Getting your perfect 1940s summer look is easy when you see what kind of outfits were worn. I cannot think of anything better than a light, floral 1940s dress when it’s hot and sticky outside. For me there is nothing better, and as its a sunny day today I’ve been looking at some of these wonderful looks across the internet.
In a nutshell, 1940s fashion was an hourglass silhouette with masculine detailing. Padded shoulders, nipped-in high-waisted tops and a-line skirts that came to the knee were all seen, and are very easy to wear. This shaping could be seen on all everyday clothing items and even trousers had a high waisted and wide legged shape.
1940s summer clothing
I always think that the first thing I end up wearing at the beginning of summer is a dress, so I am starting my guide with one too. In the 1940s, summer dresses were cool, crisp cottons, light silky rayon shantungs and a variety of other sheer, light fabrics. Patterns and colours were very popular and were often found in printed and woven stripes, checks and floral patterns. Solid and printed fabrics were brightly coloured and vibrant and were available in emerald greens, regal purple, bold yellow, bright red and every shade of blue imaginable; from baby blue to turquoise to navy. Sheer fabrics, whether crepe or mesh often came in printed florals or in black and sheer dresses often featured ruffles, lace or contrasting underlay. Those in search of a simpler summer look would simply opt for white.
With the start of the war and strict rationing on fabric, dresses and skirt length became shorter. The 1930s feature dress length that went down to mid-calf but the 1940s summer dress was brought up to knee length. The war would also affect the top of the dress. Women’s clothing took on a masculine militant look with the invention and addition of shoulder pads. Every blouse, dress or jacket was fitted with these shoulder pads that extended to just below the shoulder and a 1940s summer dress was no exception. This made necklines boxy or square shaped with puffed sleeves that gathered at the top and extended just below the elbow. Short sleeve styles would also be available. Necklines of the 1940s summer dress would have a variety of cut-outs to the neckline. These could be square, slit, sweetheart, keyhole, shirred, cross-front / wrap, or even a shirtwaist with button down tops. There was no cleavage however, as all dress tops were very modest.
A unique item of clothing that only featured during the summer was the playsuit. These multi-piece ensembles would usually consist of top, skirt and shorts that would all match or co-ordinate. Prints would dominate the playsuit market and would often range from candy striped cotton piqué, floral wallpaper seersucker and even cactus print cottons. Playsuits were usually made with the same materials as swimsuits so the two could be purchased together to match. Shorts from the playsuit would often be paired with swimsuit tops especially when one was in and out of the water.
1940s summer swimwear
1940s one-piece swimsuit
Bathing suits were then, as they are now, the glory of summer for some and the nightmare for others. In the 1940s, swimsuits were revealing and form-fitting – when compared to previous decades of course. They were most commonly one-pieces at the start of the decade. The tops were fitted at the bust which extended to the back like a full coverage bra. This would be fitted to the waist and hips and dropping slightly to the back. Designs to the bottom included a flared skirt, shorts or combination of the two on the bottom. Swimsuits could be fitted with side zips, halter straps and some designers utilised boning in the stomach area to shape the waist area. Triangular cut-outs were seen to the front of some designs for the daring to show a little skin.
1940s two-piece swimsuit
As the decade moved into the 1950s, two-pieces came into the market due to rationing guidelines to save as much fabric as possible. Two-piece swimsuits were considered very daring and only for those with impeccable figures. These mildly scandalous swimsuits would feature tight-fitting, hip hugging high waisted bottoms paired with a bra-like top. Toward the end of the decade, strapless tops became popular – especially if one desired an even suntan. Swimsuits started to be designed that looked like a one-piece cut in half. The top showed more skin with thin shoulder straps or halter straps with the bottom becoming shorter and tighter – although it still covered the entire backside. The space between top and bottom became larger, showing more skin.
In 1946, the bikini arrived on the Paris fashion scene. Designer Jacques Heim had taken away most of the fabric in the two-piece suit to leave a skimpy top that looked like a bra and a bottom that looked like the tightest underwear of the time but came up to a high-waist, covering the belly button. He named his creation the Atome.
Another Parisian designer, Louis Réard made further changes to the Atome by making it even smaller. The top would have triangles to cover the breasts with halter strings to tie at the back. The bottoms had a triangular piece to cover the groin and another to cover the buttocks. This bared the belly button and showed much of the sides and hips of the wearer. Réard named his design the Bikini after the island where the atomic bomb had been tested.
The bikini was far too daring for most and many women shied away from this scandalous item of beachwear. Réard even had to hire a nude model to showcase his new swimsuit invention. Few women were bold enough to wear it even in the less inhibited French Riviera. It was only after Hollywood celebrities like Ursula Andress, Brigette Bardot and Raquel Welch were seen in fashion magazines wearing the bikini that other women were prompted to wear one. Most public beaches banned the bikini in the 1940s, but it’s popularity grew over time making it as popular (if not more so) than a one-piece swimsuit.
Fabrics that 1940s summer swimsuits were made from varied widely. Wool, linen, bengaline, poplin, sharkskin, rayon jersey and chintz all made appearances. Colours were wide ranging too. As with modern swimwear, colours like white, black, navy and red would always be in vogue but vibrant colours like pink, aqua, yellow, wine and royal blue also tended to be popular. Stripes were used to create optical illusions on the body whilst floral and checkered prints were also popular.
summer blouses, skirts and shorts
In the world of 1940s summer separates. short and light pieces dominated the markets. Silk or rayon crepe blouses were popular particularly in dark brown, white, maize, rose and line. The most distinctive trend for 1940a summer blouses was the peasant blouse which drew inspiration from Russia and Mexico. These youthful, rustic tops were usually white, decorated with colourful embroidery, smocking and beading and were paired with short and airy drindl skirts. Printed cotton drindls were popular as were fuller skirts with both coming in white, checks, ginghams and stripes. Generally skirt fabrics would be the same as 1940s summer dresses. Blouses could also be paired with another summertime novelty – shorts. Shorts for summer wear would be available in summery trouser fabrics and ranged from mid-thigh to below the knee in length. Shorter styles would usually have side pleats for fullness and mobility. Short overalls would also have their place and would be worn with or without a summer blouse underneath.
summer t-shirts and tops
A comfortable T-shirt seemed to also be one of the favourite trends in the 1940s – especially in the summer time. These were usually fitted well to the body with necklines that contrasted with the main part of the shirt with the ribbed ringer crew neckline becoming the most popular. Sleeves were cap or a little longer with long sleeves turned up for an effortless chic look. T-shirts and tops came in a wide range of colours and prints. Striped prints were very popular, with commonly seen colours being white, red, blue, yellow, beige and grey. These were casual and chic and paired with high-waist trousers and shorts. For a more polished look, shirts would be tucked into the pants. T-shirts and tops worn in the 1940s summer period would usually be made with knitted cotton materials.
1940s summer accessories
Accessories like hats, gloves, bags and shoes were crucial for creating a 1940s summer look. Apart from hats, white was the most prized colour for summer accessories. For hats though, natural textures and fibres dominated. Straw hats and more refined leghorns were most popular in natural, burnt wheat, black, brown and navy. These were trimmed with bright ribbon – particularly a lovely checkered print which would match or contrast with the rest of the outfit. Panama and sailor gates would also be made with natural materials like coconut and palm fibre which lent the hat a tropical paradise feeling. Fabric hats were next down the hiarchy of popularity and often came in piqué or organdie. with self-flowers, bows and trimmed with ribbons and feathers. Discretely handled flowers were also a favourite of many but many designers thought they were too obvious for summer. Lightweight hats also appeared, usually in homberg or fedora shapes. These were worn in lighter colours like lime, pink, blue, toast, yellow and light coffee. Panamas, sailors, fedoras and hombergs usually had shallow, small crowns and were worn pushed forwards on to the head with their wide brims occasionally trimmed with lace or veil.
Gloves would also range in style and colour, though white was always the preferred choice. White cotton or rayon in mesh or plain weave would dominate the style stakes. Mesh crochet gloves were extremely popular for the height of summer and came in lengths from wristlet to elbow. While commonly white, they were also available in darker colours like black or navy as well as pastels like pale blue, powder pink, daffodil, oyster white, and beige champagne. As the decade moved on, brighter colours would take over in terms of popularity. Jewel-toned suede with openwork like slashes or latticework were popular as well as unusual dual-colour combinations like chartreuse and blue or fuschia and blue. Printed rayon jersey gloves also added a new scope of possibility to wartime outfits. Patterns including checks, spots, stripes and florals added interest to everyday outfits. Towards the end of the 1940s, sheer 15-denier nylon gloves were introduced in all lengths and were most prevalent in darker tones like brown, black and navy as well as toast, pink and bright blue.
What you held in your gloved hands mattered too. Summer handbags, like almost everything, was preferred in white. White bags were even easier to keep clean with the introduction of plastic based materials like ‘plastic grain calf’, similar to what we would call ‘vegan leather’. Woven and corded plastic handbags were also popular. Apart from plastics, heavy grade cotton was also popular. The most preferred style was a pouch like bag with a handle to the top. Natural tones, red, pink and green were all secondary summer handbag colour options.
1940s summer shoes
Finally, what you wore on your feet could make or break your summer ensemble. All white or off-white linen, crushed leather, suede or calf pumps, sandals, sling backs and playshoes were all popular. Fabric play-shoes came in wedge and sandal form and were often bright red, green, purple, pink or checked to match or contrast with a summer dress. Platform sling-backs become fashionable, especially in white suede with red, navy or tan calf platform and heel.
Brown and white two-toned spectators were the most prized of all 1940s summer shoes but their rarity meant that you were more likely to see all-white spectators. Rope-soled espadrilles in flat or wedged sandals were also very popular in white, brown, green, red and yellow. Peep-toe shoes were especially popular in the summer as they provided much needed ventilation to keep feet cool. Perforations and cut-outs also had the same purpose.
As with other accessories, the most prized colour for 1940s summer shoes was white. Even though this was the case, garments and accessories would switch between light cool tones, darker neutrals and pastel and bright colours. Staying cool was as important as looking chic (as it is now). Wartime rationing would restrict and limit the materials that were available but they couldn’t limit imagination.
Now that summer is coming up, will you opt for a classic one-piece or a daring bikini? I can’t wait to wear a peasant top and drindl skirt, they look so comfortable!
What they Wore – 1950s Summer StyleWhat they wore: 1940s Wedding DressesWhat they Wore – 1940s Lingerie and ShapewearWhat they wore – 1950s Lingerie and Shapewear