The Feminine, Flirty, Ladies' Fashions of the 1940s

Joan Crawford -- queen of "the shoulder" look.
Joan Crawford -- queen of "the shoulder" look.

Little jewelry but all the real magilla...

In doing some Hub-hopping this evening I came across one of fellow-Hubber Kenneth Avery’s works pertaining to the way things used to be. Wow – was that a trip down memory lane. One of the subjects he touched on was the way women dressed back then – and boy did they dress. I’m talking about the 1940s.

My sainted Granny came from a generation where the women got up early and put on a suitable, cotton, house dress, stockings and shoes and “fixed” their face and hair before any other member of the family ever laid eyes on them for the day. Granny wasn’t fat but heavy set and having had back trouble most of her life wore a corset that snapped, laced, zipped – well, you get the picture. To that she attached (at the top of the corset) an iron maiden bra with wide straps and at the bottom nylon stockings. Trust me, nothing was left to chance or given the slightest opportunity to move or jiggle.

Sunday was the day Granny wore one of her two “Sunday” dresses to the Methodist Church. She also had one pair of Sunday shoes and as I recall a choice of two or three hats – but she wore a hat to church without fail. White gloves were a staple to ladies in that day and Granny kept up with the times. If she “dressed up” in one of her Sunday dresses, shoes and hat; her hands were always – not occasionally but always -- covered with immaculate white gloves.

Pearls were the flavor of that day and Granny had a small strand of the real thing. When they weren’t around her neck they were hidden under the removable marble top of her East Lake dresser thus safe from burglars and those with “sticky” fingers. She also had a pair of diamond earrings – tiny, perfect blue white diamonds set in an old fashioned mounting for her pierced ears. She never took them off and even slept in them. They were a treasured gift from her son for her 50th birthday. She also occasionally wore an opal ring from her childhood. Other than those three things I never saw her wear jewelry at all. Having been widowed long before I was born she’d put up her gold wedding band many years earlier.

The combination pompadour/chignon hair do -- very popular in the 1940s.
The combination pompadour/chignon hair do -- very popular in the 1940s.

Bobby Pins and Pompadours...

It sounds as though Granny was well enough off financially to have quite a selection of clothes but the fact is – she didn’t. She made all her house dresses(usually 2 or 3), bought only her two Sunday dresses and owned two pair of shoes and three hats. All her clothing was hung in what she called “Aunt Mary’s chiffrobe” which was just deep enough to hang coat hangers (wire of course) and probably 4’ wide. Her shoes lived in the bottom of the chiffrobe and her hats were ensconced in hat boxes on top of it.

Granny had one coat to her name until I was probably 12 years old at which time her youngest daughter gave her a new coat for Christmas and she wore it until the day she died. No, Granny didn’t have much of a wardrobe but back then nobody did in our little town. Probably by the standards of that day my Granny had more than most. No matter – she was proud, most times pleasant and maintained a dignified persona at all times.

In describing that torture chamber corset Granny always wore; it comes to mind that undergarments for any woman were not all that charming during my growing up years. As a little kid I recall seeing my mother hang her underwear on the clothes line (during WWII) and panties had no elastic but were kept up by drawstrings. That was due to rubber rationing during the war. Ladies bras looked like poorly designed torture chambers. The clasps in back looked like they came from the hardware store and the cups were so pointed (and stiff) they looked like a rip-off from Wonder Woman. Everyone wore a full length slip back then and believe it or not they were pretty!

Although I was too young to wear any of the big-shouldered fashions of the 1940’s I admired them greatly. My mother and aunts all had handsomely tailored two-piece suits with pencil skirts and big shouldered jackets. The suit jackets often had beautiful and colorful yokes and fancy stitching. Platform shoes were big time stuff and ankle strap shoes adorning a lady’s feet were just about too cool for words.

During the big-shouldered suit era; big hats were also in vogue. Hats could be dinner plate size or go on up to the ridiculous – like being as wide as the shoulders of one’s suit jacket. Winter coats also took on gigantic proportions in the shoulder area and when worn over a suit with big shoulders – well, you can well imagine a few of the shorter ladies bore a strong resemblance to the hunchback of Notre Dame.

Ladies gowns and robes were very pretty in those days. Robes were usually floor length and fitted or belted – or both. The trousseau gown and robe set was a monument to femininity with its ruffles, tiny tucks, ribbons, bows and occasionally pearl buttons – and it was always some delicate, floaty fabric adorned with satin in one way or another. It was not unusual for the bride’s wedding nightgown and robe set – the robe being known as a “peignoir” – to be far more elaborate than her wedding dress.

Were women more feminine in that era? Being a little kid then; I doubt my judgment was the best but they sure looked like that to me. Even when they wore “slacks” there was a feminine cut to them and they were always worn with a top adorned with some kind of delicate trim or soft color. As the great selection of cotton knits we now have didn’t even exist back then I don’t recall any lady ever wearing anything even closely akin to a “t-shirt” or sweats.

Hairstyles were very, very feminine. We’ve all seen the pompadours and upswept hair styles worn by the old film stars. Well, dear hearts, all the plain, everyday ladies wore those same hairstyles in those days and there was nothing easy about glamorous hair do’s back then. To get those pompadours to stay up and in place ladies used what were called “rats” in their hair. You combed your hair down into your face, placed the rat on your head, then lifted your hair back up and over the rats – concealing them – and anchored the whole thing with bobby pins or hair pins so it would stay in place – and you had a pompadour hair style.

“Chignons” were another popular hair style of the time. Again, a hair rat was used and it looked like a big, fat donut (as closely matched to the wearer’s hair color as possible). The hair was brushed back from the face and pulled to the nape of the neck in back – then pulled through the donut hole, spread out to cover the rat and pinned in place – again with the old stand by bobby pins or hair pins. Some ladies combined the pompadour in front and the chignon in back – and for a fact, it was really pretty. Of course the obvious blessing to any of these hair styles was a thick, full head of long hair!

Flirty ladies suits with peplums were the fashion rage in the 1940s as evidenced by this sewing pattern.
Flirty ladies suits with peplums were the fashion rage in the 1940s as evidenced by this sewing pattern.

There's vintage and then vintage...

During the 1940’s the look of femininity abounded and when you think about it that must have been a stretch for ladies who were also filling men’s shoes by becoming “Rosie the Riveter” and maintaining households, farms, ranches and a zillion other jobs while their men were fighting a war. Those ladies were definitely a part of “The Greatest Generation” in every way.

Thinking about feminine ladies; my great aunt comes to mind. She was always gussied up to the max and a very dignified personage. As a child I recall her always smelling like one flavor or another of Avon bath powder. Her vision failed in her old age and she used to sit in a rocker and crochet (in braille?) day-after-day. She told wonderful stories and I was one of the little kids that gathered at her knee when she’d be willing to spin a yarn. It was then, when I was in very close proximity to her, I always noticed a strange odor, unidentifiable to me, which constantly lurked around the dear old soul.

One day I got brave enough to tell my Granny that Aunt Lou smelled funny. Being very wise my Granny told me it was probably some of the medications Aunt Lou used. I didn’t know much about anything medicinal back then except Vicks Salve and I knew it wasn’t Vicks because I hated it with a passion and could identify it a half-mile away.

I was grown and had left home by the time I identified Aunt Lou’s strange odor. All that Avon Body Powder was supposed to cover up (but failed miserably) the smell of Garrett Snuff – which she dipped and spit like a big dog – which shoots my femininity theory right in the foot. Well, think about it this way – with all the men off fighting the war a lady had to entertain herself as best she could. Still, even taking all that into consideration, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt, dipping snuff would have been last on my “what to do next” list!

Years ago my funny, wacky mother and I were shopping in Austin, Texas – where there’s many wonderful vintage clothing shops. We passed a window with some marvelous vintage dresses – which I dearly loved wearing back then. We went in and I immediately found a couple of things to try on. When I asked mother if she didn’t want to try something her firm answer was “Hell, no – I wore those things the first time around.” Well, alrighty then!

I now know how she felt. I still love vintage clothing but have ceased wearing it. Seems after a woman reaches a certain age the general public believes you just didn’t buy any new clothes after reaching the age of majority or don’t understand styles have changed since you were young.

Oh, well, back to jeans, t-shirts and boots – they’re universal and timeless.

Copyright 2012 by Angela Blair -- All Rights Reserved

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Comments 15 comments

Skarlet profile image

Skarlet 4 years ago from California

Absolutely beautiful! I love the 40's fashions. The tailored suits with those Joan Crawford shoulders, and the feathered hats were just classic. I have a collection of those dress patterns too.

Voted Waaaayyyy up!

Angela Blair profile image

Angela Blair 4 years ago from Central Texas Author

Hi Skarlet -- thanks for commenting and the vote. We agree -- I wore 'em all as long as I could get away with it. Just gave up my old dress patterns a couple of years ago -- I had patterns from way back there -- great fun! Best/Sis

shiningirisheyes profile image

shiningirisheyes 4 years ago from Upstate, New York

Great great great hub!!! I so enjoyed this. I have always stated to my friends and family that I think I was reincarnated from this era as I am trully fascinated by everything about it. I am a huge WWII buff, love love love the Big Band music and, like you so eloquently stated, thought this was the classiest generation.

This hub is a fine example. Now I am going to go read the hub about my generation. The 80's - ugh. I hang my head in shame! But at least the guys pants didn't hang below their butts.

Angela Blair profile image

Angela Blair 4 years ago from Central Texas Author

shiningirisheyes -- how wonderful to find another kindred spirit and thanks so much for not only your enthusiasm but the compliment. Yeah, the pants below the butt thing doesn't seem popular with anyone but the wearers. When I was a kid I was often told "don't go out there and show your butt" -- guess nobody told this generation! Best/Sis

WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 4 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

I was born right after WWII started, and I remember bits and pieces of it, including the music. I also remember the formations of bombers flying over on their way to the war. I still love the music!

Great Hub!

Angela Blair profile image

Angela Blair 4 years ago from Central Texas Author

Thanks, Will -- we definitely have some of the same memories -- and yes, the music is still wonderful! Best/Sis

WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 4 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

My favorite WWII song is 'We'll meet again', by Vera Lynn, and she's still alive!

Angela Blair profile image

Angela Blair 4 years ago from Central Texas Author

Will -- wonderful song -- my favorite is "I'll Be Seeing You" -- don't recall who did it but I still cry every time I hear it (which, by the way, is obviously rarely.) Best/Sis

breakfastpop profile image

breakfastpop 4 years ago

I love the fashions and the feel of the period.. Up and interesting.

collegatariat profile image

collegatariat 4 years ago

What a great piece of work! I'm partial to the styles of the '50s, but the '40s were so feminine and lovely too. I love your choice of pictures, and hairstyle descriptions. Thank you for sharing!

Angela Blair profile image

Angela Blair 4 years ago from Central Texas Author

Collegatariat -- thanks for the kind words/comments. I'm also a 50's fan -- those were indeed the "lady-like" fashion days. Best/Sis

Angela Blair profile image

Angela Blair 4 years ago from Central Texas Author

Hey BP -- yep, those were the more gentle days in women's fashions. Thanks for the vote and comments. Best/Sis

Angela Blair profile image

Angela Blair 4 years ago from Central Texas Author

Dr. -- we definitely agree! The next 10 years should be a real hoot! Appreciate the comment - Best/Sis

Rebecca E. profile image

Rebecca E. 4 years ago from Canada

well you said it best, and that was fashion then, and I loved reading this hub. I am sad to have not read this one earlier, but your great aunt and granny sounded very much like the wonderful ladies of that era.

Angela Blair profile image

Angela Blair 4 years ago from Central Texas Author

Rebecca E -- thanks for your comments -- that era was a fun fashion time. Best/Sis

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