Susan Hayward and 1940’s Fashion – Looking Back

Susan Hayward, 1940’s style.

You can’t walk into a store today without seeing someone there wearing fuzzy pajama pants and slippers.  I am pretty sure Susan Hayward would not approve. You see, Ms. Hayward came from an era where it was important to look good at every moment throughout the day.  Throw on your best jeans and take a journey with me.

Fashion in the prewar times was the height of elegance.  Women would have dresses and skirts for morning wear, afternoon wear, and evening wear.  It wasn’t uncommon to change three times in the course of a single day.  Hemlines took a daring leap, from ankle length to knee length…shocking.  Shoulder pads were used by men and women alike, and going anywhere without hat and gloves was unseemly for the women.  Of course, your gloves changed with the style of your dress; longer elegant gloves for evening and shorter gloves for day time.  Confused yet?

Wartime changed the face of fashion, and it became acceptable for women to wear slacks as they set off for the workforce in factories to make a living for their families.  Wartime saw a serious shortage of fabrics, and the lines of clothing became simpler, less ruffled and more tailored.  Even buttons and elastic were in short supply.  Nylons were hard to find, and women would use makeup on their legs to give the appearance of hose, and they would draw a seam on the backs of their legs for appearance of the highly in-style seamed nylons.  I am not sure how this would stand up to rain, but I digress.

Pony tails were unheard of for the  women of the 40’s.  These women would take their time to curl their hair, puff their hair, style their hair, pin their hair and fit a hat over all their hard work so no one could see their hair.  A quick pony tail would never do.  Glamorous movie stars such as Gretta Garbo and Rita Hayworth will forever be the pinnacle of classy understated sexiness and style.

Suits were the theme for men, no matter what time of day.  Jeans with a T-Shirt that reads “I’m With Stupid,” not so much.  Men were not ashamed to wear plaid outside of the golf course back then, and the simple elegant lines of their day time suits were made from any number of fabrics and prints.  Hats were a necessity during day and night, though top hats were reserved for nightime wear.  This is a time when men were not ashamed to grease their hair back as though they had spent hours in a rainstorm.  Tiny pencil thin mustaches were elegant and clean.  From Cary Grant to Clark Gable, These men still inspire sighs from women, even today.  Not the “for goodness sakes, I cannot be seen with you wearing that” sighs with accompanied eye rolls, I mean real sighs.

Teen girls wore poodle skirts and bobby socks, and were called “bobby soxers.” They loved to dance to the budding rock songs of their time and would go to sock hops in gyms.  Now a sock hop is called a sock hop because shoes might mar the gym floors during a dance, so the young girls kicked off their shoes and danced in their socks; makes sense, right?

Of special note is a fashion no-no called a Zoot Suit.  These extra wide shouldered suits featured baggy pants that tapered off to a fitted ankle.  Often made with wide, loud stripes and worn with a fedora, these are still mocked today.  They do, however, embody the free flowing fashions that made their return post-war and the spirit of an America returning to its carefree past and hopeful future.  These are similar to the polyester suits of the 70’s…most people prefer not to talk about them, and if they are spotted in an old photo wearing one, they will claim it is their twin brother.

After the war, women returned to dressing for all occasions although the styles were less restrictive; shoulder pads were not as popular, and women even began wearing pants outside the house and workplace.  Gasp.  Sportswear for women could even include a fashionable pair of white shorts; prior to that, women wore skirts to play sports.   I believe Evening Gown Baseball should be an Olympic sport.  Of course they never really played baseball in evening gowns, but I still think it should be an Olympic sport.  Women did, however, play sports such as tennis in knee length skirts, and it must have been liberating  to be able to don fashionable shorts.  It is probably about this time that women began kicking men’s rear ends in many different sports; coincidence?  I think not.

Fashions of the 40’s will always bring a sense of innocence and nostalgia.  Women cared how they appeared, and men dressed for respect and success.  It is a stark comparison to today, when baggy T-shirts, short shorts and tennis shoes is the norm, dressing up consists of your best jeans and a shirt without a hole, and wearing baseball caps backwards is a fashion statement.

Wearing your pajama bottoms to the store should be outlawed in all fifty states, but I do believe the current trend of pajama jeans might be making it more acceptable.  Pajama jeans?  Really?

What would Susan Hayward say?

Contributed by: Betsy

Comments 4

  1. Your description of 40s wear is certainly affirmed in my family photo collection–suits for men, dresses or skirts and blouses for women. I believe my mother purchased her first pair of “slacks” in 1948, in order to attend a hayride. They were brown wool tweed. Shirtwaist dresses were the norm for home, no matter what the task to be done! Thanks for your great post!

  2. I love reading into all things 1940s, and fashion is definitely interesting. Personally, I’d have no objection to going back to fedoras and nice suits to wear out on the town. I’m young enough to fit in with that ‘pajama-wearing during the day’ crowd, but prefer to distance myself from them. I doubt it’ll happen, but a resurgence of this higher class fashion would be really cool.

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    The dressing down of our culture – which we exported to the rest of the world along with our chain restaurants that serve unhealthy food – was started by the counterculture youth revolution of the 60’s. Sadly, manners and everyday courtesy went with it. Humans gravitate towards the deadly sins if permitted, and one of them is sloth. Most will do everything they can to do away with any effort in their lives and that includes their appearance. If people could roll out of bed in sleep attire and spend the rest of the day in it they would do it. Only the environment seems to force their hand. If they could walk barefoot, I’m sure even the rubber foot thong that’s invaded everyday footwear would become extinct.

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