Fashion on the Ration – How women remained stylish during World War Two

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Clothing is something most of us take for granted these days. Usually if we want to purchase something, we either jump online and order it direct to our door, or we head to the local shopping centre and browse amongst the varied range of stores within. Most of us also purchase fashion for the here and now, the latest trends or celebrity inspired look. We occasionally invest in larger budget items such as a coat or evening dress, with the intention of keeping it in the wardrobe for a few years. But fast fashion has largely taken over our lives, with our wardrobes changing style from season to season. So can you imagine what it was like to be a woman surviving in the 1940’s when fashion became an item rationed by the government due to the Second World War? Some had been through it previously in the First World War, but it was much more prominent in Britain and across Europe for almost the entire decade of the roaring forties. Women no longer had the freedom to go to their local store or couturier to buy something fabulous. Instead fashion was dictated to them by what was available during the war years, and what was deemed appropriate (which is why Dior created such controversy when he released his 1947 New Look). Many innovations came from war time rationing of clothing, some which we still use today, and others which I’m glad never caught on!

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At the beginning of the 1940’s, Britain was heavily involved in the war, with many of its country men fighting on the front line, and many of its women being put to work in factories. As the war progressed, with no end in sight, many sacrifices had to be made. Food is something that was largely controlled and became extremely hard to come by. But what many people don’t realise is that clothing too was a luxury that suffered drastically during this time. On 1st June 1941, clothing became rationed across Britain with a limit being put on the amount of garments one could purchase. As money was also scares during this time, coupons similar to those used to receive food items were given out in 1942 under the Utility Clothing Scheme. This allowed people to save up their coupons and then head to the stores to purchase garments. Women had to be frugal in their choices of clothing, as whatever they purchased was likely to have to survive for many seasons to come. It became apparent early on in this scheme that some manufactures were producing inferior garments, which lead to the less wealthy citizens receiving items that soon wore out. To try and make it an even playing field for all members of society, the Government introduced the ‘CC41’ label. This ensured that whatever was produced, be it socks, underwear or jumpers, had to adhere to a sustainable level of quality. This way, everyone could obtain these higher quality garments with the coupon rations.

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There was much uprising over this new way of life, with many feeling uncomfortable with this new style of dressing. To try and relieve some of the negative attitudes, the Government approached a range of British designers to come together to create war time fashion for the public. Big time designers like Norman Hartnell, Bianca Mosca, Digby Morton and Hardy Aimes, came together and produced a range of fashion that not only stuck to the current regulations, but ensured a stylish take on it as well. No longer were people afraid they would all look the same, and being able to still wear designer brands help lift the spirits of many during this challenging period. Austerity regulations also largely affected men’s fashion. Only single breasted suits were allowed to be produced, with limitations placed on lapel sizes, number of pockets per garment, and the width of turn up and cuffs on both trousers and shirts. It is estimated that these limitations saved some four million square yards of cotton per year!

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The 1940’s was also the beginning of manmade fabrics coming into the mass market. Natural fibres such as wool and silk were used for the soldiers’ uniforms and parachutes, which left women’s clothing out in the cold. Fabrics such as rayon and synthetic jersey became widely used, and are often found in vintage garments today. Fabrics had to be user friendly, something you could easily wash at home as the luxury of a drycleaner was long gone. As women began to be conscripted to working for the war effort, it bought about a mass change in the outfits they required. No longer was it practical for a woman to wear a tea dress if she was working on the factory floor. Trousers became the new favourite items in women’s fashion as it allowed much more ease of movement. Headscarves and turbans also became popular in the forties as women needed to cover their hair whilst working as a safety precaution. With France no longer at the top of the fashion scene due to German occupation, practicality took over couture, with styles becoming much more paired down, unadorned and refined.

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The ‘Make do and Mend’ campaign came to life during the Second World War, with women encouraged to repair their own clothing. This also saw the humble dressmaker turning to alternate resources to produce garments. Curtains were no longer just used as window furnishings, but turned in to practical items that could be worn for many seasons. The suits of men away at war were no longer safe either. Women used their tailoring skills to turn them into suits for themselves, so they could save their coupons for other items. Older garments had extra panels added to the waist to lengthen the hemline, and nothing was ever thrown out. Patching, darning and altering became hugely popular in the forties, more out of necessity than desire.

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Some fashion trends from this time which we are still aware of today are monochrome colour palettes, exquisite tailoring and the original jumpsuit. Known back then as the Siren Suit, the all in one garment was designed to be easily put on over night time attire whenever the air raid sirens sounded. It had a zipper running the front length of the garment, with large pockets for personal items, and a drop down panel at the rear. It was worn by both men and women, and became known as a signature garment during the war. Winston Churchill was a fan! The colour of many garments produced during this time were restricted as fabric dyes became a luxury. Black and grey was very common, but the British did their best to be patriotic too. Red, white and blue was worn proudly whenever possible, with white being largely popular during the blackout every evening. This ensured the wearer would be seen more easily if out on the street, in the hope of reducing accidents between pedestrians and cars. Tailoring was also a staple of the 1940’s, with all suits, coats, skirts and trousers needing to withstand not only the current season, but many more after. A suit had to be wearable from summer through winter for more than one year, which called upon the finest of tailors to put their skills to use.

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Other limitations placed on fashion during the time were how much fabric could be used per garment. This meant that the width and length of skirts was restricted, and for the first time ever in modern society, a skirt could be no longer than knee length. Jackets too had to be shortened in the body, no longer than twenty five inches allowed! They also had to be unlined, with no cuffs or patch pockets. Metal zips became hard to find, and so the zipper less dress was born. Being made out of a stretch fabric, women simply pulled it on over their heads. Elastic was another luxury, only being used in women’s knickers. One item that wasn’t restricted during this time was head wear. Hats of all shapes and sizes were still allowed, although hard to come by. Another fashion invention that came from the war was a sleek yet stylish handbag with a built in compartment for carrying ones gas mask. Usually carried in a small cardboard box with a long string to throw over your shoulder, the gas mask became a staple of wartime that everyone had to carry with them at all times. But the idea soon came to design a handbag that could accommodate the rather ugly but necessary accessory.

Even though the war was declared over, and V day celebrations rang out everywhere on 8th May 1945, fashion restrictions remained in place across Britain until 1949. Finally after almost a decade of being told what to wear, the survivors of war could now dress themselves. It took a few more years for fashion to regain its crown, but once again France was at the top. No more dull colours, short hemlines or straight skirts. Flamboyant feminine style was back, and the 1950’s was all the better for it.

Love Always, Anastacia Rose xx

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