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.


World War Two

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