United States Boys' Clothes: The 1940s


Figure 1.--The image from 1946 shows that boys were still pictured in ties and short pants, even for play around the house. Note the ankle socks.

The 1940s were a key decade in the evolution of modern children's clothes. Few decades showed such sharp change in boys' fashions as the 1940s. Major changes occurred in boys' fashions during the decade as so often is the case following major wars and other social upheavel. The decade was one of the most significant periods in the history of boys' fashions. Boys still wore knickers and short pants at the beginning of the decade. By the end of the decade, however, knickers had disappeared and most boys were clammering for long pants. Not only that, two of the most important fashions in boys clothes appeared in the years after the war. Boys began wearing "T" shirts with bright horizontal stripes. Jeans also appeared at the same time. These staples are now worn by boys by virtually every nation around the world. Kneesocks disappeared except for formal dress short pants suits and even with suits ankle socks were common.

World War II

American children were not affected by World War II like children in Europe and Asia. The Atlantic and Pacicific Oceans acted as an affected barrier to the Germans and Japanese. Many American children lost their fathers, but unliked European children were not orphaned or displaced. American children, however, did particiapte in a variety of war-time activities to support the war effort. Children studied current events. Air raid drills and alerts were common. Both children and their families were involved with conservation and recycling of goods. The Scouts and other youth groups were actively involved in may home-front activities. Children often worked in sponsored rallies, parades and cultural events (such as dances) to raise money to buy war stamps and bonds to finance the war. Some children were more adversely affected by the war. Althiough not separated from their patents, Japanese Americans in Pacific coast states were interned in concentration camps. Italian and German families were also interned, but only those who parents were believed to have been involved in subversive activites.


Figure 2.--The semi-Norfolk styled navy blue suit with patch pockets came in sizes 4-12 years. The button on shorts had a self belt.

Split Decade

The 1940s consisted of two very different periods, first World War II and then the post-War era. Few decades exhibit such sharp changes in boys wear. At the beginning of the decade, many boys wore knickers and short pants, even to school. By the end of the decade, most boys wire long pants to school, in elementary schools often jeans. While there were some regional differences, long pants became the basic standard for American boys' wear. America was tremnendously changed by the War even though it was fought in Europe and the Pacific. The impact of the War lingered in many European countries. America with an economy invigorated rather than destroyed by war, rapidly moved into post-War consumerism. Fashion was one of the many changes impacting America. There were changes in the styles worn such as increasing informality. The prosperity resulting from the War aklso allowed Americans to dress better than ever before, especially after the War time restrictions and ratiining ended.

The War Years (1940-45)

One important factor about the first half of the 1940s concerning clothing, including boys' clothing, is the War. America was at war from December 1941 to September 1945. While World War II introduced some military styles such as the Eisenhower jacket and help to popularize informal styles like jeans and "T"-shirts, rationing and unavailability played a bigger part than boys' (or their mothers') fashion sense. The Second World War resulted in a marked austerity in dress, due in large part to the restrictions placed on the clothing industry by the War Production Board. The war in Asia had a significant impact on womens's fashions. Shipments of silk were cut off. This gave a great impetus to the production of sythentic fibers like nylon which would eventually filter through to men and boys' fashions. Shortages of wool gave impetus to research into regenerated protein fibers. One result was the milk protein fiber Aralac. It made the advertising pages of Vogue, but consumers complained that when it got wet it smelled like sour milk! Fashion in America including children's clothes was constrained by the War. In 1942, "General Limitation Order L-85" placed restrictions on the quantity of fabrics used in apparel. With the exceptions of infants' and toddlers' clothing, bridal gowns, maternity dresses, burial gowns, and clothing for religious orders, regulations detailed a wide variety of specific restrictions on the cut of women's and girl's apparel. It limited the width of hems, abolished cuffs, and eliminated wide belts. Gone was the suit for men with two sets of trousers, and vests could not be sold with double-breasted suits. Extra pockets were abolished, as were pleats in trousers. The War did create one new fashion that would come to dominate boys' and eventualy girls' leisure wear. World War II also witnessed the birth of the "t" shirt. A part of military dress, this undergarment went on to a long civilian life after the war, and beginning in the late 1940s a "t" shirt with bright colored horizontal stripes became a main stay of American boyhood fashions. Most boys lived in "t" shirts, jeans, and Keds (sneakers). The L-85 regulations had the effect of "freezing" styles throughout the wartime period and beyond. Although the war ended in 1945, it took time for scarce textile products to come back to the market. One major development during the decade is that women and eventually girls began wearing pants which before the war had ben the almost exclusive preserve of men and boys. Glamorous film stars like Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Katherine Hepburn may be popularizing trousers for women, but the real rise of the pants is due to the shortage of stockings during World War II. Stockingless women hide their bare legs with trousers, which are also better for working the assembly-line jobs abandoned by male soldiers.

Post-War era (1945-49)

After the war, men were ready for another change in their clothing styles, and in 1948 the bold look began to be seen. The thumbnail summary of the 1940s was from knickers to jeans for the American boy. Knickers began to become less popular late in the 1930s. They were still worn in the early 1940s, but for some unknown reason passed from the American boys' wardrobe in the early 1940s--apparently a cauualty of the War. Younger boys wore short pants. Boys up to 6 or 7 might even wear sailor suits. Most older boys who had worn knickers now wore long pants. Boys who did wear short pants suits often wore ankel socks, except for wealthy or well-to-do families that were more intunded with English fashions. Some consider the post-War 1940s in America as among the best kept secrets of our time. World War II was not an important factor in most boys' lives. Unlike Europeans, American children were far removed from the war, except for day being away. The aftermath of the war was a different matter. The primary influence from it was a huge back to the home movement. Women were to stay home and have babies, support their husbands in their careers and that was all. There was a drastic change in women's clothes. I remember "The New Look" with long skirts and leg of mutton sleeves. Surburbia really took off. Teenagers rejected Boogie Woogie and returned to Big Band sounds. Girls wore strapless taffeta gowns and spectator pumps. The boys all had those jackets with the velvet collars. I have forgotten what they were called. They wore white shirts and the mothers complained a lot about having to iron them. American boys and teenagers virtually lived in their jeans, wearing them every where that they could get away with it--but almost never in high school. Teenage boys wanting to look "cool" wore them low on the hips with the new hair fashion--crew cuts. A good resource for HBC readers is William Graebner's Coming of Age in Buffalo, published about 1990. Graebner is a professor of history/popular culture at State University of New York (SUNY-Fredonia). His fascinating book is a collection of photos and reminiscences about mostly teen culture in Buffalo, NY, from about 1945-55. He provides an excellent descriptions of fads and pop culture.


Figure 3.--Sleevless sweaters were popular in the 1940s. While older boys wore short pants at knee length. Younger boys might wear shorter cut shorts. This image was from a 1942 sewing magazine.

Influences

One noticeable trend throughout the 19th and eraly 20th century was the importance of European styles in clothing, including boyswear. By the 1940s, European styles seemed of increasingly less importance. Of course Europe was at War and had little time for fashion. But perhaps more importantly, American boys didn't like European fashions and were increasingly making their voices heard, what ever their mothers may think.

Garments

Suits

Suits were less commonly worn as casual styles became increasingly accepted as families moved to the suburbs. Suits and sports jackets were worn with large collars. Sport jackets with different colored matrial for the jacket and sleves were popular. Norfolk jackrts were poular, especially for boys. Jackets for older boys and men had very wide lapels. Some boys still wore shirt pants suits which were still available in sizes up to about 12 years old, but most boys by that age were wearing long pants suits. Boys from affluent families were the most likely to wear short pants suits. The Eton suit for little boys which first appeared in the 1920s began to grow in popularity. The Eton jacket worn by American boys was a short, collarless jacket, in various materials. It was usually worn with short grey pants. It was still mostly worn by boys from affluent families.

Sweaters

Sweaters were popular garments in the 1940s. A variety of styles were worn, pullovers with a variety of neck styles. Both sleeveless and sleeved styles were available. Some boys also wore cardigans, usually older boys in highschool. Sweaters came in a wide variety of colors and patterns as well as solid-colored flat weaves. Sweaters were useful garments and very versatile. They can be worn for dressing up, school, play, and outdoorwear in chilly weather. The only problem for boys is that they are some times taken off when it warms up and thus can be easily lost

Shirts

Shirts were often made of cotton broadcloth. Button-down collars were very popular. Little boys had a variety of special styles, including shirts with buttons at the waist to button on to short pants. After World War II (1945) the "T" shirt in bold horizontal stripe appeared. They were mostly short sleeved, but long sleeve styles also were available. By the end of the decade they had become very poular.


Figure 4.--Boys wore kneesocks less commonly in the 1940s. The ones that were worn often had patterns at the top.

Pants

Quite a diversity of pants were worn in the 1940s. Boys might wear short pants, knickers, or long pants. Both shorts and knickers declined in popularity during the decade. It was long pants which were emerging by the late 1940s as the standard for Amerucan boys--even in hot summer weather. Most American boys wanted to wear long pants. Jeans began to become more common.

Play suits

A popular style for younger boys was the play suit. These might be button-on combinations or just matching shirts and usually short pants. The shirts had varying styling. One popular style was the sailor styling--but not always middy blouses. The suits were often avialiable in light colors. The concept of the play suit appeared at the turn of the 20th century with outfits like the Buster Brown and other tunic suits. By the 1930s, however, theu had become simpler more utiliatain garments. I believe the first matching shirts and shorts play suits appeared in the 1930s, but were very popular in the 1940s.

Socks

Boys in the 1930s had commonly wore kneesocks with knickers. Short pants were worn with both kneesocks and ankle socks. The solid color kneesocks were not as popular as in Europe. American boys often wore kneesocks with pattern at the top. As knickers became less common, kneesocks became less common. Boys increasingly wore ankle socks. Commonly with horizontal stripes. American boys in the 1950s no longer commonly wore kneesocks, especially for play or school. Some boys who still wore short pants suits did sometimes wear kneessocks, but this became increasingly less common by the 1960sd

Shoes and sandals

American boys mostly wore oxford leather shoes. Very young boys might wear closed-toe sandals. School age boys, however, did not commonly wear them. The canvas shoes which appeared in the 1920s grew in popularity during the 1940s. The most popular brand was Keds which I think were only available in black and worn as high-top styles.


Figure 5.--These boys are pictured with their father in 1945, presumably a returning war veteran. Notice that the shorts are worn at knee length and the boys wear ankle socks.

Caps

Boys in the 1940s wore caps much less commonly than in the 1930s. Most caps in the 1940s were worn during the einter and might have ear flaps.

Fashion Changes

I'm not quite sure how to explain the changing popularity of long stockings during the World War II era. We do know that long stockings were still widely worn with short pants in continental Europe at the time--especially in eastern and northern Europe (Germany and Russia being the chief examples). Our many photographs from Europe confirm this. Were American styles influenced by European customs just before and during the war? The same phenomenon seems to be noticeable also in Canada, although conservatism in Quebec plus the colder climate there could well have had something to do with the style. There was certainly no equivalent in Britain and France, however, countries that continued to dress boys in short pants but that favored knee socks rather than long stockings. This was also the period in America when knickers for boys up to about 16 reached their zenith and then rapidly declined. Both long stockings with short pants and knickers with patterned knee socks (a non-European style) died out at about the same time--by 1945. One point that HBC has already mentioned elsewhere is that elastic products (such as hose supporters) became difficult to come by during the war years. Elastic at the time was made from natural rubber. The Japanese seized control of the vast proportion of the wirl's production of natural rubber when they took Malaya, Singapore, and neigboring areas (1942). This shortage may have had something to do with the decline of long stockings, but it doesn't explain why there seems to have been a brief revival of the style in the late 1930s in America. It may be primarily fashion, but I have a feeling the War Production Board may have been involved. Less material was needed or socks than long stockings and knickers required more material than shorts, although I am not sure about longs. This combined with the shortage of elastic may have been important. Actually many knickers in the late 30s and early 40s were made with elaticised leg hems rather than buckles. I have never been able to find any write up on the WPB regulations on such matters.

Literature and Media

Quite often books and media depictions set in the era have interesting details about clothing, life style, and social trends. We note a childs storybook, The Children's Hour with Uncle Arthur. As many of the stories dealt with issues in the livers of contemprary children, the illustrations depict how children dressed in the 1940s. The ollustrations were often photographs rather than drawings.

Personal Experiences

A variety of personal accounts are available and articles are available on this period.
The 1940s: Short snipits
The 1940s: Knickers and shorts
The 1940s: My Brother and I
The 1940s: A sailor suit
The 1940s-50s: Sneakers and jeans
The 1950s: Beaver Goes Shopping
The 1950s: Jeans, Jeans, Jeans

Sources

William Graebner, Coming of Age in Buffalo, published about 1990.





HBC





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Created: November 22, 1998
Last updated: 9:13 PM 4/2/2011