Posts Tagged ‘ration’

Fashion on the Ration: how World War 2 finally let women wear the trousers

March 5th, 2015

As the Fashion on the Ration exhibition opens at the Imperial War Museum, this extract from Julie Summers’ book of the same name reveals how women’s style changed forever in1940s Britain

BY Julie Summers | 05 March 2015

"Land girl", Doreen Bacchus, 1942

In 1939 what you wore still said a great deal about who you were. It defined the class you came from and was a powerful reflection of status. Men and women in the highest tiers of society changed several times a day and always for dinner. The Vogue pattern book for June-July of that year defined five categories of clothing: “For Town, Active Sports, For Afternoon, For Evening, Spectator Sports”.

Although for some time clothes had been designed with greater flexibility so that the wearer could go between town and country without having to change constantly, dinner jackets and dresses were still de rigueur for the evening. While it was acceptable to look businesslike and efficient during the day, the image of the woman in the evening as “mysterious, alluring, witty, veiled, gloved, corseted and even button-booted as any romantic, fairytale queen” persisted.

Vogue was determined that the war would not affect attitudes to outward appearances, and on 20 September 1939 announced, “It would be an added calamity if war turned us into a nation of frights and slovens.” Meanwhile, Home and Country, the monthly magazine of the Women’s Institute, offered practical advice. The editor had commissioned an article on darning and patches to appear in the September issue and the following month she published knitting patterns for a matching set of vest and knickers.

The cover of Stitchcraft, March 1941.
The cover of Stitchcraft, March 1941. Photo: IWM

Vogue remained resolutely upbeat. In November an article appeared entitled “Fashion Meets the Challenge of War”, which began: “London, all set in September for a fresh fashion season of wasp waists and fragility, now, with the brilliance of an acrobatic somersault, turns a new fashion face towards a new future. There’s immense chic in restrained evening elegance. There’s immense charm in the robustness and shrewd common sense of day clothes.”

However, the fashion editor would have no slacking in the evenings. She gave the thumbs down to women who carried on wearing their functional clothes to nightclubs, to restaurants or even at home, those women “who pad around in hairy sweaters and flannel bags, on duty and off; letting themselves go – and other people down – slackers in slacks”.

Vogue, May 1939
Vogue, May 1939. Photo: IWM

“Slacks” had entered the clothing market in the 1930s but were still not widely worn by women. Although Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich were often seen in photographs wearing trousers, they did not take off as a fashion garment in Britain until the war. Vogue first featured women in slacks in 1939 and in April reproduced a photograph of a model in an exquisite Eastern headdress wearing fawn trousers and red slippers (see photograph, above). The editor encouraged her readers to let their imaginations “run riot” when deciding what to wear with their trousers.

“And if people accuse you of aping men, take no notice. Our new slacks are irreproachably masculine in their tailoring, but women have made them entirely their own by the colours in which they order them, and the accessories they add.” She suggested that the fashionable, modern woman should wear slacks “practically the whole time” – unless she was the guest of “an Edwardian relic with reactionary views”.

Fashioned in New York, the latest American 'siren suit,' 1941.
Fashioned in New York, the latest American ‘siren suit,’ 1941. Photo: IWM

The fashion historian Geraldine Howell explains how Vogue advised women to “own several pairs for the country wardrobe as well as a heavy silk or velvet suit for evening wear. The primary rules regarding trousers were that wearers were to be under 50, weigh less than 10 stone and never wear them on a grouse moor, which would be, for unexplained reasons, embarrassing.” Perhaps the embarrassment might have come if ladies had to answer a call of nature out on the moor with no trees to protect their modesty.

READ: Beetroot and boot polish – beauty during WWII

During the Second World War about a third of the population of Britain were entitled to wear uniform. Although no women fought on the front line, they worked alongside servicemen in stations and offices around Britain, as well as further afield. The remainder were in organisations such as the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS), the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS), the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV), or youth training corps, as well as many others who supported the war effort on the home front. Used in advertisements, not just for the war effort but domestic products such as clothing, make-up and even floor polish, the uniformed woman was one of the most powerful images from the war.

Ruby Loftus, Screwing a Breech-ring by Dame Laura Knight, 1943
Ruby Loftus, Screwing a Breech-ring by Dame Laura Knight, 1943. Photo: IWM

In 1939 Zelma Katin was a 40-year-old married housewife who had been unsuccessfully seeking work for all of her married life. Marriage changed a woman’s status in the pre-war era, especially for those from the middle class, and it was only with the outbreak of the war and the need for full employment that married women were called out of the home.

Soon after she started work as a tram conductor she was struck by the two different women she had become: on the one hand, “a married suburban woman who once studied botany in a university college, speaks with southern intonation, confines herself to her house, and belongs to the petit bourgeoisie”; and on the other, “an aggressive woman in uniform who sharply orders people about, has swear words and lewd jokes thrown at her, works amid rush and noise, bumbles and stumbles about in the blackout, and has filthy hands and a grimy neck”.

Given the choice of working either in a factory or in transport, she decided on the latter because she loved the “fresh air that blows from the Yorkshire moors across a tram-car platform in my city”. Having passed the interview, she remembered going home and paying special attention to the uniformed girl who took her fare. “I liked the cut of her dark-blue jacket with its nickel buttons, and I wondered how soon I would be able to punch tickets with her sang-froid.”

Patterned dungarees from "Clothes for a Coupon Summer" in Picture Post, 1941. PHOTO: Getty
Patterned dungarees from “Clothes for a Coupon Summer” in Picture Post, 1941. Photo: Getty

The following morning she and the other would-be conductors were hurried to the clothing store “where a tailoress measured us deftly for our uniforms – jacket and skirt, trousers and overcoat. This, so far, was the most exciting part of our initiation and we all felt we were getting somewhere at last. It’s extraordinary what a profound part in your and my psychology a uniform plays.” Zelma wore trousers with her uniform in winter for warmth and skirts in summer as they let a draught through. She noticed that some of the male conductors would stand at the bottom of the stairs so that they could see girls’ stockings or knickers when the girl was going up or down. “The adoption of slacks by so many women must have robbed many a stairway vigilant of an anticipated thrill.”

Once conscription was introduced in December 1941 women could choose whether to join one of the forces or serve as a “land girl”. As the Women’s Land Army was not a military force, not all women wore the uniform of green jersey, brown breeches, brown felt hat and khaki overcoat, but most who did so wore it with pride.

Beatrice Carr worked at Littlewoods Mail Order as an accounts clerk. Working in Liverpool, she saw the devastation caused in May 1941 when the city was bombed by the Luftwaffe with the loss of almost 4,000 lives. She left her job at Littlewoods when conscription came into force, joined the Land Army and was posted to the Montgomeryshire Agricultural Committee in Wales. Her delight at the wardrobe she was issued with is evident in her memoirs.

“We had to buy our own underwear,” she pointed out, but “the uniform seemed adequate to me. It was replaced when worn out. The shoes lasted well. We were asked by the ladies of the town whether we would sell them shoes because of the coupons.” The only item of clothing that brought despair was the headgear. “The hat did nothing for our morale. We steamed, ironed, bent, stitched, pulled and cursed to try to make it into some sort of mode. To no avail, it remained what it was. It never wore out.”

Picture Post cover, December 1939. PHOTO: Getty
Picture Post cover, December 1939. Photo: Getty

Unsurprisingly, as more and more men and women went into uniform, fashion changed and melded, better to fit with the mood of the country. So pervasive was uniform by the spring of 1940 that Vogue was running advertisements for costumes for the Home Front but “with a military touch”. In November 1941 Picture Post returned to the question of whether women should wear trousers. “The question is not so much ‘should women wear trousers’, the answer obviously being yes, but ‘when, where and how’. You can’t fight an incendiary in confidence in clothes that flutter, or even sleep decently in a shelter in a skirt.”

Soon, even a dash to the air-raid shelter was not immune to encroaching fashions. The siren suit, favoured by Churchill, was a one-piece jumpsuit that was designed to be worn in a shelter and to be as practical as possible. Siren suits designed for women were sometimes made in patterned fabrics, but even if they were in dark-blue or green they would have puff shoulders, baggy legs with elasticated bottoms and cuffs to keep the wearer warm or prevent draughts, and a hood. Even a siren suit could look fashionable, Vogue maintained. “Siren suits, one-piece and cosily cowled, respond to a profound need of mind and body, to be warmly, safely enclosed against fear and danger no less than against night frosts.”

ARP ambulance drivers knit socks for soldiers. PHOTO: Getty
ARP ambulance drivers knit socks for soldiers. Photo: Getty

Clara Milburn had one made by her dressmaker and she wore it for the first time in September 1940. “I am garbed in it, wishing I weighed a stone or two less, but feeling very cosy”; while Nella Last described hers as “the maddest, most amusing thing a sedate matron of 51 ever possessed!”

In Oxford the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) wardens were issued with full uniform by 1940, having previously only had a tin hat, and they were offered the choice of a skirt or trousers. Ann Spokes Symonds, an Oxford local historian and wartime evacuee in the USA, wrote about the air raid wardens picked from among the women. “Some North Oxford ladies had never worn trousers before and there was a great discussion among them as to what they would choose. Some were still undecided when they reported to the police station where they were issued with the uniform, and some even asked the sergeant what he advised. As one practice exercise involved crawling on hands and knees under a smoke screen, trousers were obviously more practical. They could also be put on hurriedly over pyjamas.”

A "land girl" poses with newborn lambs. PHOTO: Alamy
A “land girl” poses with newborn lambs. Photo: Alamy

Betty Withcombe, one of the younger wardens who was attached to what she called their “genteel” ARP post, said that despite the fact that two of her acquaintances were practically “born on bicycles, Violet, used to riding in a long skirt, could not stay on her bicycle in trousers and fell off”.

Despite these initial hiccups, trousers became increasingly popular during the war, even among older members of society. Practicality took the place of sentimentality for pre-war dress, and as the war progressed so fashion and design embraced a simplified look for wartime wear.

Phyllis Warner wrote, “I had lunch today with an old friend I hadn’t seen for a year. She was telling me about the reaction of her grandmother, who is over 80, to her first air-raid. It was a pretty hot one, and the family, huddled together in their shelter, were distinctly anxious about the old lady. As soon as it was over, someone rushed for the brandy, but Granny waved it away and, turning to one of her daughters, said with an air of great determination, ‘Dorothy, I must tell you that I am not going through this again without trousers.’”

This is an extract from “Fashion on the Ration: Style in the Second World War”, by Julie Summers is available for £15.29 plus £1.95 p&p from books.telegraph.co.uk

SEE THE EXHIBITION: http://www.iwm.org.uk/exhibitions/iwm-london/fashion-on-the-ration


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Imperial War Museum: Fashion on the ration

January 31st, 2015

“But fashion survives and even flourishes during wartime. People found different ways to dress given their very limited circumstances. And they would recycle, renovate and create things too.”

The exhibition is split into six sections — Into Uniform, Functional Fashion, Rationing and Make Do and Mend, Utility Clothing, Beauty as Duty and finally, Peace and the New Look. It was the imperative to keep up appearances, no matter what roles women had taken up.

A member of Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls (IWM)

“There was a genuine concern that if people didn’t care about their appearance it was a sign of low morale, and that it could have a detrimental effect on the war effort,” said Ms Clouting.

The government allowed the production of cosmetics to continue throughout the war, although in reduced quantities, and together with the media it encouraged women to keep chic.

Julie Summers, the author of the accompanying book Fashion on the Ration, argues that women genuinely wanted to be stylish. “They wanted to be feminine because they had to hold on to that,” she said. “And of course they were extraordinarily inventive.”

At work, practicality was key for the hundreds of thousands of women working in industry and there is a multitude of their overalls at the exhibition. Headscarves offered women the opportunity to be creative and individual. One of the most evocative exhibits is a painting of factory worker Ruby Loftus – a model pin-up for factory safety — wearing her colourful turban. The look would become one of the most iconic trends of the 1940s.

Even those in uniform were not immune from the imperative to look their best; the exhibition flags up the jealousies and rivalries between branches of the services.

“The Wrens officer’s uniform was a lovely dark navy and it was the most coveted uniform by a mile,” says Ms Clouting. “A lot of women wanted to join the Wrens purely to get that uniform. The ATS uniform was not quite so loved, despite Princess Elizabeth being its most famous member.”

1943: A model leans on a large globe as she shows off her black woollen Utility Atrima dress, costing 11 coupons (IWM)

Joan Osborne, 91, who went straight into the forces from school, first working in teleprinting in Liverpool and later in codes and ciphers as an officer in the WAAF, remembers being issued with her first uniform. “If you were a size 12 in clothes you were just given anything. I took my uniform to a tailor and tried to tidy it up a bit as it was too large and that made me feel better.”

The dramatically shifting lives of women would also dictate new trends. Blackouts lead to a huge increase in road traffic accidents, prompting a trend for luminous buttons, brooches and handbags sold at shops including Selfridges. Elegant leather handbags were created which incorporated space for a gas mask.

“These accessories were made in direct response to the dangers of wartime life,” said Ms Clouting. “But they are really lovely things. They are stylish and put a very fashionable twist on functional items.”

Rationing from 1941 brought even more shortages — allowing the equivalent of one new outfit each year — and the government’s Make Do and Mend scheme encouraged women to recycle what they had, creating tailored suits from their husbands’ wardrobes or fashioning clothes from blankets.

A model shows off her scarlet and white spot-printed utility rayon shirt dress with front-buttoning. The dress cost 7 coupons and 53/- (IWM)

“If you look in Vogue and other magazines, they are full of ideas of how to turn old things into new and it was absolutely all the rage,” says Ms Clouting, citing Countess Mountbatten, who charged her dressmaker with making underwear from surplus RAF silk navigation maps. “You can see Milan on one [bra] cup and Trieste on another — it’s a wonderful item.”

When, later in the war, the government needed to encourage women to cut their hair short — principally for safety at work — they needed the help of magazines to do it. “Vogue ran a big piece about the sense and beauty of short hair,” said Summers. “When Vogue was trying to push women to do something the government wanted them to do they would emphasise both the utilitarian aspect and the glamour.”

Women would go to great lengths to stay glamorous. Beetroot juice was used as a stain for lips and creams were applied to legs to give the effect of silk stockings. Even something as dull-sounding as the Utility Clothing scheme brought with it a dash of glamour as couturiers including Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell worked on designs. The Imperial War Museum shows 15 key Utility looks.

A lady models a jacket from a cyclamen Utility suit, bought from Dickins and Jones Ltd., for 18 coupons and 82/2d with a black skirt from another suit (IWM)

“What’s really striking is how lovely it was,” says Ms Clouting. “Yes, they are pared down in the amount of pockets they can have or the number of pleats but they are so stylish and very classic. There are fantastic jackets and coats that are so sleek and we have some fabulous photographs of models on rooftops in Bloomsbury wearing utility clothing.”

The end of the war brought peace but austerity remained. When Joan Osborne married her boyfriend, an RAF pilot, in December 1947 he wore his demob suit while she wore a pale turquoise suit bought with coupons and a hat home-sewn with feathers.

Fashion on the Ration runs from March 5 until August 31 (www.iwm.org.uk). Fashion on the Ration is published on March 3 by Profile Books.


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Eating for Victory: original Second World War ration recipes

January 9th, 2015

When rationing was introduced in January 1940, the Ministry of Food distributed various leaflets to the public. They fell into different categories: some explained new ingredients such as dried eggs, while others offered helpful guides to making the most of the rations.


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