Much of the “vintage retro” look has come from 1940s day dresses. The design is classic; knee-length A-line skirt, button-down blouse top with modest sleeves, and a figure-flattering nipped in waist. The 1940s shirtwaist dress became an icon of the decade and has never left fashion again. There was even a 1980s and ’90s revival of the 1940s day dress look. So what does a 1940s day dress look like?

1940s summer day dresses

From the top down a dress would have:

Short or Long Sleeves- Dresses in the early ’40s had sleeves that ended just above the elbow or mid-forearm. Except for the Kitty Foyle style dress, the sleeve did not have cuffs. Many dresses in the mid-’40s started showing very small sleeves called cap sleeves. These were cut with the dress bodice and required no additional sewing other than a simple hem.

1941 House dresses in small print, high collars, and vertical pleating.

High neckline- A 1940’s day dress had a neckline that is modest by today’s standard yet revealing for the times. An opening came in a square, heart, or v shapes. Dresses of the ’40s often had collars like smaller versions of those on men’s dress shirts. This is a trademark design of 1940’s dresses. A high neckline brought attention to a woman’s face which was simply accented with makeup and very neatly styled hair.

1942 day dresses

Square shoulders- Shoulders are squared off in both dresses and blouses. You could draw a straight flat line from the collar to the end of the shoulder and then straight down the arm. This “squared” corner shape was later brought back into the ’80s. Both decades used shoulder pads to make shoulders square.

1941 floral day dresses

Fitted bodice- The bodice of the dress was very snug. From the square shoulders to the tiny waist the shape looked like an upside down triangle. Some fancier days dresses had pleats and gather that formed a “wrap” dress bodice. More casual dresses had an apron front- an apron sewn over a dress or at least the illusion of one. The most common day dresses were shirtwaist style. They were not zippered in the back instead they were buttoned straight down the front of the bodice and often down the skirt too.

1944 wrap dresses for house or Sunday brunches

Knee length skirts- Dress skirts went down to the low knee cap. Hemlines had to be very straight and neat otherwise a lady would look shamelessly sloppy! Skirt shapes were A-lined with no pleating until after the war. They fit slightly loose, not “pencil” till the late 1950s.

Sheer fabrics for dressier day dresses

Fabric and Trimming- Wool or cotton was the most common fabric choice. Easy to care for, comfortable in all weathers, and lasted a long time. However, Rayon was the hot new fabric and more and more day dresses were being made with this “new” synthetic. Colors were not that interesting. The war kept choices limited to subtle blue gray’s, medium browns, and faded greens. The post-war years had more bright colors and patterns to choose from.

1940 cotton house dress fabrics
1948 summer cotton fabrics in small prints and solids.