6 min read

Fashion on the Ration: The story of clothing on the home front during World War Two

aside by side photograph of two female models wearing summer dresses on a rooftop in London

Models wear wartime dresses on a Bloomsbury rooftop. Senate House, the headquarters of the Ministry of Information, is clearly visible behind them.

We talk to Laura Clouting, Historian at Imperial War Museum about 1940s fashion – on the ration

Forties style

It’s remarkable how enduring 1940s style is, and if you look at the clothes there’s a reason why we still enjoy wearing them today; minimal pleating, minimal pockets and minimal buttons – they look so chic and simple – and minimalist really, that’s why 1940s fashion endures.

Men’s fashion didn’t change all that much during the war in terms of the overall style, it was much more uniform in the sense that you had suits and a hat and that was really your everyday clothing.

For women there was much more colour and variety, but what people quickly became aware of was the need to use the clothes they already had and make them last longer. Therefore they had to perform conversions of clothes – for example to take a garment like a coat and turn it into a little waistcoat in order to give it a longer life.

a photo of a small white dress with short sleeves and a white waist sash

Bridesmaid dress made from parachute silk for Janet Saunders on the occasion of Ted Hillman and Ruby Mansfield’s wedding in 1945. Ted Hillman served with the 4th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment.

Clothes rationing and Make do and Mend

Even if you were somebody with quite a lot of money, rationing prevented the purchase of new clothes to quite an extent. So there is that awareness of “right, we need to look after the clothes we have or get creative and make new clothes”.

The latter is something that we see in the Make do and Mend scheme, which began with a government pamphlet issued by the British Ministry of Information and provided housewives with useful tips on how to be both frugal and stylish.

We have all the evidence of how active that was during the war but I think we should also remember that a lot of people had been ‘making do and mending’ as part of their ordinary lives before the war anyway – their wardrobes wouldn’t have been bulging with clothes in the way they do today.

So I don’t think people would have felt limited, but what rationing did was force people to be much more practical in the choices they made – because when they went to the shops they had to think ahead and beyond the season that they were in – across four seasons and indeed across years – when they bought clothes.

And it’s not just clothes but also other household fabrics; towels come under the rationing of fabric so it added to that strain of shopping during the Second World War. Shopping became tiring, people were constantly having to do sums in their head about what they were going to spend.

Clothes rationing was a bit freer than food rationing, where, for example, you had to register with a butcher and you could only use that butcher. With clothes you could still go to any shop you wanted to and retailers were still quite actively encouraging advertising and shopping in a way we might find surprising during a war.

But it’s a simple point that people still needed money to buy clothes. It’s not just a simple exchange with a coupon. With rationing you would not be allowed to buy many clothes at all.

As the rationing allowance diminished over time it got worse and shabbiness became the norm as the war progressed. People became very sick and tired of clothes rationing and unfortunately rationing continued until 1949, so austerity became very draining for people.

a photo of two models on a rooftop wearing tweed and wool suits with skirts

Two models pose for the camera on a Bloomsbury rooftop. The model on the left is holding a camera as if taking a photograph and is wearing a blue flecked tweed Utility suit from Dereta, whilst her colleague sports an emerald green woollen frock with a matching jacket, designed by Norman Hartnell, costing 22 coupons. A barrage balloon can be seen in the sky behind them. Copyright IWM 14818

Utility clothing

One of the problems of clothes rationing, which was introduced in 1941, was the inequality that emerged from it. Each type of garment bought, whether a jumper or a pair of shoes, was given a coupon, but that didn’t determine the cost.

If you were very rich you could afford with the same number of coupons to buy a very nice jumper that would last, and the same number of coupons would also buy something cheap that would wear out in no time.

So the Utility scheme democratised fashion and made good quality clothing more affordable for more people.

Another main driver was the need to free up factory space and factory workers and turn them over to wartime works. Utility clothes were made in a very efficient way because the nation’s resources – from factory space to fabrics – were needed for war materiel.

But the government knew it had to try and make the clothes attractive to both the retailers selling them and the people buying them, so they asked some pretty high end fashion designers to get involved through the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers. People like Digby Morton and Hardy Amies contributed to the scheme by designing a prototype range of clothes.

And they were surprisingly varied, stylish and attractive and people’s attitude towards utility clothing – and the worry that everybody would be wearing identical clothing – soon changed.

They realised that for a good price you could get some really good quality clothes. We have a whole plinth in the exhibition devoted to it and when people see the clothes and how well they endure, they will be surprised at how good quality this stuff is. Menswear was perhaps a bit limited, the colours a bit more muted and drab, but women’s clothing was surprisingly attractive, varied and really quite vivacious. When you look at black and and white photographs of the period you don’t get a sense of the colour and brightness that existed in women’s clothing.

: a full-length depiction of a female ATS member, walking towards the viewer. A large Union flag flies behind her. text: Women with a will to Win!

An ATS recruiting poster © IWM (Art.IWM PST 14542)

Fashion in the Armed Forces

In terms of public perception, the different branches of the armed forces were certainly considered more attractive than others.

Most soldiers wore battledress – a very functional khaki-coloured, utilitarian outfit with a jacket designed to be worn done up so you couldn’t actually see the shirt and tie underneath it. The RAF were much luckier; ordinary airmen had a very neat blazer that showed off the shirt and tie and it looked much more dashing.

There was this snobbery between the services that emerged, with men in the army referring to the men the RAF as ‘Brylcreem Boys’ in reference to the lashings of the hair product they would be running through their hair and the perception that they were obsessed with their appearance. In comparison the poor soldiers were known as ‘the brown jobs’, which sounds very grim. So there’s very much that sort of inter-service rivalry. And you could see that through clothing.

With women’s uniforms it’s similar but not so intense. The Womens Royal Naval Service outfit was however coveted, and the WRNS was the most popular service for women to try to join – even though it was the smallest.

Certainly compared with khaki uniforms of the Auxiliary Territorial Service [ATS, the women’s branch of the army] it was much more stylish, so there were these rivalries – and the better uniforms were a boost to recruitment as well.

But it if you look back – even to the genesis of the trench coat from the First World War – I think it’s fair to say that in every single season in fashion today you get military-inspired lines so that kind of influence really does endure and will carry on.

a photograph of a displkay in shop with signs saying ARP bargains with trays of luminous badges etc

A display at Selfridge’s department store in London advertises the various accessories available for use in the blackout. Included here are two types of luminous arm band, luminous discs and button badges, and luminous adhesive tape which could be added to the edges of clothing. The aim was to make the wearer more visible to pedestrians and vehicles in the blackout. © IWM (D 78)

Wartime jewellery and accessories

In the exhibition we look at two strands of accessories – plus utility accessories because utility wasn’t just about clothing, it was about gloves and shoes as well.

But in terms of practical wartime fashions there was a real opportunistic commercialism that developed with retailers responding to wartime conditions and the dangers people were living under, so it was a chance to flog people some potentially useful items.

Luminous buttons, pin-on brooches, luminous handbags and white coloured coats were sold in order for people to be seen in the blackout, which was one of the most invasive things for ordinary people during the war. Every evening you had make sure your house didn’t give off any kind of light at all and there were severe penalties for not doing so.

But the problem with the blackout was a steep and sudden rise in collisions in the street between cars and pedestrians. As a result some retailers cultivated the desire to incorporate high visibility with accessories that had some panache and style.

You see this with respirators; rather than carrying the mask around in a very tedious looking cardboard box with a piece of string, the gas mask handbag with a special compartment for the gas mask became a wartime trend. Some people wanted a more attractive solution and it reminds you of the ways retailers were trying to appeal to customers to come through the door and spend their money.

Ladies' Jacqmar headscarf (L 91cm X W 83cm) with 'INTO BATTLE' slogan printed around edges and insignia associated with British and South East Asian regiments printed on an eight-point star with border in red.

Jacqmar of London made propaganda scarves from 1940-1945 and were based in Mayfair. Many scarves were produced for the export market as well as for wartime sweethearts, particularly in London. The chief designer was Arnold Lever who continued working for the company even after he had joined the RAF. The scarves fall into three main thematic groups of the armed forces, allies and home front. The Jacqmar name is usually printed on the scarf. Copyright IWM (EPH 5798)

Jacqmar silk scarves

Jacqmar silk scarves were wonderful and they were quite niche and high end in terms of affordability. They were rationed and required around two clothing coupons; you would have paid quite a fair sum for them.

But Jacqmar created their own range of patriotic and wartime inspired scarves – many designed by their Chief designer Arnold Lever who continued working for the company even after he had joined the RAF.

Based in Mayfair (16 Grosvenor Street) many were produced for the export market as well as for wartime sweethearts, particularly in London. The scarves fall into three main thematic groups of the armed forces, allies and home front. They usually have the Jacqmar name on the scarf.

They are just remarkable things, the colour and the feel is superb and they allowed people to show their support in a very stylish way – and not just Britain, the allies as well; we have a really lovely Jacqmar scarf in support of the Free French Forces.

So they are really wonderful things, very varied and the museum is really lucky to have a comprehensive collection of them.

Winston Churchill with his hand on a zip of his utility siren suit next General Eisenhower in full military dress

Churchill demonstrating the zipper on his famous siren suit to General Dwight D Eisenhower. Photograph taken during their tour of troops preparing for D Day near Lydd and Hastings in Kent.

The Siren Suit

One of my favourite objects is what we call a siren suit – an all in one garment which was designed to be an attractive and easy solution for people to jump into and run out in the late night into their air raid shelters.

The air raids and sirens became a really invasive part of everyday life and brought the most gravest of threat of being killed by a bomb in your home. But fashion designers and retailers saw this as a chance to sell people something and to experience something just a little bit more comfortable.

Winston Churchill was one of the greatest fans of the siren suit – although he had been a fan of them before the war – his family called it his romper suit. They were so comfortable and functional. He had them personally made for him by his tailor and during the war he was the most high profile wearer of the siren suit there was.

So the siren suit really embodies the message of the exhibition, which is that war really affects people in a profound way. If you look at the Blitz, ordinary life carries on and fashion continues to flourish.

It’s fair to say that not every woman in Britain would be wearing the siren suit – that’s not the point – the point is that fashion designers and retailers offered an energy during wartime that it’s sometimes easy to forget.

a composite series of images showinbg a cloak, a handbag and a dress

Items from the IWM WWII clothing collection, including a child’s cloak made from a blanket, a designer handbag made to carry a gas mask and a Jacmar silk dress with RAF wing design

The Imperial War Museum collection of civilian clothing

We have borrowed a couple of pieces for the exhibition but most of what is on display – and a lot of it has never been seen before – is our own.

I think it will surprise people to see what we have, but we look at the impact of war on people’s lives in a very comprehensive way so our civilian clothing collection is very important and it has grown.

What we’re trying to do is tell the story of the home front through the clothing so it really isn’t just about the clothes as objects in themselves but more about living on the British home front, with the war seen through the prism of the clothing.

It’s about how the war impacted on people in a very personal and most invasive level to the point where the government is literally interfering with your wardrobe. These days we are overwhelmed with choice and I wonder how people would cope with that today?

Fashion on the Ration is at Imperial War Museum North until May 1 2017. See the website for more details.

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