A couple of years ago the Imperial War Museum in London ran an exhibition on wartime fashion. I had the best intentions to visit Fashion on the Ration but it never quite happened. So I was delighted to come across the accompanying book in my local library.
Written by Julie Summers, it chronicles how women’s fashion in the UK changed during the Second World War. She discusses services’ uniforms, the use of coupons and clothes rationing as well as ‘make do and mend’ and the immediate post war era of Dior’s ‘New Look’.
Fashion on the Ration is a fascinating study of a period in British fashion when everyone dressed equally. Once clothes rationing was introduced in 1941 the entire population was restricted by what they could buy, regardless of income. Even Princess Elizabeth had to save up her coupons for her wedding dress in 1947.
By 1942 the number of clothing coupons allocated each year was just 48 as material shortages and labour redeployment became more desperate. With a woman’s winter coat costing 14 coupons this wasn’t much to work with. In 1942 the Utility Scheme was introduced which worked to restrict the amount of fabric used and reduce workers’ time (after all factory labour was needed for war essential work).
Under the Utility Scheme the government dictated the number of pleats in a skirt, buttons on coats and jackets, length of men’s socks and prohibited the trouser turn-up, among other things. It seems remarkable, nowadays, that the population accepted these dictates, although sometimes there were grumbles and even defiance (Montgomery carried on wearing his army trousers with turn-ups).
But, as with food and fuel rationing, and so much more, clothes restrictions were seen as the right thing to do to save labour and finite resources. Even removing 2″ from the bottom of men’s shirts and getting rid of double cuffs could save four million square yards of cotton each year, as well as 1,000 clothes labourers. Utility Clothing was also well-made, originally from designer patterns, and price controlled, meaning nearly every woman could now afford a designer item.
Rationing and ‘making do’ was seen as patriotic and Fashion on the Ration discusses how women weren’t supposed to admit if they were wearing something new. Ingenuity and resourcefulness dominated the war period. With the men away on active service, wives and daughters would re-work male outfits so that they could now wear them. Materials that weren’t rationed, such as blackout cloth, muslin, cheesecloth and curtain net, were used as clothing fabrics. Even old blankets were turned into coats and jackets, and these coats could then be turned into jackets and then into dressing gowns etc. etc.
Wartime Fashion on display at Fashion Museum Bath l-r: wartime wedding dress, evening dress partially made from blackout material and Jaeger tweed suit produced under the Utility design scheme of 1941
The WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service) and WI ran ‘make do and mend’ classes (at one point it was considered that these should be made compulsory), and produced a booklet on how to mend cuffs and collars, darn socks etc. There were even pop up booths that could fix stockings.
Social attitudes towards clothing and appearance also changed during this period. It became more acceptable for women to go bare legged and they were no longer required to wear hats in church. However by the end of the war, with rationing still continuing, women became increasingly fed up with this “tiresome necessity”. No wonder they looked to the Paris collections of the post war years and yearned for the glamour of Dior’s ‘New Look’.
Dior’s New Look, Fashion Museum Bath
Dress worn by Princess Margaret, late 1940s, on display at Fashion Museum Bath. Created by Norman Hartnell the cotton dress was designed to promote the domestic cotton market after World War Two.
Yet the introduction of mass manufactured clothing at reasonable prices sounds something we are familiar with today. What was created due to wartime necessity is now something we expect on the High Street. However the outfits we buy now are only expected to last a season – if that – and their cheap price tags mean we no longer need ingenuity or the skills of ‘make do and mend’ to make them stretch much further.