• Ashley Webb

1940s

I may or may not have mentioned my love for 1940s fashion in a previous post - I know I spoke of my love for the 1890s and the gigantic sleeves, but I also admire the pre and post war ingenuity of the 1940s. The elegant, yet mandated thriftiness of the early 1940s is a bit of a fascination of mine, and I love the flattering, tailored looks that hadn't yet gone out of style - everyone was either making their own clothes or refashioning what they had.



This summer print dress, c. 1946, is made of what I thought was silk, as it has a luxuriously soft feel, and was labeled silk by the auction house from which I purchased it. In fact, the dress is made of rayon.



Rayon is a man-made fabric from wood pulp fibers, and was used as a replacement for silk during the war as it was cost effective. It's still in use for clothing construction today, but plastic based materials, such as polyester, are more abundant.


It's difficult to tell the difference between silk and rayon just by touch. Some say that rayon has a cold, wet feel, but my tactile sensory isn't quite that honed, and I personally can't tell the

difference between the two. So, how do I know that this is rayon and not silk, especially since it was wrongly labeled?

Remnants of rayon after the burn test

I did a burn test.


I plan to do a more in depth post on burn tests, but for now, I'll say it's a really helpful tool when you don't have a microscope and you need to know a certain material. Plastics and organic materials each have different reactions and smells when ignited. Silk smells like burning hair and rayon smells like burning paper. When removed from a flame, silk stops burning, but rayon keeps going.



With the advent of rationing during World War II, silk was pulled from the retail markets and used to create parachutes as it was lightweight and fire resistant. Rationing in the United States lasted until August of 1945, so it makes sense that this is not a silk dress, but instead of cold rayon fabric.


Cold rayon came in lengths of 4 yards, and in two widths - 36 inches wide or 45 inches wide. I found two selvedge edge seams in this dress, but neither was able to provide any insight into the width of the fabric.



The areas at the seam where the fabric is not frayed is at the selvedge edge

The yardage coincides with the styles and sewing patterns of the 1940s. Most dress patterns were drafted with the war and ration in mind, i.e. they didn't take more than 4 yards of fabric. The majority of rayon fabrics created in the '40s did not have directional prints, that way more of the fabric could be utilized.


This dress is most definitely made from a pattern. I've scoured the internet for similar styles, and found that this style dress was popular, with subtle variations in sleeves, skirt construction, and the seam where the bodice meets the skirt. The dress featured in this post resembles the yellow polka dot in the last Simplicity pattern the most.




Overall, the construction of the dress is fair. Besides the lack of a tag, there are several additional tells that scream handmade:


  • The seam allowances on the insides of the dress have all frayed with the exception of the two selvedge edge seams

  • There's a large patch at the bust (at the second button), which if this dress were purchased, it would have become rags or gone into the trash. The extra yardage was saved and when the dress wore out, it could be patched and its life extended. You can see this closer in an image a little later.

  • Uneven waist seam

  • An uneven hemline. If you look closely at the seamline, you can see that it sort of follows the line of the bottom of the fabric, as well. It's slightly hard to see, as the thread is also white.



This dress has belt loops at the waist, but the belt is missing. The maker and/or wearer may have made a fabric belt at the time of creation, or worn one they already had. As seen in all of the patterns above, the belt would have accentuated the waist, giving the wearer a longer, leaner look. The belt may also have hidden the seam connecting the bodice and skirt, especially if the wearer was trying to hide the imperfections at the waist.





The skirt is made of four panels: three in front and one in back. Two darts at the back of the hips give more definition to the back of the skirt. Low large pockets have been added to the front of the skirt. Even in the 1940s, girls knew that pockets are the real deal.


The detail on the front of the dress adds additional charm. There are three black plastic molded buttons, but they're purely decorative. A single snap closes the bodice.





Second, the garment utilizes smocking at each shoulder. While it looks decorative, it has an alternative purpose: smocking is an embroidery technique that gathers the material in such a way to allow for stretching. As there are no other closures, clasps, or even a zipper on this garment besides the single snap at the bust, the smocking acts as a stand in for additional clasps or closures where buttons were undesirable. Closures may also have been hard to come up, and perhaps this maker didn't want to sacrifice more than one from other garments.






Overall, this dress is a great 1940s era garment - it illustrates the ingenuity and 'make do and mend' mentality of America at the time in the construction, the pattern style, and the fabric choice. Despite the slight staining throughout, I'm glad to be able to have this piece as part my personal collection!

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Roanoke, VA, USA

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