Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Noel Streatfeild and fashion modelling in the 1920s


One of my favourite posts I've written is this one, about how Noel Streatfeild used her experience of modelling in the 1920s to create an accurate - albeit romanticised - picture of life inside a fashion house for her book Clothes-Pegs. I’ve been revisiting Noel recently (as evident from my 51 books in 2015 list) and one of the most noticeable things about her books is how she reworks the same themes over and over again, all drawn from her own experiences: her stories are stuffed full of sisters, vicars and stage school children. Her first book, The Witcharts, is essentially Ballet Shoes, with a few more out-of-wedlock pregnancies! Given this, I couldn’t believe she didn’t revisit the setting of the fashion house at some point.

After a bit more reading, I discovered she does, at least three more times. It’s the setting for another “Susan Scarlett” story (Streatfeild’s pseudonym), Peter and Paul (1939), where Petronella (Peter), a vicar’s daughter, becomes an in-house model. Susanna, a vicar’s daughter, goes off to London, still stunned with grief after the First World War, and becomes a model in Parson’s Nine (1932). And, in Away from the Vicarage (published as On Tour in the States, 1965), a “fictionalised biography” of Streatfeild’s life - you may well have guessed it - Vicky, a vicar’s daughter, becomes a model.

This makes it even more amazing that this experience is given so little attention in what’s been written about her life. It wasn’t as if Streatfeild was ashamed of the experience. In her Desert Island Discs, she admits outright, “I was always a fashion model between jobs. I was very tall … and in those days I was very slim and there was plenty of fashion work going in the west end.” But perhaps that honesty only came with time. Vicky, in Away from the Vicarage, doesn’t tell her father and fears someone from her drama course spotting her at her modelling work.


As backed up by the detail given in Clothes-Pegs, Streatfeild described herself as having a “blotting-paper memory”. That means it’s possible to eek out a few more details about a model’s life in the 1920s from these books. For starters, it’s obvious that models were in demand, as Streatfeild says above. Vicky is lucky because “it was the beginning of the period when mannequin parades were all the rage. Clothes were shown all day long – to the trade in the morning; at thés dansants in the afternoons; in the intervals of musical comedies and variety shows and at nightclubs.”

The 1920s - when Streatfeild modelled - was a boom time for fashion modelling, although perhaps it didn't happen in the way we’d think of it today. It was the decade the mannequin parade really took off, and the parades were held regularly within department stores - sometimes several times a day - as well as put on by the fashion houses. As Vicky’s experience suggests, they were a form of entertainment as much as presentation. In 1928, The Times reported how “There has been a big call on the mannequins and some firms have experienced considerable difficulty in supplying their needs.” No wonder Vicky/Streatfeild found it easy to find work.


Vicky’s favourites are the mornings, because “usually only two or three models were used, and they would sit in their underclothes eating sticky buns, waiting for the various groups of buyers.” They get given port or wine to “put colour in their cheeks.” That’s also what happens at “Reboux”, the house where Peter models. Eloise sits around, dressed only in her “brassiere and panties” and pesters Pauline (Peter’s sister, also known as “Paul”) to go out and buy them choc-ices. Other than when seeing clients or being fitted, the “models never went out unless they had a date. They had fearful meals in their own room of such things as sardines and cream buns.”

Yet, for their mollycoddled appearance, it’s apparent that the models do have to work hard. As Streatfeild writes from experience, “only a girl who has done it knows how it feels to have to look exquisite to order any time between nine and six.” And then there’s that strange anonymity that’s thrust upon models that I’ve written about before. Susanna certainly experiences that. In one show, a men grabs her by the wrist to look at the hat she’s wearing before remarking, “these brims are nearly perfect for line; it’s difficult to see what I mean on this girl, as she has a hopeless profile for them, but on anyone else it would be divine.” No wonder Susanna feels numbed by the whole experience: “I felt as though I didn’t exist, that I was just a machine. I don’t think I was even expected to be able to speak. I had to pinch myself to remember I was alive at all.”

Models are secondary to the clothes, convenient ciphers for the client’s desires. Peter is too beautiful to be a successful model.  While she’s has plenty of gentlemen admirers and is known as “a figure in the night-clubs and restaurants”, she can never make a sale when she’s showing for “mothers of plain, rather-difficult-to-marry-off daughters.” Those mothers, we’re told, “sniffed and started at once to run down the clothes, subtly suggesting the fault was Petronella’s.”

Modelling is never presented as a career for life. Streatfeild doesn’t feature it as a possible career option in her 1950s Years of Grace book of advice for teenage girls, despite it being at a peak in popularity and respectability in that decade. Susanna and Vicky use it a way of making ends meet, to be given up when stability returns. For Susanna, it’s a profession associated with a depressing period in her life when, we’re told, she allows herself to go into bedrooms with men at parties. Peter is pawed at and ogled by men constantly too. Streatfeild might write that it’s a way to earn “an honest penny”, but you sense she doesn’t quite believe it. Susanna, for example, is told, “All this mannequin, cinema, photographing rubbish was so many hours filled in till you got on the right track.”

As that last sentence suggests, these books also illustrate a period in modelling that was evolving to encompass more than simply mannequin parades. Susanna also makes money from being a photographic model, showcasing a “painfully suburban-looking home” and a film extra, while Petronella is Reboux’s first photographic model.

But, perhaps the main difference is the coming of the movies. By the time Streatfeild was writing Peter and Paul in the 1930s, the beautiful girl doesn’t want to appear on stage, and in no way is modelling considered the pinnacle of her career. Peter talks and dreams of Hollywood as being the embodiment of glamour and, indeed, that’s where she ends up, clearly too beautiful for Britain or modelling. If you don’t snag the husband (which is the fairy-tale conclusion to the model’s life in Clothes-Pegs), a decade on, you can at least get yourself a Hollywood contract.

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Wednesday, 3 June 2015

To Bed With Grand Music and the Second World War Home Front in women's hats

Vogue, 1 August 1940, via

I've recently finished Marghanita Laski's To Bed With Grand Music, a dark, witty tale charting the 'fall' of a woman, set on the British home front of the Second World War. Originally published in 1946, it's obvious why this book was shocking at the time - it still is. There is no keeping the home fires burning, no scrimping or saving, making do and mending. We're left uncertain whether the anti-heroine, Deborah, will be given her due comeuppance.

Laski conjures up a London not being battered by bombs, but getting battered in cocktail bars, a city populated by people who get dressed up to go out and have serial affairs. It's strikingly similar to the New York conjured up in Dawn Powell''s A Time To Be Born "when the true signs of war were the lavish plumage of the women". The true sign of war in To Bed With Grand Music is - to borrow the description of Juliet Gardiner, who has written the foreword for the Persephone edition of the book - the "frivolous hats".

Today, in a fairly hatless society, it's hard to grasp the social nuances attached to hat wearing in the past. After all, most women still wore them: a sample taken in central London in 1940 noted that 79 out of 100 women still wore hats (turbans and scarves were counted separately).

But, despite it being normal and, indeed, probably "proper" to wear a hat (or perhaps because of the latter), judgements on hat wearing in the first half of the twentieth century often seemed to take on something of a moral flavour. Catherine Horwood's excellent Keeping Up Appearances: Fashion and Class Between the Wars notes how in the 1930s, women's supposedly frivolous attitude to hats were the constant butt of cartoons. Although a social necessity, they were seen to encompass the weakness of the female gender: extravagance, frivolity and indecision.

There's something of that judgment too, in this 10 March 1941 report from the Observer:

"One of the curiosities of this war is the lack of accommodation of the head to warlike conditions. Alone the turban shows some consciousness of a period in which efficiency is all-important ... the general hat seems to be something flighty".

Perhaps no surprise then that, in To Bed With Grand Music, the start of flighty Deborah's downfall is marked by spending "a couple of weeks' salary on a hat that would never do for daytime wear at all".

At the turning point of her affair with Joe - before she decides to be unfaithful to her husband for the first time - she goes into an "extremely expensive hatshop" with him. Like the hat buyer described by Horwood, she is torn with indecision about which model to buy. But it appears she doesn't have to decide after all. Just as Joe allows her to maintain her pretence of being a dutiful wife and mother while enjoying the perks of being the mistress of a married man, he solves her hat problems by buying her both, reassuring her "But you don't have to decide."

1943, via 

Deborah yearns "for sophistication, for sleek black frocks, and, more than anything else, for an immense variety of expensively nonsensical hats." The hats become a symbol of her "sophisticated" lifestyle, and her simultaneous plunge into debt.

Laski's criticism of Deborah is clear. She describes her choice in headwear as "tarty hats". Deborah's hat is one of the first things noted by her mother on meeting her newly sophisticated daughter. And Deborah is clearly aware of their connotations too. She deliberately doesn't wear one when going to seduce the "innocent" Ken Matthews.

In the press at the time, the flamboyance of women's hats were, on one hand, defended as a way to keep up morale. Grace Margaret Morton, for example, described them as an "expression of an effort to put a bit of gaiety into a world burdened with problems" in 1943.

But, while hats were one of the few items of women's clothing not to be rationed, they were widely expensive. By 1944, the Observer was noting the shift from hats to the more practical scarves and bandeau amongst women, no doubt for their practicality. And wearing a frivolous hat would have been an obvious indication that perhaps you weren't working away, doing your bit for the war effort (alas, try as Deborah may to justify it, I don't think her job of flogging dodgy antiques to visiting G.I.s  would be counted as a helpful contribution at all).


Woman's Own, 1945, via

That viewpoint is backed up by an article in the Observer from 15 October 1944 where "A Woman Reporter" writes: "The exaggerated hat fashions recently shown in Paris and Lisbon have had their effect on the trade in Britain. Although women consider these foreign fashions unsuitable to all but a fully leisured life and much too spectacular, their appearance has stimulated the hat trade."

It's hard not to read this report without linking this desire for spectacular hats with the desire illustrated by Deborah for a less conventional lot in life - especially when the reporter notes there has been increased orders for "more thrilling models". How many more women were there like Deborah wanting to escape the dreariness of wartime for something more thrilling - whether at the level of buying a fancier hat, or going to the extremes that Deborah does? And there are hints that even Deborah's mother, the solidly respectable wife of a Leeds councillor better watch out. The report also includes the note that "even provincial stores" were being "more enterprising in buys than four years ago"

Is there a moral to be found in To Bed With Grand Music? It's hard to say - I find it hard to believe Laski would rather Deborah stayed at home instead and made her son miserable. But there's definitely a lesson that can be taken away from this book, and that's to choose your hats carefully.

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Sunday, 3 May 2015

Last-Year Reads: Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virginia Nicholson


When I read Virginia Nicholson's Singled Out a few years ago, the story of the 'surplus women' of the interwar period, it not shifted the way I thought about that time, but also about the associations that come with the word 'spinster'. I know a lot more about the 1950s than I did the interwar years, but I was certain that Nicholson would find enough stories to make reading Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes a worthwhile read, especially after I'd enjoyed Rachel Cooke's Her Brilliant Career so much.

Although Nicholson does feature a few 'excellent women' herself, in the main it's a reminder of what was going on with the majority of Britain's female population while a trailblazing few forged ahead, how a generation of women were raised and educated to conform to the faithful ideal of being wives, mothers and consumers. Their aspirations were supposed to be limited to providing a well-kept, peaceful home and children for their husband. There was also the promotion of an ideal 'look' of loveliness and femininity: this was the decade that saw the launch of 'Miss World' and a boom in the popularity of modelling and grooming schools, such as Lucie Clayton.

Although the amount of working women was rising - in 1951 22% of married women had jobs and it would increase by almost 10% over decade - the work they were doing was extremely limited. In 1955, one poor woman working for a gas board was tasked with adding 33 and a third per cent profit on every estimate that came in. Every day for a year.

There are plenty of stories that make you howl with frustration, such as Lorna Arnold, who had an amazing career in the Foreign Office during the Second World War but stepped down straight after, simply because it didn't occur to her to stay on in a 'man's job'. Or the unplanned pregnancies and, sometimes unplanned marriages, that resulted from a refusal to talk about sex.


Nicholson builds her themes - and gently but persuasively argues her point - through the use of many different case studies. In Singled Out she admits her reliance on diaries and biographies did skew her story slightly as the diary keepers and the published authors are more likely to come from the middle to upper classes. Because the 1950s is still relatively recent, in this book she's been able to accompany these written accounts with her own interviews. One of my favourite case studies was Rose. A teddy girl in the 1950s, Rose recently came under the spotlight because she features in an early set of photographs by Ken Russell (which I wrote about here). Rose is quoted describing how they decided to dress a certain way to capture the attention of the teddy boys:

“We turned up wearing the turned-up drainpipe jeans. Plastic belts round them. And blouses buttoned up with a wing collar. Then we added in cameo brooches, and a scarf, tailored jackets with wide lapels and velvet collars, white ankle socks and flat black shoes with a little bow on the front. Envelope bag.”

Despite what must have been their somewhat shocking appearance, Rose insists: “We weren’t bad girls … We never broke the law. We weren’t drinkers and we didn’t go to pubs.” She did end up marrying her teddy boy, however, and remembers the 1950s as the happiest time in her life.

In the midst of the other depressing statistics, there are other glimmers of happiness in the book. Fiona Calder is a young woman who comes down from Glasgow to work in the art department of a women's magazine and lives the fun and bohemian dream.

And there are other examples of people who put their unhappiness and dissatisfaction to good use. Maureen Nicol, an intelligent woman, finding herself alone and unfilled, established the "Liberal-Minded Housebound Wives Register" (today the "National Women's Register") connecting like-minded women in similar situations.

Mary Quant's Bazaar, as captured in 1955. Via

There were also signs that suggested things were changing - albeit still slowly - be it Mary Quant's Bazaar boutique opening in 1955 or at even more of a grass roots level. Betty Stucley started a youth club for East End of London tenement dwelling teenagers. Their look was certainly not the one being promoted in the magazines: “The tough girls wore blue jeens, with the names of their favourite rave, screen fan, embroidered down the legs, dazzle socks, satin blouses, duffle coats, earrings and make-up." It was, she noted, "particularly interesting" that they "have spread their influence upwards, so that Dior and Hardy Amies gave Teddy touches to some of their women’s clothes." She concluded, "It is a good sign that that new young have the enterprise to design their own clothes, and the courage to wear them.”

Would it be this same mixture of courage and enterprise that helped London swing in the sixties? And to what extent did those changes trickle through to the rest of the country? I'd love it if that was what Virginia Nicholson decided to explore next.

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Friday, 3 April 2015

Last-Week Links: 3 April 2015



I love the Easter weekend: the pleasure of leisure without the hysteria of Christmas. If the holiday has you running to the coast (I write while looking out at the greyest sky imaginable), may I suggest you pick up a copy of Amber Jane Butchart's newly released Nautical Chic book? It covers stripes, yes, and bell-bottoms but every other permutation of seaside style you could think of, from sou'westers to mermaids to tattooed sailors and even dazzle fashions (I had the delightful job of copyediting the book, so can vouch for the amazing range of material Amber has included). Given that - somewhat astonishingly - there's never been a book on this topic before, there's been lots of great press: this Telegraph article gives a great overview.  One important question, though - what on earth am I going to wear to the book launch?!



In more work news, and entirely suitable for Easter reading, is the new issue of The Simple Things. It's a breath of spring goodness, celebrating the joys of record players, walking, garden sheds and Alice in Wonderful. I've a special soft spot - or should that be a runny spot - for Dave and Alex, the wonderful couple behind the 12 Dozen Eggcups project. There's just a sample of their work shown above, taken from the magazine.

The issue also has feature with the always-inspirational queen of the circus Nell Gifford. She's one of the great women I got to interview when I was working on Oh Comely. Another favourite, Pat Albeck, was the subject of Desert Island Discs recently. You can catch up with that programme here.

Elsewhere: 

* An amazing online collection of British photography.

* Being an expat boosts creativity in the fashion industry apparently. Applicable to all creativity?

* Lose yourself for hours in this collection of photos and memories of New York after midnight.

* Lena Dunham film for &Other Stories? Dream collab!

* One of the best Mad Men looks ever. Buy Jane's 1967 Travilla here.

* And more dream shopping. 60 outfits from Celia Birtwell's Ossie Clark archive are being auctioned in June.



* Over on my other blog, Fancies, this week: Mod fashion, wallpapers and Pretty in Pink, featuring this Duckie brooch.

Have an eggs-ellent Easter!

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Thursday, 2 April 2015

Last-Year Reads: Style Me Vintage 1940s



Following on from Fashion on the Ration, here's another new book release on 1940s fashion. This one is a completely different proposal however, being one of Pavilion's hugely popular 'Style Me Vintage' series. It's a series I associate more with a 'vintage' lifestyle look, rather than proper fashion history (which they do really well - Style Me Vintage Hair finally helped me master the 1950s 'do' I dreamt about), so I was interested to see how this volume, written by curator Liz Tregenza, would work.

Style Me Vintage 1940s completely won me over. Although the fashion history element may cover familiar turf for those who have an interest in the subject, this is a great example of how to make an introductory book accessible and visually appealing without dumbing down - other publishers of 'decades' books please take note!

Liz's background and MA-training subtly comes through throughout the book. She's clearly wary of making sweeping statements about the period. So you can copy an early 1940s make-up tutorial (yep, the book still has those), but includes a later version too. Trends aren't just talked about as a homogenous mass, you can a brief survey of German and French wartime fashions, as well as what was happening in Britain and the US. Even zazous get a mention.

It's well worth the money if you want to start collecting the period - there are brief lists of jewellery, shoe, compact brands and the like, as well as a more detailed focus on particular labels. I was pleased to see the spread on Horrockses, as I first became aware of Liz thanks to an enthusiastic comment she left on my post about the label back in 2010. There's also a great list of shops - both stocking vintage and repro - at the back.

It is slightly different from most fashion history books, as Liz is not the mysterious, anonymous narrator. She's a model for some of the outfits for starters - which she does brilliantly, as you'd probably guess if you follow her on Instagram. Then there's the brilliant pictures of her Nanna in full-on forties fashion mood, which help add another level to the book. Her genuine interest in the period is palpable.

And - perhaps essential for this kind of book - it's stuffed full of eye-candy. I love the dress on p.76 and the shoes on pp.134/5 just for starters. I encourage you to buy your own copy if you're curious to see what I mean.

Will more decades follow in this series I wonder? They're bound to if this book is successful as it should be. The authors of those other books have a lot to live up to.

*Pavilion were kind enough to send me a copy.*

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Friday, 20 March 2015

Last-Week Links: 20 March 2015


It really feels like the year has begun now. At almost a quarter a way through, it really should! But there's something about blue skies that helps with plan making, and something about deadlines that speeds things up, and I've been enjoying both recently.

I've also been doing lots of reading. Aside from Fashion on the Ration, I really enjoyed Tracey Thorn's Bedsit Queen, a gentle, thoughtful book about being a girl in a band. Happiness by Design is the book I keep recommending to people - it's really made me think about what makes me happy and how I can try and introduce more of that into the everyday ... still working on that! You can see all the books I've read so far this year here...



If you are flying off anywhere on EasyJet before the end of March, look out for me in their magazine. At the start of the year I was lucky enough to return to Porto and explore their great food scene for the feature. I highly recommend the eclairs from Leitaria da Quinta do Paço, which do come in colours other than orange!

Elsewhere:

* The picture at the top of this post is unmistakably the model Bettina, who sadly died earlier this month. I wrote about her influence on fashion here.

* Another of my 'Last-Year Girls' is Marisa Berenson. Love this interview with her - and that they ask her about her Dressing Up book.

* The amazing story of 21 Callot Soeurs dresses.

* There's going to be a TV series about Eileen Ford. Hope they do the 1940s stuff justice!

* A cracking Top Ten books about women in the 1950s. When I saw this list online, I was already in the middle of The Years of Grace, as it was referenced in The Last Debutante (post to follow on The Years of Grace, it's great stuff!). I'm now on the author's own Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes.


* My new favourite internet site is Public Domain Review. It's full of vintage gems such as this 1947 "Are You Popular?" social advice film.

* Know a badly dressed man? This site should help.

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Monday, 16 March 2015

Fashion on the Ration at the Imperial War Museum, London


Within the space of a couple of weeks, five different people contacted me to tell me about the Fashion on the Ration exhibition at London's Imperial War Museum. I’m obviously entirely predictable when it comes to 1940s fashions! I was already eagerly prepped, having been racing through the excellent accompanying book to the show by Julie Summers, ahead of seeing the show.

Early 1940s fashions have become an interest of mine over the last few years (see this post, for example, or this one) and what was surprisingly refreshing about this show was that it focuses solely on Britain, allowing the book and show to hone on the detail that – understandably – often has to be omitted in wider reference books. Having come to the period largely through personal stories, such as Love Lessons, I also enjoyed that the first person accounts that can be found in the IWM’s collection of diaries, letters and archives play an essential part in both display and book.

Pupils of a London County Council dressmaking class in Brixton, London, hold a fashion parade to show their friends and family what they have learnt. © IWM (D 12897)

As expected, Fashion on the Ration celebrates the stylish improvisation the lack of materials necessitated – the same inventiveness that has proved inspirational for countless subsequent editorials and collections. What I’d previously overlooked – and is marked in this display – is that about a third of the population of Britain were entitled to wear uniform during the Second World War. That’s not just the armed forces, but also factory workers, dockworkers, policemen and women and the like, meaning it became entirely normal to see uniforms on the street. Vere Hodgson described the excitement in London in 1943:

“Piccadilly is such a thrilling place these days. All the uniforms of all the nations jostle you on the pavement … girls too in their service uniforms by the hundred. Few fashionables – because all the pretty girls are in battle dress.”

Even for those women not in uniform, wartime living necessitated adaptation of their usual dress standards. One grandmother, after her first night time visit to the air raid shelter, insisted that next time she would have to be wearing trousers. Other times it was the material that was compromised. This amazing bra and knickers set made from a silk escape map still looks wearable today, but – as steel and rubber became increasingly hard to come by – the millions of corset wearers felt their loss keenly – and loudly.

A display of Utility clothes in a shop. All these clothes were designed by Norman Hartnell. © IWM (D 10727)

Undoubtedly, the female population were more equipped to be able to ‘Make Do and Mend’ than we would be today. Eileen Gurney was housewife and an avid dressmaker. She described her outfits in letters to her husband in painstaking detail. One, on display in the exhibition, features an illustration of how she adapted the line of an old coat to make it look more current. Gurney was an avid reader of Vogue, taking pride in recreating its latest looks on her budget. In fact, when rationing was first introduced in 1941, she was quite pleased as she felt that, finally, her clothes might be able to compete with those who shopped from the magazine’s pages.

British Vogue September 1944, via

What’s apparent in Fashion on the Ration is just how influential Vogue and other women’s magazines were in this period. When “woodies” were introduced – shoes with wooden soles to replace hard to come by rubber – The Lady gave advice on how to walk in them: “If you find yourself walking a bit duck-footed in the first few days, concentrate on placing your toes in a pigeon position and you’ll find your muscles will soon co-operate and you’ll be walking the right way once more.”

In another example, when there were concerns about the safety of women with long hair working with machinery, Whitehall called in Vogue. And, following their spread that featured the “trim heads” of Deborah Kerr and Coral Browne and proclaimed the joys of shorter hair “for neatness, easy cleanliness and good looks”, Eileen Gurney, for one, wrote to her husband telling him that she’d restyled her hair into a short bob.

British Vogue, June 1941, via

British Vogue had to adapt its material to changing needs. Another feature, for example, featured a diary of a war bride, proving how it was possible to prepare for your wedding in only five days. One of the most moving objects in the exhibition is a tiny cream wedding dress, made from pre-War silk, that was worn by fifteen different women for their weddings during the war.

Another champion enabling the white wedding was Barbara Cartland – then working as an advisor to young women needing new support in their new lives in the services – helped establish a ‘wedding dress pool’ at the War Office. Its purchases were frequently supplemented by her own income, as she “understood that those dresses were made of more than satin and tulle, lace and crepe de chine; they were made of dreams, and one cannot sell dreams cheaply.”

Two models on a rooftop in Bloomsbury, London, wearing wartime fashions in 1943. © IWM (D 14818)

Never before had the government exerted so much authority over its citizen’s wardrobes. As well as corsets and stockings, the austerity regime meant everything from men’s trouser turn-ups to skirt pleats were scrutinized. Utility, introduced in 1942, aimed to produce designs of affordable good quality, with minimum wastage.

With designers such as Molyneux, Norman Hartnell and Edward Molyneux all producing designs for the scheme, it was the first time ‘designer’ dressing was open to all. Looking at their clothes in the exhibition, they remain pretty desirable – mainly because of their lovely use of colour and pattern. Even that’s controlled cleverly, employing fabric using smaller repeated patterns so less fabric is wasted in the cutting.

At a YWCA mobile club, members of the ATS crowd up to the counter to buy cosmetics, tissues, sewing kits and notepaper. © IWM (D 13493)

Having a well-dressed population was seen as being essential to morale, but it became harder and harder to achieve as the war drew on. Women were encouraged to use make-up (“Beauty is Duty”) but even that involved battling shortages. Vogue changed tack and encouraged its readers to use “four fundamental cosmetics … which don’t come out of jars and bottles”. These were sleep, a proper diet, exercise and relaxation – all easy to come by, no doubt, when you’re a women struggling to look after your family, probably working too as well as partaking in regular voluntary work.

Even after the war ended, rationing stayed in place in one form or the other until 1949, with new items remaining hard to come by. One 1946 advert for Church’s shoes shown in the exhibition proclaims how their new shoes are “just arriving. We wish there were more”. After all this restriction, it’s easy to see how scandalous but thrilling the swathes of material used for Dior’s New Look must have looked. And what a death knoll it must have seemed for the likes of Eric Newby’s family wholesale business after struggling through the war years.

While I am unconvinced by the exhibition's conclusion of the parallels between 1940s and today’s fashions, both the Fashion on the Ration exhibition and the book are a brilliant insight into everyday British lives in this period, and the important role that fashion and appearance can play in the every day.

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