1940s women's slacks, though considered daring at the time, are demure by most modern standards. The flattering look of them, however, is engendering a bit of a comeback.
The Development of 1940s Women's Slacks
Ever since harem pants became briefly fashionable in the early 1910s, women and designers had been inching towards making trousers acceptable for women's wear, but it was a hard fight. During World War I, especially in Britain, so many women had to undertake what had been men's jobs that they also wore men's trousers so that they could actually do the work. Once the war was over, however, society insisted that they get back into skirts.
While there were a few women here and there, such as Coco Chanel, who dared to wear slacks, it was still considered unacceptable. Gradually, as movie stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn were shown in trousers in the late 1930s, more women felt they could adapt the look themselves. However, despite the comfort and practicality - a serious consideration during the Depression - the look did not become widespread until the 1940s.
Again, British women started wearing trousers first, and it was for reasons of practicality. Clothing was rationed, so many women took to wearing their husbands' civilian clothes. This was easier for work and meant they could save their small clothing allowance ration. It also meant they could wear cheap ankle socks instead of expensive, and increasingly hard to get, stockings. Trousers designed specifically for women appeared and the demand skyrocketed.
In the US, the droves of women working in factories for the war effort also demanded sturdy trousers. This meant that 1940s women's slacks were designed less for fashion than for practicality. However, the stocking shortage meant that there were also slacks for weekend wear, which might feature a bit more in the way of design. They were always high-cut, at or slightly above the natural waist, and often sported a single pleat down the front of each leg. The legs were wide, making for a flattering shape, especially the profile. After the war, when fabric was no longer at a premium, cuffs and more flare were added to the trousers, along with practical pockets.
Reactions to Women's Trousers
Although 1940s women's slacks were recognized as a necessity, particularly when a woman was at work, they were still considered unacceptable for parties or evening wear. The limitations forced upon fashions because of the war were never out of mind, but even women felt it was their duty to look their best when not at work, as a way of boosting the morale of men still at home and especially those on leave. Their "best" meant the best dress they had on hand, and if they didn't have stockings, they used leg makeup. The feelings against women in trousers for anything other than work were so strong, many restaurants, clubs and theatres banned women from wearing them inside.
How to Wear Them
With low-rise pants and jeans having been all the rage for so long, the slow return of high-rise trousers is confusing to some women, who aren't sure how to put together a flattering outfit. In the 1940s, women paired trousers with form-fitting sweaters or blouses that they wore tucked in. A jacket was easily tossed over either. Tops always featured either shoulder pads or detailing that made them stand out, balancing the shoulders and hips to give a more hourglass appearance to the form.
While some considered the look to be too mannish, others noted that it was flattering and appealing. Many women did take care to curl their hair, use lipstick and add what jewelry or accessories they could so as to counteract any suggestion of masculinity in their look. Most of them, however, were thrilled with the chance to dress more comfortably and, although there was a major pushback in the 1950s, it was generally acknowledged that trousers were here to stay.