2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. Among many events in tribute is ‘Fashion on the Ration : 1940s Street Style’, a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. Fashion on the Ration looks at ‘how fashion survived and even flourished’ in wartime Britain. "Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to functional fashion, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain. This is a story not about the end of fashion but about creativity, innovation and coping in adversity, the impact of which can still be seen upon British style today."
The exhibition shows how the British attempted to maintain standards of appearance, concentrating on "on what people wore, their sense of identity and how they coped with the demands and deprivations." People of all backgrounds explored new sources of materials, beauty products and styles of dress as first intermittent supply, then clothes-rationing, took effect. Winston Churchill opposed the very concept of rationing clothes when first introduced in 1941. But Oliver Lyttleton of the Board of Trade believed rationing would ensure fair distribution of clothing across all sections of society, preserve limited wool and cotton supplies and release thousands of workers in the clothes industry for war work. Initially the allowance was 66 coupons annually but as the war dragged on it was cut to 48 coupons in 1942, to 36 in 1943, and in 1945 to only 24. Putting this into context, in 1941 stockings were 2 coupons each, a dress or skirt was 7 coupons and a wool dress 11 coupons. A man’s shirt was 5 coupons, trousers were 8 and a jacket 13: a three-piece suit would have been 26 coupons altogether. Material and yarn were rationed too: a yard of wool 36″ wide was 3 coupons while knitting wool was 2 ounces a coupon. Sob! In 1941 the Utility Apparel Order was issued to standardise mass-produced clothing and fabric and minimise waste, even limiting the number of pleats on skirts, buttons on coats and the length of menâ€™s socks. Adult clothing had 100% purchase tax added.
Facing such restrictions, the originality and invention of the response by British people, designers and manufacturers is extraordinary. “It would be an added calamity if war turned us into a nation of frights and slovens”, declared Vogue in 1939. Clothing was altered, mended and darned, often almost invisibly. Woollen jumpers were unravelled and re-knitted. We’ve all heard stories of unusual materials re-purposed for clothing and cosmetics, such as ‘liquid stockings’ and parachute silk. Some women without access to stockings or the charmingly-named ‘Helena Rubinstein’s Leg Stick’ really did resort to tea or even gravy browning. Shown for the first time is a set of Countess Mountbatten’s underwear. Made out of a silk map given by a boyfriend in the RAF, it is undecorated apart from the printing of the map and is actually rather beautiful. Other items on display are a woman’s suit made-over from a man’s, a child’s coat made from a blanket and a bracelet ingeniously created from components of crashed German aircraft.
Wedding dresses, with their increased yardage, presented a particular coupon-headache for brides who either could not or would not resort to black market goods. A bridesmaid’s dress made and worn by Janet Saunders in 1945 is indeed parachute silk. Evelyn Higginsonâ€™s 1943 wedding dress of pre-war figured silk, originally sold for making petticoats, was eventually worn by 15 different brides. Out of her own pocket, Barbara Cartland (yes, that Barbara Cartland), bought wedding dresses. She established a pool of hundreds of wedding-gowns lent out to hundreds more women who otherwise could not have afforded one. The thrift born then of necessity has much to teach us now regarding sustainability.
‘Fashion on the Ration’ features other, unexpected innovations. Gas masks might be an ugly fact of war but they could be carried in the bottom of a specially-designed leather handbag. Selfridges sold luminous buttons and brooches to make the wearer safe when walking at night because civilian car accidents in 1941 had risen from by over 2500 year since 1938, due, it was then thought, to blackout. A one-piece siren suit is ‘just the thing to pull on in a hurry’ when dashing for the shelter during night-time raids: a ‘onesie’, Home-Front-style. Nella Last described hers as “the maddest, most amusing thing a sedate matron of 51 ever possessed!” Rayon ‘Utility’ dresses provide a burst of vivid colour and pattern. With materials at a premium, styles were pared-down but striking. Many of the garments look wearable now. Perhaps that is why fashion keeps returning to the 1940s as a source of inspiration?
Knitting seems under-represented, given its significance at the time, but this outstanding exhibition nevertheless illuminates a significant aspect of life in wartime Britain. It is the perfect lead-up to the Museum of London’s conference on post-war dress in September. ‘Fashion on the Ration : 1940s Street Style’ runs until Monday 31 August 2015 at the Imperial War Museum London branch in Lambeth Road. More info at the IWM website. Their Wartime Fashion section may also be of interest.