Working Nine-to-Five: 1940s Office Fashion

Did you know that our brand-new Jenny Vintage Oxfords are based on an authentic 1940s Educator shoe? We absolutely adore the perforated leather and peep-toe detail of this classic vintage design, which is perfect for all-day wear — from the office to running errands and more. And that got us thinking: How would a 1940s working girl have styled her oxfords for her nine-to-five?

According to Women’s Occupations Through Seven Decades (1947), in March of 1940, out of nearly fifty-one million American women aged fourteen years or over, eleven million were employed and over one million were actively seeking employment. But in an era that largely did not welcome today’s “boss babe” mentality, what types of jobs did these women work?

Well, according to that same report, the largest portion of those employed women were clerical, sales, or kindred workers. That included typists, file clerks, office machine operators, and telephone operators as well as saleswomen and sales clerks.

And did those typists, clerks, operators, and saleswomen serve looks? Yes, yes they did.

A classic shirtdress was a great option for office wear. One 1940 Vogue article described a beige rayon jersey belted shirtdress and promoted its versatility by suggesting it be worn with black accessories “for lunch, office, or after-office hours” or white accessories “to take on a country week-end.” In 1946, Ladies’ Home Journal also recommended a “terrific” black dress for the office because of its “endless accessory possibilities.”

Costume Institute Bergdorf Goodman sketches: Hulitar 1940-1942.
Costume Institute Bergdorf Goodman sketches: Molyneux 1940-1949.

However, the real centerpiece of a 1940s career woman’s wardrobe was the suit. Or, as Chatelaine put it in 1942: “They’re the uniform of the well-dressed woman — a uniform she varies according to her height and size, and the kind of jobs she does.”

New York Public Library. Model No. 202. Young men’s three-button notch lapel sack. 1940 – 1941.

Not to be confused with a man’s suit, which included long, roomy trousers, a woman’s suit consisted of a matching jacket and knee-length skirt. (Also: You may have thought that skorts were a nineties trend, but in 1943, Chatelaine magazine even suggested a smartly tailored skort suit, made in a small check tweed, for the office!)

Costume Institute Bergdorf Goodman sketches: Molyneux 1940-1949.
Costume Institute Bergdorf Goodman sketches: Molyneux 1940-1949.

In 1949, another article by Ladies’ Home Journal gave advice for how to get the most out of your suit. Step one was choosing the right material: “medium-weight wool, preferably in a dark color.” To be worn with the softly tailored suit jacket, they suggested making an extra skirt and three blouses to “give a busy career girl the basis of a versatile, easy-to-take-care-of wardrobe. To give three different looks, these three blouses were to be one “lingerie sheer,” a classic crepe, and a dark wool jersey. And here’s yet another option: in 1942, Chatelaine suggested a business girl or career woman wear a “fine high-necked sweater, which she’s probably knitted herself” to “the office, or her committee meetings.” 

Shift change at telephone switchboard, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 1946.

So, were these finely-suited 1940s career women also well-shod? You bet! Examine the photo above and you’ll see that from low-heeled leather oxfords to peep-toe pumps, these women tread upon the office carpet in style.

And you can too by snagging yourself a pair of Jenny Vintage Oxfords, Marjorie 1920s Shoes, or Watson Edwardian Boots! You’ll even receive a nice discount of $20/€20 per pair if you place your pre-order for any of these styles in our “All Day, Every Day” collection by September 8th, 2023.

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