The Truth About Real Women’s 1940s Pants

Joan Bennet 

When the present interprets the past, it always adds its own ideals on top.

This is how we can identify “70s does 30s” and “80s does 40s” – it’s because there’s just something so 70s, or 80s, about those revival pieces, even when there’s also just something so 30s, or 40s.

In our current retro revival, at-waist pants are all the rage. Rightly so when these days women tend to wear bifurcated bottoms more than skirts or dresses. Many retro/repro brands have trousers or jeans available, and they’re really cute…………but they’re not 1940s pants.

If anything, these throwback trousers are more 1930s, with wide legs draped from the hips, or even flared a bit, but the high crotches and tight rumps plant them firmly in the 20teens.

How do I know this? Enter the magical rabbit hole of original vintage patterns.

Advance 4168 – 1946 pattern for women’s jacket and trousers. Click through for the Vintage Pattern Wiki listing.

I’ve made a lot of pants recently. I’ve made pants from new retro patterns developed from originals, from 1970s patterns with that retro vibe, and now from an original 1946 pattern. The difference between the three has been profound, and it answers my questions as to why the retro revival stuff never really gets it right.

Pants from 1946. If you can’t find originals, or don’t want to wear them, make yourself a pair from an original pattern! Also, don’t go out for photos when it’s blowing 60 mph and a snowstorm is coming.

So here’s the truth about real vintage 1940s pants:

1. Crotch Depth – you’ve probably heard this one before. 1940s trousers have a very low crotch. Mine have a good 4″ extra depth. This makes them very comfortable, but also a bit puffy in that region.

2. Wide Hips – 1940s trousers are very baggy in the hips. Very. There’s a lot of width across there. The waist on mine is taken up in the back with darts, in the front with pleats, which is very common on both men’s and women’s trousers of this period. I altered my trousers to make shaped pockets rather than in-seam pockets because the in-seam pockets made the hips even baggier and I felt that wasn’t flattering (there’s my modern ideals!). Even with that change, I’ve got tons of room across the front and back in the hip and bum region.

3. Tapered Legs* – This is the biggest difference you’ll find between real 1940s pants and our modern idea of them. Real 1940s trousers have a tapered leg, not a straight leg, so you get this interesting silhouette between the wide baggy hips and the slim lower leg. It’s a gradual taper, though, not like skinny pants or peg legged trousers – there’s still a lot of volume in the leg.

*Note – The 1940s have a clear transition between wide-legged trousers of the ’30s and tapered, narrow trousers of the ’50s. My pants are from 1946, so the legs taper more than an earlier pattern would.

4. Length – Real 1940s pants were worn shorter than we like to wear our pants today. A slouch or too much of a break at the top of the foot throws the whole silhouette off and makes the pants look horribly unflattering. I found this out when I hemmed my pants according to my modern ideals, then re-hemmed them to shorten them. Once I’d corrected the length, they became flattering again.

5. The Crease – 1940s pants need that vertical crease on the center of each leg, front and back. Without that crease you look like a hobo. With the crease, the bagginess is tamed and the silhouette works.

6. Women’s 1940s Pants are Basically Men’s 1940s Pants. My pattern called for a side zip, only ever used in women’s trousers, but I converted it to a center zip fly. My pattern also has darts in the back, whereas men’s trousers don’t. Other than that the silhouette is the same, which ties in with what we all know about women’s fashion in the ’40s drawing on menswear.

This diagram shows the difference in pattern shapes from the late 30s through the late 40s, and compared to today. For a more in-depth look check out Wearing History’s vintage pants primer.

As I was making these trousers I had concerns about how flattering they would be. I nearly dropped the project after my first try-on, because I just couldn’t see how these pants were going to end up alright, but you know what? They turned out great! It’s another example of how you sometimes need to push through to finish something completely, then put it on with all the right stuff (for my shoot I wore a 1940s rayon blouse and oxford shoes), and suddenly it all works.

Front view (after I’ve been wearing them all day, so please excuse the wrinkles) – very loose hips and crotch, tapered leg, cuffs. I added dropped belt loops to the waistband, another ’40s and ’50s thing which gives a cute extra-high-waist look. The top is a rayon blouse also made from an original 1940s pattern – these trousers are the first thing I have put this blouse with where it’s actually looked flattering/correct. Just goes to show…

Now I’m in love. I’m sitting here right now wearing these pants, blogging about these pants, and I don’t want to take them off. I do, however, want to make more shirts, vests, and jackets to go with them because I love them so much.

Back View – very wide and loose across the bum. Darts at the waist. No back pockets on the ladies’ pants.

The moral of the story is – if you’re into vintage style pants, try an original pattern. Compare it to your repro pants and to younger patterns to see the differences, and geek out on this experimental archaeology with me.


  • Unknown

    March 13, 2016 at 11:06 PM

    I *love* this outfit – it really is super flattering on you and it's so freaking fun and smart (and very flattering). If this is part of your new ideals of sewing vintage clothes that really suit your personality and style – BRAVA, it's working!!

  • AuntieNan

    March 14, 2016 at 3:08 AM

    They are just sooo much cuter and sexier than the ones on the modern model! Really! Leave a little,something to the imagination!
    Can't wait to see what jacket you try — maybe a leather trimmed bomber?

  • Cathy Raymond

    March 14, 2016 at 5:26 AM

    Sigh. I was born in the wrong decade, I guess. From what you say, 40s pants would be IDEAL for my figure (noticeable waist, flat rear, wide thighs). I really like the look of the pants you made.

    • Lauren Stowell

      March 15, 2016 at 2:21 AM

      Make some! We're in a wonderful time where we can wear this stuff and not be outcasts. Come with me on the journey of totally rejecting modern-made pants!

    • Strollertwo.

      September 7, 2018 at 10:54 PM

      Trousers for women were not popular in the u.k.1940s. Only for factory work. If you wore them for going out you were considered not very respectable. I know, cos I was there!

  • Kim

    March 14, 2016 at 1:36 PM

    Even through the 1970s, trousers were ironed with creases in them. My aunt used to iron creases into her jeans. In the 1980s, jeans didn't have creases, but khakis and other pants did. A lot more clothes needed ironing, too.

    • Lauren Stowell

      March 15, 2016 at 2:20 AM

      I still see creases ironed into dress pants, particularly men's, these days, so it's not completely dead. Nobody irons creases into jeans anymore, but my husband tells me his mother used to iron those creases into his jeans when he was a kid in the '70s, lol!

    • Lauren Stowell

      March 15, 2016 at 2:19 AM

      Off the rack pants are more trouble that they're worth. I have fairly straight hips and I can't get modern women's pants to fit well either! They rely on the stretchiness in the fabric rather than good fit…enter the muffin tops and hip dents. UGH!

    • Lauren Stowell

      March 15, 2016 at 2:17 AM

      I have had some rubbing on lower-crotched jeans, from the thickness and coarseness of the fabric, but I haven't experienced it on the softer fabric pants. Women in the '40s would have been wearing pantaloon/pantalets, kindof like silky boxers for women, which would alleviate the thigh chafe.

  • MaciNic

    March 15, 2016 at 2:10 AM

    My comment got eaten, so I apologise if it appears twice. I love these. I love your version even more than the vintage pattern cover, and that's rare 😉 I'd love to make a pair, and have discovered the same about revival patterns, the crotch is just too high. Do you have any leads for this of us who can't find a genuine vintage? The best I can spot is the mens trouser from Reproducing History:

  • Steve Graver

    March 15, 2016 at 1:02 PM

    Do you think lining the pants to the knee might alleviate "chub-rub"? I'm a costume designer and used this exact pattern for trousers on an actress playing Beatrice in a post-WW II version of MUCH ADO. She loved 'em!

    • Condwiramurs Tally

      August 11, 2020 at 4:35 PM

      I bought 40s like pants today and I 've been wondering why they do have lining just above the knee, so they probably work. It didn't cross my mind becouse I don't experience this but this tip might help fellow ladies!

  • A. Bertilson

    March 23, 2016 at 12:07 AM

    Thank you so much for this! I have felt concerns relating to this, since I really want to have 'vintage' pants (I made a pair from Wearing History, modifying it slightly to have pockets and buttons on the sides, and so that it fit me better), and was annoyed how it's impossible to find good higher-waisted pants these days, as well as (for me) ones that allow enough room in the crotch. I compensate for a short waist with a 'long' crotch.

    I also wanted to have accurate pants that weren't so baggy, since it looks funny with anything that isn't tucked in. I have yet to make blouses.

    Great to know that that pattern works! I've seen it around the internet quite a bit, and maybe I should get it…

  • Em

    July 12, 2018 at 11:17 AM

    Hi! Nice work! However, I have read that front zippers were not used by women since they were considered vulgar. Zippers were placed at one side. But I have indeed found old images of women wearing trousers w zippers at the front. I am trying to make my own pair (or, in planning phase) and I have no clue what to choose. Any advice?

  • Strollertwo.

    September 7, 2018 at 11:00 PM

    I think if women wore trousers with a zip in the 1940s they were wearing mens'trousers. It was consdidered very vulgar! With the severe clothes shortage, we wore anything we could find.

  • Brodie

    April 28, 2019 at 8:01 AM

    Thanks for your comments about the different length in trousers – I've been holding off on hemming because my usual/modern length didn't seem to give the correct finish.

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