Defining a Decade 1940’s

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The lovely thing about browsing photos is how the trends in clothing and styles define when a decade begins and ends. The roaring 20’s, the Great Depression, and then there is the 40’s. A time when attire was rationed in the interest of helping Troops during World War II.

During the 40’s, World War II impacted every aspect of daily life and fashion was no exception. In 1942, the United States imposed a rationing system similar to the one Great Britain had implemented the prior year, limiting, along with other things, the amount of fabric that could be used in garments. Materials including wool, silk, leather and a fledgling DuPont Corp. invention called nylon were diverted for use in uniforms, parachutes, shoelaces and even bomber noses.

Clothing was on strict guidelines to maximize material. The jackets could not be more than 25 inches in length. The pants could not be more than 19 inches in circumference at the hem. Belts could not be more than two inches wide and women’s heels no more than an inch in height. the hemlines rose to the knee in an effort to save fabric.  Luxuries such as buttons, cuffs, pockets and decorative frills like ruffles and lace were used sparingly. Women’s style were a shorter, boxy jackets for a V-shaped silhouette reminiscent of military uniforms. Even Celebrities in Hollywood traded in those elaborate costumes for simplified attire, a trend many claimed lent movies a new air of realism.

Grandma walking with her Mom Ula and Sister Pat Durbin.

Nylon was introduced in 1938, women embraced it as a replacement for silk stockings. In the early 1940s, however, with the rations silk was already being diverted to the war effort. The government had recognized many similar uses for the nylon and commandeered it as well. Being resourceful, women responded to this by coating their legs in tan makeup and drawing lines up the backs of their calves to mimic seams. 

Then there were the skirts, which were made to match the latest trends in music such as the Andrew Sisters, and Glenn Miller Band. The swing skirt had a round cut design to look best when dancing in the full jitterbug twirl. Swing skirts were a common on USO dance floors as young women danced with uniformed men to the jazzy horns that characterized the Big Band Era, which in 1942 Glenn Miller joined the Military Band to help with the War effort. Housewives were known to wear a more conservative version of the swing dress, sometimes in polka-dot or tiny floral prints.

Great Grandma Mary Matilda Ray Tryon, with possibly Herbert Vicent Nally(son) and unknown young lady.


Women’s hairstyles became more elaborate as women sought ways to contrast their dull wardrobes.  Wearing their hair shoulder length or longer was rolled into complex shapes then secured with bobby pins. My Grandma would roll her hair each night, and pin up the next day. During her day Starlets  in Hollywood popularized side parts and finger waves. All makeup was dramatic, characterized by matte foundation, powder, heavy brows and bright scarlet lips like Lucille Ball.

After the war and the late 1940s, women were ready for  a return to Glamour.  The designers obliged them with swirling skirts, and shimmering evening gowns inspired by film starlets such as like Ingrid Bergman, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford.

French couturier Christian Dior almost single-handedly brought an end to wartime austerity with a fashion line observers christened the New Look in 1947. The severe angles were replaced with curves, hemlines dropped back below the knee and skirts were generously draped. Key to the New Look was structured undergarments  which featured broad shoulders, tiny waists, emphasized bust lines and padded hips. The pencil skirt was a figure-hugging alternative to bouffant skirts. Even the Men were ready  for freedom from conservative tailoring of Military look. Their New Look was  in wide-legged trousers, full-length coats and suits in an array of colors. Both mens and women’s trousers featured higher waists, widely cut legs and cuffs and came in textured tweeds and jewel tones.

My Grandma and Grandfather around 1950 with my Aunt Theresa


The New Look met with protest from women who had grown accustomed to baring their legs and were disinclined to cover them back up. Moreover, the opulent, fabric-rich designs seemed wasteful in contrast to wartime fabric restrictions. The desire for change prevailed and the look flourished throughout much of the 1950s.

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