Life in the 1940s

Frances Johnson

Posted on April 27 2014

The women of the 1940s were the perfect blend of style and substance. With World War II taking over the international stage, they stepped up on the home front, looking sleek and chic all the way.

The United States’ entry into World War II in 1941 changed everything, including hemlines. With fabric and other goods now rationed, skirts came to the knee and not an inch longer. Women favored the “convertible suit,” a short jacket, A-line, knee-length skirt and blouse, which could be easily transformed into evening wear by shedding the jacket once the workday was over. With no silk stockings available, many women gave the illusion of stockings by drawing a line up the back of their legs with eyeliner. And for women streaming into factories and other traditionally male industries, pants became the norm for the first time.

But just because the government dictated the length of skirts and jackets didn’t mean women in the 1940s didn’t have a few tricks up their well-tailored sleeves. Elaborately styled hair and unusually shaped hats added some sass, and dramatically arched eyebrows and scarlet lips provided the drama.

When the war ended, Christian Dior introduced the “new look,” swinging the post-war pendulum in the opposite direction with long, full skirts and dresses with small waists.

Women in the workplace meant changes at home, with frozen dinners and other prepared meals making their debut. Diners, which were originally horse drawn carriages with a few barstools, became stationary eating establishments where a working girl could get a cup of coffee and a roast beef sandwich for less than 10 cents!

Social life underwent changes in the 1940s as well. The fancy footwork of Gene Kelly and the smooth sounds of Frank Sinatra, Cole Porter and the Big Bands brought the country to the dance floor. A single woman of the 1940s would have put her newly acquired jitterbug skills to use at USO dances with handsome soldiers in uniform, and the average marrying age went down as couples rushed to tie the knot before they were separated indefinitely. Families could also find plenty of entertainment at home with soap operas, quiz shows and mystery shows hitting the radio waves, and by 1947, commercial television with 13 channels was available. If going out for entertainment was more your style, especially if you had a handsome date on your arm, the movie theater was the destination of choice. The Office of War declared movies an essential industry for morale and propaganda, and future classics such as Casablanca, Notorious and Best Years of Our Lives filled the screen with stars like Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, as well as firm morals about who was right and who was wrong in the global conflict raging across the sea. 

But ingenuity was the true hallmark of the women of the 1940s. Every day staples like flour, sugar and potatoes were scarce, and when rationing was introduced in 1942 it was time for forties housewives to get creative. They learned to grow their own produce in “Victory Gardens,” and were so successful that by 1943, 40 million gardens yielded a third of the country’s vegetable crop. Women organized scrap drives collecting old ice skates, tires, pots and pans and even household grease to offset shortages of materials such as steel, tin, aluminum and paper. Women acted as air raid drill sergeants, making sure blackout curtains were drawn and lights were off when the sirens came on, and they sold bonds to help finance the war. They were everywhere and they did everything and adapted quickly to a strange and scary world. 

With the end of the war in 1945 and the return of the men from the battlefield, came a collective longing for the way things used to be. Most women left the factory for the kitchen, and Rosie the Riveter was replaced with the stylish housewife, ruffled apron and all. Traditional femininity was back, the middle class was growing, the suburbs were exploding, but American women would never be the same.


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