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Fashion in the 1940s

Updated: May 2, 2023

Written by: Kim Vanheule. Reviewed by: Lucinda Chen.


The 1940s was a period of significant change in the fashion industry in Belgium, largely driven by the Second World War. The war led to clothing rationing and material shortages, which had a profound effect on fashion. Both men and women were mostly seen in their uniforms, leading to regional differences in fashion.

During the war

Paris, cut off from the rest of Europe by the German occupation, developed unique designs that were mostly seen in France. French designs had full skirts with non-functional embellishments while American designs had slimmer silhouettes, leading to disapproval of French fashion outside France. As a result, the center of fashion shifted from Paris to New York, leading to the emergence of 'wartime dress', influenced by military uniforms, with padded shoulders becoming the main trend.

Utility clothing and uniforms were the most common forms of 'fashion' during wartime. In Belgium, a coupon system was introduced to ration utility clothing, which led to the rise of recycled clothing. Second-hand and homemade clothes were particularly popular for children, who needed more clothes because of their rapid growth. The rationing system treated everyone equally, so richer and poorer people dressed similarly. Some wealthier individuals used hats and turbans to add flair to their outfits, but accessories remained generally minimum. These factors led to the emergence of practical and functional clothing, reflecting the limitations imposed by the war.

After the war

The fashion industry slowly began to recover after the war, but still far from pre-war conditions. Clothing rationing continued in Britain until 1949, and shortages of materials continued to be a problem in both the UK and the USA. Despite the challenges, fashion designers began to create new styles that reflected the changing times. Utility clothing lost its appeal with the introduction of Christian Dior's New Look in Paris in 1947. The New Look was a dramatic departure from utility clothing, characterized by rounded shoulders, a cinched waist and a full-length skirt. It was a return to an overtly feminine silhouette and quickly became popular worldwide. Not everyone could afford the New Look, however. Thus, it received criticism as lavish at a time when many people were still suffering from the aftermath of the war.

In America, a different style emerged in the 1940s. Claire McCardell, one of the most influential American designers, introduced a sporty, casual look that emphasized comfort and ease of wear. At first glance, this style may resemble Dior's New Look, but the inner workings are entirely different—there is no lining, no boning, no waistband, and no petticoat. It was designed to be practical and comfortable.

Wartime necessity had a significant impact on the fashion changes of the 1940s. Utility clothing and uniforms were the most common forms of style during the war, and regional variations played a part in fashion during this period. After the war, it became less restrictive, and women's fashion returned to an openly feminine silhouette. The New Look, one of the creations from that period, marked a significant change in fashion, and its influence continued into the late 1940s and 1950s.


“Ik bezit slechts 2m50 stof…” Het rijk der vrouw 38, nr. 8 (1940): 8-9.

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