How Clothes Rationing Affected Fashion In The Second World War
BY Julie Summers | 05 March 2015
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. 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. 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. 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.
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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. 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
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
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
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
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