The 1940s was a period between the radical 1930s and the conservative 1950s, which also leads the period to be divided in two halves:
The first half of the decade was dominated by World War II, the widest and most destructive armed conflict in human history. So consequential was this event and its brutal aftermath that it laid the foundation for other major world events and trends for decades to follow. This war was also the first modern civilian war.
The second half of the 1940s marked the beginning of the Cold War.
Due to the difficult times, the number of models in shows was limited to seventy-five, evening wear was shortened and day wear was much skimpier, made using substitute materials whenever possible. From 1940 onward, no more than thirteen feet (four meters) of cloth was permitted to be used for a coat and a little over three feet (one meter) was all that allowed for a blouse. No belt could be over one and a half inches (four centimeters) wide. Despite this, haute couture tried to keep its flag flying. Humor and frivolity became a way of defying the occupying powers and couture somehow survived. Although some have argued that the reason it endured was because of the patronage of the wives of rich Nazis, in actuality, records reveal that, aside from the usual wealthy Parisiennes, it was the wives of foreign ambassadors, clients from the black market, and a whole eclectic mix of people who carried on to frequent the salons, among whom German women were but a minority.
Though many fashion houses closed down or moved away during the war, several new houses remained open, including Jacques Fath, Maggy Rouff, Marcel Rochas, Jeanne Lafaurie, Nina Ricci, and Madeleine Vramant. During the Occupation, the only true way for a woman to flaunt her extravagance and add to color to a drab outfit was to wear a hat. In this period, hats were often made of scraps of material that would have otherwise been thrown away, sometimes incorporating butter, bits of paper, and woodchucks. Among the most innovative milliners of the time were Pauline Adam, Simone Naudet, Rose Valois, and Le Monnier.
Paris' isolated situation in the 1940s enabled the Americans to exploit the ingenuity and creativity of their own designers. During the Second World War, Vera Maxwell presented co-ordinates in plain, simply cut outfits and also introduced innovations to men's work clothes. Bonnie Cashin transformed boots into a major fashion accessory, and, in 1944, started to produce original and imaginative sportswear. Claire McCardell, Anne Klein, and Tina Leser formed a remarkable trio of women who were to lay the foundations of American sportswear, ensuring that ready-to-wear was not simply thought of as second best, but as an elegant and comfortable way for modern women to dress.
Among young men in the War Years the zoot suit (and in France the zazou suit) became popular. Many actresses of the time, including Rita Hayworth, Katharine Hepburn, and Marlene Dietrich, had a significant impact on popular fashion.
The couturier Christian Dior created a tidal wave with his first collection in February 1947. The collection contained dresses with tiny waists, majestic busts, and full skirts swelling out beneath small bodices, in a manner very similar to the style of the Belle Époque. The extravagant use of fabric and the feminine elegance of the designs appealed greatly to a post-war clientèle and ensured Dior's meteoric rise to fame. The sheer sophistication of the style incited the all-powerful editor of the American Harper's Bazaar, Carmel Snow, to exclaim 'This is a new look !'.