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Changes in women’s footwear – part 3: 1940 to 1949

In this instalment of the series investigating how shoemaking has changed over the last 100 years, we consider the global upheavals of the 1940s.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © whitemay |

The darkest six years of the world’s history began on September 1st 1939 with the start of World War II. As has been well documented, not only was there a massive loss of life during the conflict, but everyday life was also affected for almost everyone on Earth, to a greater or lesser degree.


Sturdy shoes were necessary for the many British women in uniform during World War II

The people of many countries – particularly those that saw invasion, re-conquest and wholesale destruction – often faced great difficulty simply finding the everyday necessities of life, let alone goods that they would describe as ‘luxuries’. This was especially so near the end of the war, and survival under such terrible conditions is a tragic story in itself. Therefore, in this article, we will consider those lands where at least a modicum of normality existed for a time, even if under very austere and trying conditions.

During the 1940s, much of the world’s production of basic commodities was being poured into the war effort. However, governments understood that life still had to go on, so they allowed a certain level of everyday needs to be made available, but rationed them in an effort to prevent a total lack of necessities.

Rationing in Britain

whitemay |

Rationing of clothes in Britain continued until 15th March 1949

In Britain, rationing of petrol began as soon as war was declared. This was extended on 1st July 1942, when civilians were no longer permitted to buy any fuel for their cars. From that date, it was only available to official users – for example, bus companies, the emergency services and farmers. Petrol rationing started what was to become a long list of controlled items that from January 1940 included bacon, butter and sugar. This was followed by the rationing of biscuits, breakfast cereals, canned and dried fruit, cheese, eggs, jam, lard, meat, milk and tea. By August 1942, the sale of virtually every kind of food was controlled, apart from fruit, vegetables and bread (and even supplies of these were often limited and bread was eventually rationed in Britain after the war had ended). There was even a shortage of domestically grown fruit, and customers were often allowed to buy no more than one apple each.


A 1943 photograph of women in London wearing ‘practical’ styles of footwear

As the war progressed, it became necessary to extend rationing to other commodities, such as clothing, which was done on a points system. British adults were given an allowance of 66 points for clothing per year. However, as the years passed, this allowance was progressively cut – to 48 in 1942, 36 during the following year, and 24 points in 1945. During the final year of the war, a fully lined wool overcoat required 18 coupons and a man’s suit took up to 29 points, depending on the lining. Nine points were needed for a pair of men’s shoes and women’s shoes required seven points. From March to May 1942, the British government introduced ‘austerity measures’, which restricted the number of buttons, pockets and pleats on clothes. Clothes rationing finally ended on 15th March 1949 – almost four years after the war ended.

When the war ended in Europe on 8th May 1945, much of the world had been dragged down to a subsistence level. It is no surprise, then, that rationing of certain commodities continued for some years in many countries. In fact, some aspects of rationing became even stricter after the war.

Life in the USA

The United States entered the war in December 1941, and the first items to be rationed there were vehicle tyres. This was due to a shortage of rubber following the Japanese occupation of the rubber-producing regions of south-east Asia, and because the USA did not have enough manufacturing capacity at the start of the war to make synthetic rubber. Petrol was also rationed throughout the war and civilian car sales were banned on 1st January 1942 (only certain professions, such as doctors and clergymen were allowed to purchase the remaining stocks of new automobiles).

Other items rationed in the USA included typewriters and bicycles. In 1942, dog food could no longer be sold in tin cans, and anyone wanting to buy a tube of toothpaste (then made from metal), had to return an empty one. As in Britain, each person received a ration book, including babies and small children. Sugar was the first food rationed in May 1942, and in the following November, coffee was limited to one pound (0.45 kg) every five weeks – about half of normal consumption, partly due to German submarine attacks on USA-bound shipping from Brazil. By November 1943, footwear had been added to the list of rationed items, along with such goods as butter, cheese, coal, dried fruit, firewood, fuel oil, margarine, meat, nylon, processed foods and silk.

In February 1943, the rationing of leather shoes began in the USA. Every man, woman, and child were permitted to buy up to three pairs of leather shoes each year. To simplify production, leather was only made in six colours. As the war continued, the supply of leather for domestic use continued to decrease, and in March 1944, the ration was reduced to two pairs of leather shoes per year.


Shoe rationing in the USA encouraged many women to have their footwear repaired

The rules about purchasing footwear were strict, and required a stamp to be torn from the ration book in the presence of the retailer (although this demand was waived for catalogue purchases). If Americans wanted an extra pair of shoes over and above the government-set limit, they had to fill out a long application form, listing every pair of shoes or boots they owned. A good explanation also had to be given why another pair was essential for their occupation or how it was needed to prevent serious hardship.

The US government did make some exceptions – if shoes were stolen, or were lost in a fire or a flood, application could be made for a special certificate which allowed a new pair to be purchased. Workers in certain occupations whose work was deemed hard on their feet – such as postal workers and police officers – were exempt from the restrictions. Allowances were also made for a number of ‘special’ cases, including the need for maternity shoes and orthopaedic footwear.

However, while the government scheme was designed to keep shoe production to a minimum, an editorial in the New York Times claimed that consumers were buying shoes they did not need rather than waste their ration coupons. According to the newspaper, rationing had given rise to what it called ‘the greatest shoe-buying orgy in the history of the nation’.


Production of women’s shoes in the USA quickly gained momentum after rationing was lifted, as shown in this 1948 advertisement

US footwear rationing stamps had to be used within a certain time period. Just before the expiry date, shoppers would often rush to buy any pair of shoes they could, whether or not they fitted properly. Later, when new styles became available, shoppers would try to exchange the unwanted pair for new shoes. Out of necessity, many stores were forced to put a time limit on how long footwear could be exchanged, in order to prevent a build-up of old stock. Stores would run newspaper advertisements when a new delivery of shoes was expected, creating an early morning queue of women who all wanted something new. On occasions, the situation became somewhat heated, especially if there were only a few pairs to be had in the most common sizes.

Unsurprisingly, second-hand shoe stores became very popular, and some innovative manufacturers produced footwear from materials that were not rationed. These mostly incorporated the plastics of the day, but also included carpet, felt, old brake lining material and even reclaimed fire department hosepipe.

Shoe rationing in the USA lasted just over three years, and ended in October 1945.


Rationing in Germany began in 1939, immediately after the outbreak of hostilities. At first, rations were quite generous, as the government believed that being too strict would negatively affect public support for the war if a harsh rationing programme was introduced. Adolf Hitler strongly believed that shortages of food and other commodities had been a major factor in damaging morale among civilians in Germany during the 1914-1918 war, and that this had led to the nation’s defeat.

For the first two years of the war, the German people are said to have eaten ‘amazingly well’ and appeared to have had sufficient clothing. As the war dragged on, however, everyday life became much harder and by the spring of 1945, the rationing system and the distribution of food had virtually collapsed.

Novel materials

With much of the world’s available leather reserved for military use, shoemakers often had to show initiative in their choice of raw materials. These included heavy fabrics, felt, fish skins, hemp, mesh, raffia, textiles, reptile skins, rope and straw, with cork and wood sometimes used for solings.

A few women’s shoe styles became particularly popular during the 1940s, many of which had been available for decades.

Ankle straps and Mary Janes

The Mary Jane shoe, with its single strap across the vamp, was just as popular in the 1940s as it had been in the 20s and 30s. Deep cut-outs on the side of the shoe, a large peep toe hole and thin straps all helped to make this style a ‘must have’ when ration coupons could be spared. The reduction in required materials was, of course, also popular with shoemakers.


During the summer months, wedge-heeled espadrilles proved popular. These featured either a closed or open peep toe and were fastened by laces that wrapped up the vamp or up and around the ankle. Espadrilles in the 1940s were produced from a woven straw which sometimes did not cover the wedge or platform sole, so exposing the wood or cork underneath.


Loafers were borrowed from men’s footwear styles. Being flat or having a very low heel, they were easy to don, comfortable and practical, yet were still considered to be fashionable – especially by teenagers. Many women began to wear loafers while working in wartime factories, and their popularity continued after the war.

Oxford shoes

During the 1940s, the Oxford shoe continued the popularity that started at least 30 years before. The lace-up Oxford shoe with a stacked heel could be worn with virtually anything – it was comfortable, practical and strong, and suitable for daywear and when working. Most women in the Western world had a pair, normally in black or brown. In line with the austerity of the times, these shoes were minimally decorated, perhaps with accent materials such as brogueing, patent leather or reptile skin. At first, the vamp was quite high on the foot to cover as much skin as possible, although a lower vamp became popular towards the end of the decade.


Sandals featured the least amount of material of any shoe but they still appeared to be chunky, as they usually had a thick sole and wide straps. Sandals often had a peep toe design, and could also feature large cut-outs designs on the vamp. Straw or woven fabric could be used, and this was often dyed in blue, green, red or yellow.

Slingback shoes

The slingback shoe – with its often chunky heel – was intended to be worn during the day or as evening wear (the latter having slightly higher heels). Most shoemakers incorporated a rounded toe in their designs, sometimes with a small peep-toe opening. Fastening was normally by a buckled strap attached around the back of the heel. Slingback shoes of the 1940s were usually produced with minimal decoration or detail.

The thinking behind the slingback’s design was that it could show off the woman’s heel. However, many wearers took issue with this style of shoe because it revealed the undesirable seams of stockings. For this reason, slingback shoes were usually worn during the evening, when long skirts could hide backseams. Eventually, stocking manufacturers incorporated reinforced heels and toes, which helped to alleviate the problem.


Strapless court shoes (pumps) were often decorated with bows, and could also feature cut-outs or perforations. Two-tone colouring in brown and white was popular, with black and white becoming more common towards the end of the decade. The ‘baby doll’ shoe became fashionable after 1947. It had a high heel, low vamp, round toe and a very small platform sole – if any was used at all.

Wedges and platforms


A Sicilian woman in 1943 wearing wedge-heeled sandals

Perhaps the most iconic of all women’s footwear from the 1940s was the wedge shoe. This thick-soled style with a medium-height raised heel could be either casual or formal in design, and be combined with ankle straps, laces, peep toe holes or slingback straps. The wedge was generally made from wood covered in fabric (which matched the upper material). Formal wedge heel shoes were often made with black patent leather or suede. 

Hollywood film star Carmen Miranda’s love of platform shoes undoubtedly helped to drive their sale during the latter half of the 1940s. Many women in the USA wore this style from 1945, and platform shoes became popular with British women two years later. While raising the sole of the foot off the ground, a typical 1940s platform was only about two inches at the most. When the shoe featured a three-inch heel, the overall raise of the arch was minimal. This gave the wearer added height while the footwear was still relatively easy in which to walk.

A new decade

On 1st January 1950, people could finally put the decade of global conflict behind them. The next part of this series will consider changes then seen in the design of women’s footwear.

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Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 40 of the May 2018 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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