The Bikini was invented in 1946 and was a similar style but tighter with a lower waist. These were too revealing for most women at this time. Incidentally, the word ‘bikini’ comes from the Bikini Atoll where the USA detonated two nuclear bombs in 1946.

    Three young women on a beach in swimwear, mid 1940s (Family photos of Infrogmation" CC BY 2.5, Wikimedia Commons)

    Another popular item of holiday clothing was the playsuit. This was a beachwear dress for wearing over a swimsuit. It was a buttoned, loose-fitting, light, cotton dress. Some also had high-waisted shorts or a swimsuit halter top. These were popular with teenagers and younger, single women. 

    Fashion for a distinguished age

    It was in the 1940s that plus-sized clothing also developed. Catalogues and department stores developed ‘stout’ clothing ranges for the more mature women. These ranges included dresses, tops, coats and shoes. They were designed to be more flattering to the fuller figure, which was not really suited to the hourglass style. There were also longer beachwear ranges that were more conservative for older women.

    After the war, and Christian Dior

    In the late 1940s rationing ended, and there was more fabric and more choice available. This was quickly taken up and designs became more colourful with patterns and contrasting trims. A newly invented fabric called rayon was introduced. Teenagers were particularly fans of the skirts which came in a range of designs – plaids, stripes or the latest style. These were easier to move in and so were good for swing dancing.

    In 1947 Christian Dior launched his “New Look” fashion line. The “Corolle” line was the main range in this style. It had rounded shoulders, a cinched-in waist and a long, full skirt. At the time it received a mixed reaction: after the war, some people thought it was wasteful (the “Cherie” dress had lots of tight-pleating), others felt it was a setback in the progress of women’s clothing because it was so blatantly feminine. But it became, and remained, popular.

    The post-war relaxation away from utilitarian fashion continues in our next instalment in the series, where we take a look at the fashions receding hemlines of the 1950s.

  • 1930s: Dating photographs from fashion in the pre-WW2 decade

    In our series of blogs on dating photographs from fashion, we have arrived at the 1930s.

    This decade heralded the beginning of the golden age of cinema. The ‘talkies’ had now firmly replaced the ‘silent’ movies, and going to the cinema was an inexpensive pastime for people. Many of them went every Saturday for their fix of the film stars. No surprise, then, that fashions of the time were inspired by the likes of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Clark Gable and Errol Flynn.

    Images of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Clark Gable & Errol Flynn from Wikipedia

    Greta Garbo, Marlene DietrichClark Gable & Errol Flynn.
    From Wikipedia

    While the knock-on effects of the Great Depression in the USA meant times were tough for many in the UK, women could copy the film stars’ make-up and hairstyles at relatively little cost; and the introduction of man-made fibres and the zip made clothing more affordable and accessible. Clothes catalogues were launched in the UK (Littlewoods) and the USA (Sears), and the option to purchase items and spread the cost was appealing. Glamour was now accessible.

    By this decade, many people owned cameras (such as the Kodak Box camera) as they were inexpensive and easy to use – having no focus feature and using a roll film. Lucky family historians, such as myself, have a wide range of photographs in their collection, taken in locations other than a photographer’s studio. However, while colour photography was now possible, black and white photographs were cheaper and still the norm.

    Women’s fashion

    Following on from the boyish look of the Roaring Twenties, femininity returned to ladies’ fashion in the 1930s. Thankfully, though, corsets did not reappear.  
    In this decade, the fashionable silhouette evolved into a slender, elongated torso with widening shoulders and a neat head with softly waved short hair. Though the lines were simple, the overall effect was one of complete sinuous femininity with a natural waist and skirts flaring out slightly at the ankle. Hemlines descended back to ankle length and waistlines moved back to their natural place. (See the photo of my grandparents, with my mother, taken in 1933.)

    In the evening, satin dresses with low backs were fashionable. A technique known as the ‘bias cut’ was introduced, whereby the fabric is cut on a 45-degree angle so it stretches and moulds itself gently to the body. This created a slinky, flowing effect in evening gowns and was sometimes used for daywear, too.

    Day dresses came in a variety of patterns: floral, plaid, and dots. They were darted around the bust and fitted around the hips, falling to a straight skirt which often had gentle flutes through the insertion of bias-cut panels or pleats. Cap, elbow length and wrist-length sleeves were worn, usually with volume at the top and narrowing towards the wrist.

    Fur was everywhere in the 1930s, for day and evening wear. It wasn’t only for fashion – it had a practical purpose: there was still no central heating. It was used for fur coats; coat linings, collars and cuffs; capes; and gloves and stoles. While fur was a luxury item, it came in all grades and prices, ranging from sable down to rabbit; and faux fur, made from cotton pile, was available for those who couldn’t afford the real thing.

    Hats included a style of cloche which allowed room for curls to be shown off; caps and pillboxes in a variety of shapes and colours to match outfits; and even berets. For the summer, there were wide-brimmed straw hats to match the colour of the dress.
    As the decade came to a close, and World War 2 began, the popular style of broad, padded shoulders, nipped in waists and shorter A-line skirts that would dominate the early 1940s had already emerged.



    While men still wore suits for formal occasions and work, casual wear such as knitted sweaters and soft-collared shirts became increasingly popular for day-time wear. Blazers and sports jackets with flannel trousers and open-necked shirts were styles influenced by sporting pursuits. This photograph, taken on the beach at Birchington, Kent in 1938, depicts the more casual approach to clothing that men, women and children were able to adopt in this decade.

    Oxford bags remained popular for men, and trouser legs continued to be wide at the bottom and worn creased and cuffed. When suits were worn, jackets had wide, padded shoulders and tapering sleeves. Of course, formalwear did not disappear altogether, and the tuxedo continued to be a popular choice, with white tuxedos being worn in warmer countries.

    Towards the end of the decade and the start of World War 2, military-inspired trends such as the trench coat and the leather ‘bomber’ jacket saw popularity as casual outerwear.

    Children's wear

    Girls’ dresses, mimicking women’s fashion, returned to the natural waist. Cotton and muslin were popular fabrics, and dresses were embellished with embroidery, piping, and ruffles. Peter Pan collars remained popular (see the photo of my mum and her sister, below, in 1938), and dresses could be made in plain or patterned material.

    The movies had an influence on girls’ clothing too, and the ‘Shirley Temple dress’ – with puffed sleeves, a high waist, and a short hem – was particularly popular for little girls. Older girls wore longer dresses that fell just above their knees.

    Sailor suits continued to be a popular style for young boys, and age continued to dictate whether a boy wore shorts or long trousers, with younger boys wearing corduroy shorts and cotton shirts.
    Older boys’ clothing largely echoed their adult counterparts, with wool and flannel suits. Trousers were worn with a belt or suspenders, while hand-knitted sweaters or sweater vests were worn over collared cotton shirts with ties.

    The end of fashion?

    Next time, we take a look at the 1940s. This was the decade in which World War 2 resulted in clothes being rationed for eight years (from 1941 to 1949). Resources and raw materials for civilian clothing were limited, which could have spelt the end for fashion. But we’ll discover how it survived and even flourished in wartime, often in unexpected ways

  • Christmas Past

    As the festive season draws to a close with many of us taking down our decorations on Twelfth Night, we’re having a look at some of the traditions that might appear in written records or photographs from Christmas celebrations past.

    Christmas celebrations as we know them today were formed around the Victorian period. But what did people do before the Victorians?

    A lot, it turns out!

    Regency Revelry

    In the Regency period (1795-1837), celebrations started on the 6th December, or St Nicholas’s Day, when small gifts were exchanged following the Northern European tradition. Serious celebrations started on Christmas Eve and lasted over the period of Christmastide until Twelfth Night (the 6th January). 

    The run up to Christmastide began at the start of Advent (the fourth Sunday before Christmas), Christmas puddings were prepared and plans made for the celebrations. On Christmas Eve decorations were put up. 

    Regency period decorations were much simpler than the decorations used today. They were gathered from local fields and woods or from gardens, and were essentially evergreen plants. They included the traditional holly with its red berries and mistletoe with its white ones but also rosemary, bay, laurel, box, yew and fir. These were used because of their pagan symbolism associated with everlasting life. It must have smelt wonderful!

    When the decorations should be taken down varied from region to region around the country. In some places they were taken down on Twelfth Night, in others on Candlemas Eve (2nd February) and in other places, it was on the 40th day of Christmas.

    How the decorations were disposed of also varied depending on where you lived. In some places they could just be removed from the house. In other places they had to be burnt.

    At the end of Christmastide, on Twelfth Night, the party was bigger than the Christmas Day celebrations. People exchanged gifts and held fancy dress balls with every guest having a character and a part to play. Guests were either told beforehand who to come dressed as or the hostess provided dressing-up items for guests on arrival. If someone broke out of character there was a forfeit to pay later!

    Tudor Traditions

    The Tudors did things a little differently. The lead-up to Christmas for a good Tudor citizen was a time for fasting. Definitely, no meat, cheese or eggs to be eaten during Advent. But they made up for it from Christmas Day onwards. The 12 days of Christmas were days when no work (apart from looking after animals) was to be done by men who worked on the land, which was a lot of people in the days before the Industrial Revolution. No one could be compelled to work - women were banned from doing any spinning.

    Mulled wine and ‘minced’ pies were eaten. Ghost-stories were traditionally told to while away long winter nights around the fire. This was also the time when Turkeys were introduced as fine Christmas food – Henry VIII was one of the first people in this country to eat a turkey as part of the Christmas Day feast.

    A little while after the Tudors, the Puritans were the people who banned Christmas. Parliament passed laws in the period from 1644-1647 making it illegal to celebrate Christmas, saints’ days and other holy days. Fortunately, Charles II reinstated Christmas in 1660.

    Tudor Christmas Decorations At Trerice

    Tudor Christmas Decorations At Trerice. By Geoff Welding, CC BY-SA 2.0

    Pagan Practices

    From the 4th century onwards Christmas was celebrated in Europe anywhere in the year between the beginning of January through to late September. It was settled on 25th December by Pope Julius 1, making the most of pagan festivals that occurred at about this time.

    It may have been Viking invaders who were responsible for bringing the tradition of the Yule Log to British celebrations. Large bonfires were traditionally built in midwinter to celebrate the traditional Viking festival of light.