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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4 comments:

  1. What are the parallels they are drawing between today and 1940s? Surely not comparing the our current 'austerity' with rationing?

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    1. Thankfully not quite that overstated. More that people are more interested in making their own clothes again and increasingly concerned about where their clothes come from. Which is true ... to a degree. But - in my opinion - dressmaking today is, as a trend, can be more concerned with buying nice, new fabrics and the associated kit and definitely a hobby, so not really comparable. I should add that these links were more strongly at the end of the exhibition than in the book.

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  2. I'm going to the 'Fashion on the Ration' book talk next week as part of the Oxford Literarture Festival and this has made me even more excited! Thanks for including so much detail. I now need to get reading!

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    1. I'm jealous, that will be great! You'll have to let me know if there's anything else that comes out of the talk that didn't make it into the book.

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