What did women wear in the 1940s?

"Most people's references to the past are mainly black and white films and photographs, so they kind of think of clothing in that manner. Even if you look at some dresses from the time you've got almost really rich blues, pinks, yellows, different to how you perceive the dress in a photograph.

The styles coming out of Saville Row in the West End at that time were being replicated for the masses. So, suits coming from Saville Row in the season of 1939, Montague Burton would have been copying them and churning them out to the masses. 

It wouldn’t have been wholly handmade, but it would have been made in the same fashion. There wasn’t an elitism in clothing of that time. You know, working-class people would have had less clothing and would have worn it more often, but the style stayed the same, so it was almost a democracy in fashion. 

This woollen dress, beige with green and gold stripes, costs two pounds, one shilling. The jacket is the top half of a cardigan suit, costing three pound sixteen and five. 

The colour still maintained, even though the clothing was becoming more simple because of utility clothing. For example, how about this for a basic outfit. Under the suit, a fawn blouse, one pound. Total cost, the whole works, 12 pounds, 17 and tuppence. So, when it’s your turn to get your civvies, make your choice carefully and remember, planning’s the thing. 

And though you had obviously wartime restrictions and rationing, the quality by no means was inferior. A lot of the stuff was very well made, very well tailored, it was meant to last for years maybe even decades. So, the quality was still there, even if the shortages were in place. 

Remember many of you will be starting your wardrobe from scratch and you’ll want your grant of 12 pounds ten to go a long way. 


Today many well-known houses making inexpensive clothes of good quality and design. Look over the clothes you’ve got, see if they won’t last a bit longer or if they can be altered to present day needs. Clean them, mend them. Obviously, most of us wear these clothes, you know, regularly or on a daily basis. This is alike a wartime maid jacket. Well, this is obviously a jacket that probably once started out its life as a man’s jacket but has been re-tailored to fit the female form. For women’s clothing especially, very structured looks which have a definite military influence, so when you’re talking about the shoulders and things like that, very strong shoulders and lots of buttons, you know, for that kind of military mirroring. 

I think one of the reasons why we all like these clothes is the quality and just the fact that we’re all still able to wear these 70, 80 year old clothes now is because they were so well made and I think that is something that’s lacking, especially from today’s clothing that’s, sort of high street, it’s all very throwaway, you can go into shops where things cost nothing and then people really do just intend to not keep them for very long and that’s why it’s so cheap. It has no, it has no value, you know, you didn’t work hard for it and so, it’s so last year. It’s throwaway. Yeah, exactly. 

It's good for the environment to wear vintage clothes. Yeah true. Ultimate recycling. But I think everything that we, everything that we decide on as being right is always based on archive material. Come from the IWM. 

Especially for women’s military where there’s an amazing collection of the colour slide film that IWM have of ATS and things, absolutely gorgeous pictures.”

Inspired by IWM's collections, the brilliant Spirit of Britain explain why the 1940s was such an exciting time for fashion.


Tutorial: How to achieve a 1940s hairstyle

“So, for me the most iconic part of a 1940s look is actually the hair because I think even if you do the makeup and you buy a lovely outfit, if your hair’s not right and it’s modern looking then it sort of ruins it all, so this is really what brings it all together. Last night Casey put in hair rollers, and she set her hair using setting lotion and you sleep on them overnight, you get used to that then wrap it up in a head scarf and then the next day it’s ready to take out. 


When you take the rollers out just be careful not to tug at them because they can get tangled in the hair so just take them out nice and slowly and gently. The reason you need to curl your hair for a 1940s hairdo is because a lot of the styles are based around the shape that the rollers and the curls make so once you’ve got those already done it’s just a matter of techniques of brushing and pinning. 

Ok, so what we’re going to do today I think we’ll pin the top up we’ll do some rolls at the top. So, the first thing I’m going to do is just partition from behind the ears, so we’ve got a front section here. And then this is also really important, and it makes things a lot easier, this is actually a back combing comb, so I’m just going to do that to get texture and she’s going to look a little bit crazy for a while. We’ll just smooth the front down like so and then really, I just kind of wrap it around my finger to create a roll and then play with the placement of it, like that. So, once you’re happy with where it’s going you can just pin it into place. Repeat on the other side and then you can play with the placement of the rolls. 

So, before I move onto the back, I’m just going to secure that front bit. Casey’s hair line is like mine she’s got lots of little fine baby hairs which I really like and I, I actually think that 1940s hairstyles look better when they’re not sort of slick, what you call pin-up hair, I just think that looks a bit too contrived and I think that women at home would have been, you know, doing their own hair they didn’t have hairdressers at home doing it for them so a little bit of frizz and a little bit of mess and I think that’s, it looks much more authentic. 

So, for the back as you can we’ve just brushed out the curls and what we’ll do now is we’ll roll the back of Casey’s hair up and this is a kind of style that became popular because this is how women were instructed to wear their hair in the services as well and it just meant that it was back off their face, it’s very neat, very pretty look and it’s quite easy to recreate. 

A way that women would recreate this look was by using something that they called a rat, and a rat was made using their own hair. Now these days you don’t have to do that because you can go on the high street, and you can buy one of these which starts life as a donut and many people use them to create a bun but a lot of them come like that and basically you just use that to create the roll at the back of the head. 

So, I’m just going to brush the underside because that’s actually the side that you’re going to see that’s going to wrap around. And once I’ve done that, I’m going to take the hair rat and wrap the ends around it and then we’re going to begin to roll upwards. So, once you get to the nape of the neck, start to pin it in place.

So, then we’re going to start spreading the hair around the rat and inning in place. You’ve just got to make sure that you can’t see the end of the rat. 

Ok, just finishing up and then we just turn Casey around and there we have the roll. So, there we have the finished hair do with the back roll using the rat or donut and then the iconic victory roll at the front and I think this is quite an achievable hairdo that you can do yourself at home. Nice and simple if you’re coming along to the Duxford Battle of Britain Air Show.” 

Learn how to achieve the perfect victory roll, an iconic element of women's 1940s fashion. 

Tutorial: The 1940s make up look

“Hello, we are from the Living History Group, Spirit of Britain and we are a group of people who are passionate about history and recreating both military and civilian looks from the 1940s. And today as we gear up for the Duxford Battle of Britain Air Show we are going to show you how you can recreate some of those iconic looks. As World War two developed and cosmetic supplies began to dwindle, women had to become much more creative with their makeup but that is why the 1940s look is quite easy to create because it’s a very simple, sort of, paired back look. So, today Lucy and Casey are here to help show you how you can recreate this yourselves. 

We’re just going to do a very basic matte foundation here on Casey. She’s quite pale already so we’ll just keep it very simple. During World War Two government controls affected every part of a women’s life; what they ate, the type of clothes they wore and even how much water they were allowed in their baths. And in the face of this chaos women were still expected to look their best and they how presented themselves was the one thing they still had control over. It became a rather rallying moment for women and a symbol of defiance in the face of chaos and ultimately Hitler. 

Ok, so Lucy is just putting some eyeshadow on Casey and during the war the sort of palette for eyeshadows was very neutral so you’re looking at very earthy tones browns and nude colours if anything at all really. I mean when you look at pictures of women during the war most of the time, they’re not even really wearing any make up, that’s probably because they didn’t have any and if they are wearing make up it really is that sort of red lip and then maybe a bit of eye shadow. 

So, we’re going for a very subtle look on the eyelash just a very small slick of mascara there. Of course, when you see pictures of Hollywood starlets and such from the time, they were most likely wearing false eyelashes but the mascara tube as we know it didn’t really exist then. They had a sort of brush wasn’t it with a sort of cake of mascara and it was a bit awkward so but we want to just keep that nice and subtle. 

We’re just going to add a little bit of pink to the cheeks or rouge as they would have called it and one thing that they could have done if they’d run out of rouge during the war is use beetroot and we know that women did do this, and they used it for their lips as well when they ran out of lipstick. 

So now moving onto the iconic red lips. So, even if you have hardly any other make up on you can put on red lipstick and people will instantly recognise it as a 1940s makeup look. The lipstick that we’ve chosen is a very matte finish and that is more like the lipstick that they would have had in the day but in order to put it on nice and evenly we’ve added a bit of lip balm to the brush just to make application a lot easier. One thing they also used to do was overline the lips, so go over the natural line of your lip just to make your lips appear fuller. So, I think the red lipstick has become so iconic of the 1940s makeup look really because if you had nothing left in your supplies of makeup all you needed was one little bit of red lipstick left at the bottom of the tube and they could put that on and they would feel glamorous and fully made up. Gorgeous. 

So, the last step is just to apply a matte powder all over just to take away the shine. And that’s it. Nice and simple. 

Just to recap, we did a very simple base, a neutral eye with very subtle mascara, blusher, the iconic red lip and just finishing off with the matte powder. Just a very simple glamourous look that anyone can do just like us, we’re not makeup artists but very simple.”

The war brought many changes for women, including a shortage of cosmetics. As a result, make up in the 1940s was pared back and simple, which makes it an easier look to replicate.


Images of 1940s fashion from our collection

A young model poses on a small flight of steps in the Bloomsbury area to show off her checked suit, costing 18 coupons. 


A classic wool suit

A model wears a brown and beige all-wool checked suit by fashion designer Hardy Amies. She is wearing a matching coat. An angled hat completes the outfit.


Colourful 1940s dress by Norman Hartnell

Although certain design details were forbidden as they were a waste of valuable raw materials, wartime "austerity" fashions were not drab, as this purple, green and mauve dress (which cost 7 clothing coupons), designed by Norman Hartnell, testifies. The model is standing on a windy rooftop in Bloomsbury, London. Senate House, the headquarters of the Ministry of Information, is clearly visible behind her.


The utility frock

A model sits on a plinth beside some steps to show off her scarlet wool Utility frock by Dorville at John Lewis and Co. Ltd., with front-gathered skirt and shirt-waist top (cost: 11 coupons and 60/-). With this dress, the model is also wearing a white silk jersey turban, white gloves and shoes. This dress is also featured in D 14780, but accessorised differently to illustrate the versatility of the garment.


Don't forget the hat!

Four young ladies enjoy a stroll in the Spring sunshine along a shopping street in the West End of London. Two are wearing fancy hats, proving that wartime clothing doesn't have to be drab! Cars and other pedestrians go about their daily business behind them.
© IWM (D 2937)
Four young ladies enjoy a stroll in the Spring sunshine along a shopping street in the West End of London. Two are wearing fancy hats, proving that wartime clothing doesn't have to be drab! Cars and other pedestrians go about their daily business behind them.

Four young ladies enjoy a stroll in the Spring sunshine along a shopping street in the West End of London. Two are wearing fancy hats, proving that wartime clothing doesn't have to be drab! Cars and other pedestrians go about their daily business behind them.

Make do and mend, 1943

[archive] "we haven't got enough coupons!"

"and I've got to have a few for towels and things for the house."

[knocking] "perhaps we can help you."

"and who may you be?"

"your old clothes put away and forgotten"

[Michelle Kirby] This is one of those films that makes me smile. It's a newsreel trailer made by the Ministry of information in 1943 and it's all about Make Do and Mend. This was a government campaign urging people to repair reuse and reimagine their existing clothes because it wasn't just food that was rationed in the Second World War. From June 1941 buying new clothes was rationed too.

The cinema audiences who would have watched this before the main feature started would probably have groaned inwardly at the sight of the ration books. They symbolized sacrifice. There was a real scarcity of new clothes because fabric was needed elsewhere for uniforms and the general war effort. Many in the cinema audience would have identified with a very glum-looking family who appear in this film visibly fed up with their limited clothing coupons which just won't buy them enough. Not to worry though because here come the family's old clothes, talking and moving no less, to save the day.

[archive] "for instance I could make a smart costume for the young lady"

"something very stylish for madam?"

"well if the youngster wants some shorts I don't mind being cut down"

"and we'll join forces and make John a new sweater."

"Three boys shirts out of us."

"My wedding dress!"

"I'd like to be a nightdress and panties."

"Well folks what are you waiting for?"

[MK] A lot of people didn't like the rhetoric of Make Do and Mend and they felt quite daunted by it and there is an undercurrent of that running throughout the film. I can't help but smile at a blank expression on mother's face as her clothes throw down the gauntlet and try and reassure her that it's really quite easy when you know how.

"I've never turned a pair of trousers into a skirt in my life!" 

"never mind, it's quite easy to do, ask at your Technical Institute"

[MK] Ee know that Make Do and Mend classes and groups did spring up all over the country as people tried to help each other. The whole thing is deliberately playful and we'll see that playfulness replicated in many posters and leaflets as well which also promoted Makes Do and Mend. The government had been genuinely concerned that if the people of Britain had let standards of appearance slip it might be seen as a sign of the low morale, of just giving up and that
would have been bad for the war effort and that's what I like about this film.

There's an acknowledgment that these times are hard. On the Home Front a lot is being asked of people but it's not a lecture, it's a strangely uplifting call to action to encourage ingenuity and creativity to bring some smiles back on
faces and I think it encapsulates brilliantly that wartime spirit of pluck. All you need to get through this we're told is a bit of imagination and a little help from your friends.

[archive] "There's probably a local Make Do and Mend class where you can learn"

"or why not get together with your friends and form a Make Do and Mend group, then you can all help each other."

More fashion inspiration from the 1940s

Wartime Fashion

What To Wear To A Wartime Wedding

Rationing, restrictions and the uncertainty of the Second World War were just some of the challenges faced by couples marrying in wartime. But despite wartime privations, these couples made their big days special with help of families, friends and their communities. 

Women walk down a London street during the Second World War in 1941.
Wartime Fashion

How Clothes Rationing Affected Fashion In The Second World War

Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War.

two young boys dressed in school uniform. The boy on the left is smiling and wearing a uniform that fits him well. The image on the right appears to be the same boy but a little older and taller, wearing the same school uniform. He appears miserable as the uniform is far too small for him. text: Plan ahead allow for growing.
Wartime Fashion

8 Facts about Clothes Rationing in Britain During the Second World War

The imposition of clothes rationing was announced by Oliver Lyttleton, President of the Board of Trade, on 1 June 1941. Making the announcement just before a Bank Holiday allowed the Board of Trade time to brief retailers before the shops reopened. 

2. Take advice from Mrs Sew and Sew
Second World War

10 Top Tips For Winning At 'Make Do And Mend'

The Second World War saw unprecedented government intervention into everyday life on the British home front. Clothes rationing began on 1 June 1941. Handmade and hand-repaired clothing became an essential part of wartime life.