When Britain went to war in 1939 it seemingly spelt an end for fashion….
But it didn’t. The constant air raids, threat of invasion and their generation’s indomitable wartime spirit sparked a wave of creativity and ingenuity amongst British women that is worth remembering, and celebrating, today.
‘Fashion on the Ration’ at the Imperial War Museum is an exhibition celebrating that ingenuity. It shows us how World War II changed how people dressed both at work and at home, and how new commercial opportunities presented themselves (siren suits and handbags with gas mask chambers, anyone?). And it is fascinating.
Most well-known, perhaps, is the ‘Make Do and Mend’ campaign, launched in June 1941 by the Ministry of Information, when clothes became subject to rationing. Each adult was allocated 66 clothing coupons per year – which equated to one complete new outfit. Growing children presented a particular challenge, so in August 1941, an extra 50 coupons were given to new mothers for baby clothes.
Rationing and ‘Make Do’ saw individual style flourish – women recycled men’s suits into skirts and jackets, stockings and socks were darned and homemade accessories abounded. The ‘Treasure Your Clothes’ campaign was a key element – posters were produced extolling the virtues of pressing, hanging and caring for clothes and shoes to prolong their life.
Importantly, clothes had to be both practical and stylish, which also meant it was increasingly acceptable for women to wear trousers. Department store Lillywhites marketed them as ‘practical wear for the home front’.
But it wasn’t just clothing that was expected to be kept up to scratch. Keeping up standards in hair and makeup was also expected. As Yardley put it in a 1945 ad, ‘To work for victory is not to say goodbye to charm. For good looks and good morale are the closest of allies’. Or my favourite – ‘Beauty As Duty’ – which became an unofficial motto for women looking to keep up standards.
Although clothes rationing continued until 1949 (and other rationing went on into the 1950s) the launch of Dior’s New Look in 1947 marked the beginning of ‘peace’ in fashion terms…
With made up face and smart hair, a woman could still feel well dressed even if her clothes were last season, stockings darned and accessories homemade.
Fashion on the Ration runs until 31st August. Catch it before it goes !