What Would You Wear To A Party In 1940?

vogue dress

1932 design from Madeleine Vionnet: “When a woman smiles, her dress should smile too.”

Wanna help me with some vintage fashion research? Go!

  • You’re a young British woman in the late 1930s/early 1940s.
  • At a party.
  • Wearing a lovely dress.
  • You’re from the type of family who would have sent their daughters to finishing school.
  • But war has broken out.
  • There ain’t no finishing school for you.
  • You’re joining the WRENS.
  • This is your last hurrah.


Prints or solid fabrics? Floor length gown or something more in keeping with Make Do And Mend? Sewn by yourself, a local dressmaker or a couturier? Paris or London? Style of dress?

Let’s get specific. Let’s say it’s 1940.

What would be your dream party dress? What were you even allowed to wear?

war time fashion

I’d love any help you can give! Thank you SO much.


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29 Responses to What Would You Wear To A Party In 1940?

  1. Depends on the party I suppose. Something black or white tie then I would have probably been in floor length Norman Hartnell but a cocktail party then probably knee-length. I would pick solids for both. I always marvel at how women looked so glamorous during the war. Not talking film stars here, although it was a golden age for costume, just photos of ordinary people out and about. Beats a pair of Primani jammies and fake Ugg boots any day. Xx

  2. A dress, obviously. Mid-calf length, maybe… evasée skirt, with good weight and flow. Silk or wool crepe…

  3. Robin says:

    I imagine it would be a dress I refashioned from an aunt’s evening gown worn in another era – say, Edwardian – that I would modify and modernize. My aunt was well dressed in her day, and the gown I start with has lots of fabric to manipulate. I wouldn’t have been able to afford anything new, but couldn’t bear the thought of not measuring up or being as stylish as anyone else, so I would tuck here and shorten there, etc. Maybe add embellishments more suitable to the 30s/40s. Funny, I am finishing up a great novel titled The Scent of Secrets by Jane Thynne, and it’s about a British/German actress in Nazi Germany. The storytelling involves a satisfying amount of fashion from that time!

    • didyoumakethat says:

      Thanks for mentioning The Scent of Secrets! Also, for the refashioning suggestion which hadn’t occurred to me, but is intriguing.

      • Lynn Barnes says:

        In England in 1940, even if you could find new fabric for a party gown, it would have been seen as more patriotic to refashion something. A socially responsible person would make it clear that she was contributing to the war effort, not indulging herself with finery that might take food out of a soldier’s mouth (never sure how that translated, exactly).

        Clothing rationing forced ingenuity, too. The “utility look” meant that you’d be limited in the fullness and length of your skirt. Women were very clever at adding details to a basic silhouette (fitted bodice, a-line skirt, slim sleeves) to make dresses seem fresh and new. Ribbon was not as hard to get as fabric yardage, you could tat or crochet your own lace, you could eke tabs and pockets and bias trim and cuffs and collars out of scraps, you could scavenge buttons from old clothing.

  4. CurlsnSkirls says:

    In 1940 you would have worn your uniform and shown it off very proudly & patriotically. Uniforms were the “in” thing then and everyone who could, wore theirs whenever they could. Have a read through Summers’ “Fashion on the Ration” for all the ideas in the book!

  5. Ros says:

    Fabric was rationed, I think, so however much money you had, you couldn’t just have chosen anything. I have vague memories of references to ‘utility fabric’. Blackout fabric wasn’t rationed, so maybe something chic from that? Or, as someone else said, raid the attics for a dress with plenty of fabric to refashion.

  6. Liz says:

    Oh, all out! Floor length, fitted (bias cut?) sleeveless gown, with a /small cowl neckline. In a deep red/maroom… with slight flare in the skirt (below the knee), and maybe some ruffles/flowers to highlight this on one side.

    (If that sounds specific it is: I just went down a rabbit hole of 1930s/1940 fashion on Pinterest and it was fun! Thanks!).

  7. belindajean says:

    The girls in the movie Enigma wore dresses, remodeled or handmade, as their resources permitted. Saffron Burrows’s character was exquisite in all circumstances

  8. Sandy says:

    Oh Karen, I wish my dear friend was still with us, she was a wren, worked at Bletchley Park, and told me endless stories about the “dances” they would attend. I beleive they were very proud to wear the uniform, but she always wore red lip stick and was a great beauty even in old age. I asked mum who said if you could get hold of parachute silk it was used to fashion clothes and underwear. She also mentioned the “black market”, my Nan had a London evacuee living with them and her family had a stall in Perticoat lane and every now and then fabric would arrive and great grandma would make fashionable clothes with it. She would also refashion any
    good clothing and make winter coats from wool blankets. Mum’s war time wedding dress was second hand and then was used to make baby clothes. Good luck with your research.

  9. Beads and Barnacles says:

    Not a clue on what I would wear but that book sounds very interesting.

  10. Helene Wollin says:

    My mother was a nurse and midwife in Glasgow before and during the war. They were paid very poorly (they got housing and food but very poor wages – to go home, she literally had to borrow a stamp to write a letter home to ask for them to send her a train ticket). She told me the same ‘go to dances’ story (these happened on weekends all the time), but their way of handling it (because they were worked like dogs all the time – no time to sew, though they did use to keep little bits of knitting in their pockets and would whip it out at the lease bit of free time) was to swap clothing and borrow from one another. She talked about a copper colored dress with a full skirt that she borrowed on so many occasions (her hair was red) that the girl who owned it basically offered it to her. It was plain with beaded embroidery on the shoulders.

  11. Lynda says:

    I love this dress from Decades of Style: Belle Curve Dress 1940 https://www.decadesofstyle.com/collections/1940s-sewing-patterns/products/4014-1940s-belle-curve-dress
    I think for your one last hurrah, and knowing you would not be going to finishing school, you’d want to be as glamorous as you possibly could. Yes, if necessary, using fabric from a former ball gown, remade to fit your figure with hopefully the most lavish and gorgeous color you could find. You would want everyone to remember you as stunning!

  12. Madeleine Vionnet (sigh) is my absolute favourite designer for so many reasons so she definitely would have been my inspiration – but likely not having a great deal of $ to spend on a garment and wanting to save what I could with war just on I agree with most who say it would be a “re-fashioned” and refitted garment.

  13. sewsew2015 says:

    Clothes rationing was introduced in June 1941, I think. check out http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/wartime-fashion for some interesting snippets of information.

  14. Christine says:

    My mother was married on 2 September 1939 and having found her wedding dress when I cleared the house after she died I noticed that it had been hand-made, presumably by a local dress-maker. Perhaps this is a clue. 1940 would have been during the war and maybe supplies were hard to find and some stored fabric would have been used.
    Interesting too is that a few years ago there was a Madeleine Voinnet exhibition at the Musee des Beaux Arts in Paris to which I went. She was responsible for the waterfall frill which has suddenly become so popular again! It was lovely to see photographs of society ladies in her beautiful creations with their lisle stockings and what we would today call Mary Janes! They looked fantastic until you noticed the feet because, of course, hemlines were starting to rise.

  15. Janet says:

    I think I’d have gone through my mother’s wardrobe (hopefully full of glorious 1920s flapper dresses and vast quantities of bias-cut slinky 1930s numbers) and had something refashioned into a more modern shape. I’d have taken inspiration from the Hollywood stars of the age, and gone all-out… This project sounds like the perfect excuse for a trip to the V&A!

  16. Join one of the 1940s World groups on Facebook… you will find a whole community of enthusiasts and professionals reenactment groups that can show you all you need to know from original patterns of the time,CC41 garments and everything to do with Rationing of clothes and fabrics 😀

    Du Barry did some of the most amazing patterns…. I have a few in my collection from Women’s Magazines of the day too… complete with the original coupons and envelopes 😀


  17. Elliepepperell@gmail.com says:

    oh my! those bullet points read like the best back-of-a-book blurb ever – i want to read that story! but back to reality… the Fashion on a Ration book from the exhibition at IWM a couple of years ago walked through fashion in the 40s. an interesting book that might help here?

  18. Karen, to my mind, 1940 is too early in the war for shortages and rationing to be a big deal. It would have been a very different scenario by 1944 when everyone had lived with the grind of it for five years. And for such a young woman, the femme fatale look would have been considered FAST. So something sweet but sophisticated, with her hair down, possibly made especially but possibly a refashioned gown of her mother’s or an aunt, to bring it up to style. Maybe because she loved an aspect of that dress – an embroidered motif or the fabric itself, so there is a connection? My MIL is an avvid ballroom dancer even in her 90s and she was in London during the war, Too young for this scenario, but she always talks of special garments in terms of their dancing swish – so skirts that are cut in gore or half circle etc are important to her, in case she gets to dance. And the chance to have a local dressmaker do alterations and go into some of the technical details for the reader (if you are indeed writing this story!) would be so delicious! Pinked seams, the extra triangle of fabric added to the skirt because the fabrics were mostly only 36 inches wide, it’s all so very of its time.
    Such fun!
    We are doing a cabaret show set in a bomb shelter in London closer to the other end of the war so the time is very much on my mind right now.

    • didyoumakethat says:

      Wowee – this is all great. Thank you! I did not know about the extra triangle of fabric. Good luck with the cabaret show.

  19. Liz says:

    This… https://www.decadesofstyle.com/collections/1940s-sewing-patterns/products/4014-1940s-belle-curve-dress

    In peridot green satin, with as full a skirt as I could sneak in for dancing!

  20. Anne Frances says:

    My mother was married on 2 September 1939 too. They brought the wedding forward by about a fortnight because everyone expected that London would instantly be bombed to bits when war was declared and they wanted to be married before that happened. Her wedding dress wasn’t finished so she was married (at 8.30 in the morning) in her “going away” suit – pin striped navy, I think. I have never seen a wedding photo – I don’t think there were any – and I don’t know what her wedding dress was supposed to be like. But I agree with others – a party dress such as you describe would probably have been refashioned and full length.

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