1940s Men’s Fashion: What Guys Wore and How They Styled Clothes

Diving into the realm of 1940s men’s fashion reveals a fascinating era that blended the practical demands of wartime with the burgeoning trends of post-war prosperity. This period in history was marked by significant shifts in style, material use, and the cultural significance of clothing.

Men’s fashion in the 1940s was characterized by a mix of military-inspired garments, the emergence of casual wear, and a continued appreciation for stylish elegance in formal attire. As we explore the intricacies of this decade’s fashion, we uncover the resilience and creativity of designers and wearers alike, navigating through restrictions to express identity, status, and personal style.

The 1940s laid down the foundational styles that would influence men’s fashion for decades to come, making it a pivotal period worth exploring for enthusiasts and fashion historians alike.

Keep reading to discover all that 40s men’s fashion had to offer.

Key Takeaways

The 1940s were a transformative era for men’s fashion, marked by the transition from the austerity of wartime to the beginnings of modern style sensibilities. This period continued the broad-shouldered, nipped-waist silhouette that defined menswear for the later part of the 1930s. Utility, durability, and simplicity became paramount, with restrictions on fabric leading to innovations in style.

Despite these limitations, the era witnessed further mainstream awareness of timeless pieces such as the double-breasted suit, the bomber jacket, and the fedora hat. The 1940s laid the groundwork for contemporary men’s fashion, emphasizing functionality with a hint of flair.

Lake Washington Floating Bridge engineering crew, 1940
Lake Washington Floating Bridge engineering crew, 1940” by Seattle Municipal Archives is licensed under CC BY 2.0

1940s Men’s Fashion: A Brief Background

Like any decade, men’s fashion in the 1940s wasn’t only about clothing. It was a decade that deeply reflected the trials and successes of the social and political climate of the time. As the decade progressed what we saw was the blueprint being made for the modern silhouette in menswear, further emphasizing functionality, simplicity, and the beginnings of individual expression through fashion.

The 1940s were a decade of stark contrasts in men’s fashion, heavily influenced by World War II. In the early years, the war’s demands on resources led to the “Utility Clothing Scheme” in the UK and similar restrictions in the United States, limiting the use of fabrics and dictating simpler designs. This period saw the rise of the ‘demob suit’ in the UK, which was a government-issued double-breasted suit issued to returning servicemen, embodying the era’s practicality.

Post-war, the fashion scene slowly began to embrace more extravagant designs, moving away from wartime austerity and mono-identity. For women, the late 1940s marked the beginning of a shift towards more feminine silhouettes, often marked by the release of the ‘New Look’ collection from legendary Fashion brand Dior. Men’s fashion also started to experiment with broader shoulders, more defined waistlines, and fuller trousers, setting the stage for the prosperity of the 1950s.

Despite fabric rationing and utility clothing, the 1940s men’s fashion was also a time of sartorial innovation. Designers were forced to be creative within constraints, leading to the further popularization and innovation of multi-functional pieces such as the trench coat and the bomber jacket. The zoot suit, with its excessive fabric and flamboyant style, rebelled against wartime restrictions and became a symbol of resistance, particularly among marginalized communities in the United States.

Our Favorite 1940s Men’s Fashion Staples

Men’s Fashion in the 1940s: Style Essentials

940s-mens-fashion" by Fora do Eixo São Carlos
1940s-mens-fashion” by Fora do Eixo São Carlos is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Suits

The suits in the 1940s were defined by their boxy structured silhouette, heavy materials, broad shoulders, and nipped waists. A fairly stark contrast to the more relaxed styles of the previous decade and the tailored suites we’re used to seeing today. Due to wartime fabric rationing, suits became simpler, with fewer pockets (at times a limit of 1-3) and restrictions on pocket flaps, belted features, and lapel sizes. This also saw the prominance of the patch pockets (exposed pockets sewn onto the outside of a jacket – similar to work wear styles today) to save fabric but also emulate war fatigues.

Unlike the prosperity of the late 1940s, which saw fashion rapidly evolving and consumers hungry to keep up with the latest trends, during the war, it was considered patriotic to wear old suits. This meant while the new styles were being created, many men recycled and continued to wear old styles to support the restrictions in place. This lead to quite a new and innovative trend in menswear. Traditionally, suits were worn to match, but because of rationing, it became very popular for men to mix and match suit tops, bottoms, shirts, and sweaters. This allowed for some iconic styles to emerge and also helped increase the wearability of most men’s wardrobes.

When considering fabrics, most military uniforms were often wool, which left most civilian clothing to be made out of a wool/rayon blend, which was durable and suitable for multiple seasons. Pinstripes and muted colors still dominated, but some levity was provided by the new mix-and-match styling. After the war, as restrictions lifted, men’s suits gradually became more luxurious, incorporating wider lapels, more pronounced shoulder padding, and fuller trousers, hinting at the opulent styles of the coming 1950s.

good times, 1940s, scene 16" by <def>
good times, 1940s, scene 16” by is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Shirts

Shirt designs in the 1940s were relatively simple, focusing on functionality and comfort. However, improvement in fabric technology did see the emergence of ‘micro patterns,’ plaid, and other designs that became part of everyday wear in the late 40s.

The most common styles were the plain white dress shirt and the utility shirt, both essential for the working man and the serviceman alike. Both were considered ‘soft collars,’ which were attached to the shirt, closely resembling the dress shirts men wear today. However, in the early 40s men’s fashion was geared toward ‘spear points’ or collars with very long tips – later in the decade, they receded to become much shorter and closer to the neck.

Collar stays were also very popular during this time – they were removable but ensured a sharp, tailored look when needed because searching was becoming less popular – another great flexibility feature appearing in men’s 1940s fashion. Finally, camp shirts, which really became a feature of the 1940 men’s fashion scene, were a big leap towards more casual wear. These shirts were short-sleeved and lightweight, with a relaxed fit and one or two breast patch pockets. For a modern equivalent, imagine a bowling shirt or a Cuban shirt, both of which have seen a resurgence in recent years.

Men talk in a Street scene. Holyoke, Massachusetts, September 1941
Men talk in a Street scene. Holyoke, Massachusetts, September 1941.” by polkbritton is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0

Pants

Trousers in the 1940s were high-waisted, reflecting the era’s silhouette that emphasized a masculine figure with a broad chest and a narrow waist. The cut was wider through the leg than in modern times, but trousers did see a restriction during the war. In the US, pant openings couldn’t be wider than 9.5 inches (when measured flat) to conserve fabric.

This is when the almighty Zoot Suit started taking over. This suit was oversized in all ways, with a much longer jacket often hitting the low thigh and extremely wide pants, which look oversized even by today’s standards. This style was often seen as unpatriotic because of the use of extra fabric and less ‘traditionally’ masculine silhouette. The style became particularly popular among marginalized communities who were often pushed out or denied access to mainstream culture – they took up the zoot suit as an act of rebellion, using their clothes to make a statement.

Youth in Twilight: Group of men being sworn in by Major Seth Gayle, Jr. in Washington, D.C., 1940
Youth in Twilight: Group of men being sworn in by Major Seth Gayle, Jr. in Washington, D.C., 1940.” by polkbritton is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0

Sweaters & Knitwear

The 1940s marked a significant era for men’s sweaters and knitwear, largely influenced by the practical needs of wartime and the subsequent post-war recovery period. Sweaters were not just a fashion statement but an essential layering piece due to fabric rationing and the need for warmth. The decade saw the popularization of the crew neck sweater, often worn over a collared shirt, which added a touch of sophistication to everyday attire. Wool was the material of choice, known for its durability and warmth.

V-neck sweaters also gained popularity, especially when paired with a tie underneath, blending casual comfort with a semi-formal appearance. This style was particularly favored by professionals and those in academia, symbolizing a blend of intellectualism and approachability.

The Fair Isle sweater, characterized by its intricate patterns and multiple colors, became a staple in casual wear in the UK during the 1940s. Originating from the Scottish island of Fair Isle, this knitwear piece added a vibrant pop to the otherwise muted wartime wardrobe.

Cardigans saw another resurgence in the 1940s, transitioning from a purely functional item to a stylish component of men’s fashion. Button-front cardigans in heavy wool were common, providing versatility as they could be worn open or closed for varying levels of warmth. The military also influenced knitwear designs, with the introduction of the “commando sweater” – a rugged, durable piece featuring reinforced shoulders and elbows, catering to the practical needs of soldiers.

a young french worker in 1946
20s.30s.40s.50s / Instagram

Jackets & Outerwear

In the 1940s, men’s jackets and outerwear were significantly influenced by military designs due to the ongoing World War II. The bomber jacket, originally developed for pilots, became a staple in civilian wardrobe, appreciated for its warmth and durability. Made from leather or heavy canvas and lined with shearling or wool, these jackets were practical for both pilots and the general public facing the chill.

The trench coat, another military-inspired piece, gained prominence among civilians for its functionality and style. Originally designed for British Army Officers before the First World War, it became popular for its water-resistant fabric and distinctive belt, epaulets, and storm flap. The trench coat was a symbol of sophistication and an essential outerwear piece for businessmen and stylish individuals alike. It was only further popularized by movie stars at the time like Humphrey Bogart (think Casablanca) and Peter Sellers (think the original Pink Panther).

couples in 1940s dancing in a new orleans jazz club
20s.30s.40s.50s / Instagram

Footwear

1940s men’s fashion saw footwear balanced between wartime practicality with civilian elegance. Unsurprisingly shoes were also rationed and in some cases, people needed a ticket to buy a pair of shoes. This lead to increased second-hand sales, which meant that 1930s style shoes were back in popular rotation. Rugged military boots, designed for durability, transitioned into popular civilian wear post-war for their robustness. Formal occasions favored the sleek rounded Oxford, particularly the cap-toe variant or the two-toned design (often black or brown and white), for its polished appearance.

Of note from the decade, the still popular Dr. Martens boot, was founded in 1945 to provide the durability of a military boot but with better heal comfort. Originally conceived to provide more comfort when inventor Dr. Klaus Maertens was trying to heal a broken foot. However, it would be some decades before Doc Martens would become the pop-culture icon they are today.

After the war, casual footwear saw the rise of loafers for their ease and versatility, and saddle shoes became a youthful, playful choice with their two-tone design. The desert boot also introduced a simple, comfortable option for casual attire.

That Way Out: Men waiting for the Third Avenue elevated train in the Fifties at 8:30 a.m., New York, New York. September 1942
That Way Out: Men waiting for the Third Avenue elevated train in the Fifties at 8:30 a.m., New York, New York. September 1942.” by polkbritton is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0

Men’s Formalwear in the 1940s

Despite wartime restrictions, the silhouette of men’s formalwear in the 1940s remained relatively conservative, with suits maintaining a structured look. The double-breasted suit was particularly popular during this era, characterized by its wide lapels and a nipped-in waist, which emphasized a masculine, V-shaped torso. However as referenced earlier, during the war the rations curtailed this style.

Single-breasted suits also saw widespread use. They were favored for their versatility and simpler design (again, due to fabric rationing). These suits typically featured two or three buttons, and while they were less formal than their double-breasted counterparts, they offered a sleek and streamlined silhouette suitable for both business and social occasions.

The material of choice for formalwear ranged from woolen fabrics for colder months to lighter materials such as linen and cotton for summer. However, due to fabric rationing (are you surprised yet?), there was a notable shift towards using synthetic fabrics and blends, which were more readily available and considered practical for wartime.

Formal shirts in the 1940s were predominantly white, signifying elegance and simplicity. The pointed collar was a common feature, providing a sharp and refined look that complemented the suit. For a more formal appearance, older men still opted for a detachable collar, which allowed for a crisper and more pristine presentation.

Ties were an essential accessory in men’s formalwear, with wider styles and bold patterns becoming increasingly popular after the war. These ties, often made from silk or rayon, featured stripes, polka dots, personal hobbies, club emblems, and other geometric patterns, adding a pop of color and personality to the otherwise subdued formal attire.

The end of the war brought a gradual relaxation of fabric restrictions, leading to a resurgence in the variety and opulence of men’s formalwear. The late 1940s saw a return to luxury, with a renewed interest in quality materials (which weren’t available earlier in the decade), intricate tailoring, and detailed finishes.

boys on a stoop in Ansonia Connecticut 1949
20s.30s.40s.50s / Instagram

Men’s Casualwear in the 1940s

1940s casual attire often repurposed military garments, with chinos and khakis transitioning into civilian life for their durability and comfort. Paired with simple button-down shirts, or camp shirts, these pieces offered a practical yet stylish option for everyday wear.

The Hawaiian shirt, known for its bright, tropical prints, became a casualwear staple, symbolizing leisure and a break from the era’s more somber attire. Denim also gained popularity, especially jeans, which moved from workwear to casual wear, symbolized by the classic jeans and t-shirt combo made famous by servicemen and Hollywood figures.

Casual footwear trends featured loafers, boat shoes, and canvas sneakers, emphasizing comfort and versatility, reflecting the decade’s move towards more laid-back fashion after the strict need for performance during the war.

State Electricity Commission, Group of Men at Construction Site, Victoria, 3 May 1940
Photograph – State Electricity Commission, Group of Men at Construction Site, Victoria, 3 May 1940” by Creator: State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SECV) is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0

Men’s Accessories in the 1940s

Hats

In the 1940s, hats were an indispensable part of a man’s wardrobe, reflecting both style and social status. The fedora remained a middle-class favorite, with its wide brim and indented crown offering a blend of sophistication and practicality.

Trilby hats, similar to fedoras but with a narrower brim, also gained popularity for their more contemporary look.

Among the working class, the newsboy cap and the beret provided a relaxed yet stylish alternative, embodying the era’s blend of function and fashion.

Watches

Wristwatches became a staple accessory for men in the 1940s, transitioning from military utility to everyday necessity. The designs were simple yet elegant, often featuring metal cases, leather straps, and clear, easy-to-read dials. The popularity of chronographs and pilot watches grew, reflecting the decade’s fascination with precision and aviation.

Already established by the 1940s, Rolex continued to innovate with the introduction of the Datejust in 1945, the first wristwatch with an automatically changing date on the dial. Omega’s prominence in the 1940s was marked by its role as one of the official timekeepers for the British Royal Air Force and other Allied military forces.

Also known for its technical innovations, Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced the Reverso in the 1930s, but it continued to be popular through the 1940s. Its unique reversible case was initially designed to protect the watch face during polo matches, making it a favorite among sportsmen and military officers.

Ties

Ties in the 1940s varied from bold, wide designs to more subdued, narrow styles, reflecting the fluctuating fashion trends and availability of the era. Silk was the preferred fabric, sometimes featuring hand-painted designs, and customization to show off something about the man who wore it proudly. The bow tie also maintained its place in formal wear, offering an alternative to the traditional necktie for special occasions.

Suspenders and Belts

Suspenders continued to be popular in the 1940s, especially with high-waisted trousers, providing both function and a nod to traditional styling. Belts, however, stole the show as pants’ accessories. This also led to a western/cowboy resurgence, which saw men’s casual wear include more relaxed western shirts and accessories.

Glasses

Eyeglasses in the 1940s were characterized by their round or slightly oval shapes, often made from metal or thick plastic frames. These glasses added an intellectual charm to a man’s look, with aviator sunglass styles becoming increasingly popular due to their military association.

More Popular Accessories for Men in the 1940s

Leather gloves, pocket squares, and cufflinks were other popular accessories that added a layer of refinement to a man’s ensemble. Leather briefcases and wallets also became symbols of professionalism and status. Additionally, military-inspired accessories, such as dog tags and belt buckles, transitioned into civilian fashion, reflecting the lasting impact of the war on 1940s style.

Australian A.I.F. men at their British camp" by State Library Victoria Collections
Australian A.I.F. men at their British camp” by State Library Victoria Collections is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Men’s Grooming Trends in the 1940s

1940s Men’s Hairstyles

Hairstyles in the 1940s were generally neat and tidy, with short back and sides combined with longer hair on top, often styled with a side part. The use of pomade to achieve a sleek, glossy look was common, reflecting the era’s preference for polished appearances. The military influence was evident in the popularity of crew cuts and buzz cuts, emphasizing cleanliness and simplicity.

1940s Facial Hair

Facial hair was mostly kept to a minimum in the 1940s, with clean-shaven faces dominating the decade. Mustaches were the exception rather than the rule, and when worn, they were typically neatly trimmed. This grooming trend underscored the era’s emphasis on order and uniformity, particularly influenced by military standards.

State Electricity Commission, Group of Four Men at Construction Site, Victoria, May 1940
Photograph – State Electricity Commission, Group of Four Men at Construction Site, Victoria, May 1940” by Creator: State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SECV) is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0

Big Names in 1940s Men’s Fashion

The 1940s fashion scene was influenced by a mix of designers, Hollywood icons, and war heroes. Designers like Hardy Amies and Brooks Brothers adapted to wartime restrictions, innovating with limited materials while maintaining elegance. Hollywood stars such as Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant set trends with their on-screen and off-screen style, re-popularizing the trench coat and tailored suits. Meanwhile, military figures like General Douglas MacArthur became unintended fashion icons, with their aviator sunglasses and practical yet stylish military wear influencing civilian fashion.

How to Wear 1940s Men’s Fashion Today

man wearing a vintage suit and a fedora hat
retro_samuel / Instagram

Incorporating 1940s fashion into today’s wardrobe can be achieved by focusing on key pieces like high-waisted trousers, double-breasted suits, and fedoras. Modern adaptations of the bomber jacket and Hawaiian shirts can add a vintage touch to casual outfits. For a timeless look, opt for classic Oxford shoes or brogues and accessorize with simple leather belts and vintage-style watches.

Final Verdict

The 1940s men’s fashion offers a rich source of inspiration for today’s style, blending historical elegance with functional design. Its influence is seen in the continued appreciation for tailored garments, classic accessories, and the incorporation of military elements into everyday wear.

FAQ

    • In the 1940s, men wore a mix of military-inspired clothing and classic pieces, including suits with broad shoulders and tapered waists, wool trousers, crew neck sweaters, leather bomber jackets, and trench coats. Casual wear included chinos, Hawaiian shirts, and, by the end of the decade, jeans with simple t-shirts.

      • Men in the 1940s wore wide silk ties featuring bold patterns, geometric shapes, or wartime motifs. Solid colors were also popular, often in darker, more subdued tones to match the era’s suits and shirts.

        • For a 1940s party, opt for a vintage suit with a wide lapel, a fedora hat, and a bold tie. Alternatively, you can wear high-waisted trousers with suspenders, a button-down shirt, and a wool vest for a more casual look.

          • 1940s fashion was defined by its practicality and austerity due to wartime restrictions, with a shift towards more relaxed and casual styles post-war. Key elements included military-inspired outerwear, tailored suits, wide-leg trousers, and the introduction of casual denim wear.

            • Yes, people wore t-shirts in the 1940s, but primarily as undergarments. By the end of the decade, t-shirts began to emerge as casual wear, thanks in part to returning servicemen and Hollywood influence.

              • Men in the 1940s commonly wore muted and earthy colors such as navy, brown, gray, and olive green for formal wear, while casual and leisure clothing introduced brighter colors and patterns, especially in Hawaiian shirts and knitwear.

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