1940s Vintage Fashion Guide - Rationing, Victory Suits, Knitwear & The New Look

1940s Women's Clothing - Fashion On A Ration

During wartime, Britain 1939-1945 food became rationed followed two years later by clothing.  The 1941 utility scheme provided economically produced good quality clothing.  Limiting the number of styles available meant longer print and manufacturing runs which cut the cost of production.  The strict code promoted the use of less fabric and minimal fastenings and trimmings. Materials such as elastic, rubber and silk were requisitioned for military purposes. A Woman's 1940s Vintage Fashion Guide takes a look at the key elements of a woman's wardrobe during these years of restrictions.

The British Government urged women to go through their wardrobe and make do and mend Ideas were published to extend the life of clothing or give it a new lease of life by adding appliqué, ribbons etc. At Revival, we offer a range of original vintage forties dresses, some of which have been repaired or customised in this way.  It is very endearing to see and adds a certain charm to the garment.  Look for the CC41 symbol which stood for Controlled Commodity and 41 for the year it was introduced. We occasionally have clothing with this symbol.  It is always a thrill to find them.  Clothing Ration Coupons did not end until March 15 1949.

A  Woman's 1940s Basic Wardrobe

It is great to see that despite the limited fabrics and choice fashion continued to thrive.  With this in mind then, what were the basic items of clothing in a 1940s woman's wardrobe?

Good Quality 1940s Suit

The longline fitted jacket and A-line skirt with or without pleats was an iconic look of the decade. The beauty of a suit is of course that you can wear the two pieces separately.  The most common fabrics were wool, wool blends or wool weight Rayon.  The style illustrated did not change throughout the forties so that women did not have to worry about keeping up with the latest fashions.  

The Practical 1940s Dress

A typical forties dress has a number of distinguishing features.  Pleats, tucks, and shirring were allowed above the waistline but were restricted to using only 10% of the material.  Sleeves were usually short or just above the elbow.  Small fabric shoulder pads extended the natural shoulder line to create a more masculine silhouette.  Most dresses had a matching narrow belt.  Fabrics included cotton, rayon or light wool. Sheers, velvet, and corduroy for afternoon semi-formal attire. Chiffon or shiny rayon for the evening.  The image below is an example of a Revival Socialite replica 1940s dress which has all the features of an original but is available in a wide range of sizes.  During the wartime, the average woman would have only owned around four dresses so they had to be hard-wearing and versatile.

40s Replica Socialite Dress

An Essential Siren Suit

This was an all in one jumpsuit that women could pull on quickly over their night clothes if they were prompted to rush to an air raid shelter by the shrill sound of a siren.  They had a flap to allow the wearer to visit the lavatory without taking the entire suit down.  Sounds like a great idea to me, I love a jumpsuit until it's time to go to the loo!

1940s Women Knit Your Bit

Other wardrobe basics, of course, include knitwear in the form of short sleeved tops, jumpers and cardigans.  Again women were encouraged to knit or crochet their own.

Hand-knitting was at a peak in Britain in the 1940s. During the Second World War, women on the home front were encouraged to contribute to the war effort by knitting for the troops, which was promoted as a public duty. Advertising at the time stated: "England expects – knit your bit".

Many knitting patterns were given away free, while wool was also sent to schools so that children could knit gloves, scarves and balaclava helmets for the forces. Wool was also supplied to organisations such as the Women's Institutes of England and Wales, who made over 22 million knitted garments for the Red Cross (an average of 67 garments per member). Parcels of their knitwear were sent to prisoners of war, as well as to troops.

The warmth of woollen garments also made them popular for civilians who were faced with a shortage of heating fuel. In the face of wool rationing, knitters were encouraged to unravel old sweaters.

Accessories For A 40s Wartime Wardrobe

Attempts were made to brighten up the utilitarian look with frivolous little hats which were constructed from raffia, ribbon, curtain fabric, even paper. Old straw and felt hats were expertly remodelled and trimmed with feathers or homemade silk flowers. Brightly patterned silk headscarves bound round the head like a turban were very popular.

Handbags were shop-bought simple frame styles or ingenious homemade designs from all manner of things.  Over the years we have seen some awesome creations at Revival.  It's great to witness evidence that through difficult times women remained stylish and creative in their clothing and accessories.  See if you can spot any home-made vintage handbags in our current collection. 

1940s Utility to Designer Clothing 

When the war ended in 1945 the shortages worsened if anything. In 1947 Christian Dior unveiled his New Look and provoked anger in Paris. He used yards of fabric and abundant ornamentation to accentuate a small nipped in waistline. After enduring all the restrictions of wartime, everyone wanted the Dior look. You can find out more about forties designer clothing in our other blog posts.

1 comment

The 1940s Vintage Fashion Guide offers a fascinating glimpse into a pivotal era marked by both adversity and innovation. The impact of wartime rationing is evident in the practical yet stylish designs, reflecting the need for resourcefulness and resilience amidst global conflict. Victory Suits symbolize the spirit of patriotism and unity, with their streamlined silhouettes and utilitarian appeal serving as a testament to the era’s collective effort.
Knitwear emerges as a versatile wardrobe staple, providing warmth and comfort without compromising on style. From classic sweaters to intricate cardigans, knitwear reflects the ingenuity of designers and the adaptability of consumers facing wartime shortages.
At the forefront of fashion evolution is the revolutionary “New Look” introduced by Christian Dior in 1947. This iconic silhouette, characterized by a fitted bodice, nipped-in waist, and full skirt, embodies a newfound sense of femininity and glamour. As the world emerged from the shadows of war, Dior’s visionary designs heralded a new era of opulence and extravagance, redefining fashion for generations to come.
Overall, the 1940s Vintage Fashion Guide serves as a testament to the resilience, creativity, and enduring influence of wartime fashion. From rationing to victory suits, knitwear, and the transformative impact of the New Look, this guide offers a captivating journey through a pivotal chapter in fashion history.

Azam Javed February 09, 2024

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