Fashion on the Ration

On Sunday I went to the Fashion on the Ration exhibition at the Imperial War Museum – I know I’m a bit late to the party as it’s in its closing week, but I kept forgetting to book tickets. Then my sister came to London for the day to hang out with me and our friend from school and this seemed like the perfect thing to do that we would all be interested in – my sister also sews, knits and crochets and our friend is a historian of the 20th century.

I really, really enjoyed the exhibition and I learned a lot! As a result of World War 2 a large portion of the public were suddenly wearing a uniform of some kind, which had the effect of leveling different classes of society as all classes of airman (for example) would be dressed the same and would greet each other in the street. Clothing can be powerful! The women’s military uniforms were all pretty cool. Apparently the Wrens was the most sought after as it was considered the most stylish.

There is something really stylish about this uniform! It’s navy blue but I couldn’t find any colour photos.

Wren's Uniform b&wThese 2 look like their on an actual boat, although I suspect women didn’t really serve on ships. The one on the right seems to be an Indian version of the uniform, with a sari-style skirt.

Wren's uniform on boatThis one might be my favourite – she looks warm and also like she wouldn’t take any shit! Also, trousers! Wren's Uniform warm

I like this pose – like, I’m standing here casually leaning on some stairs.

Wren's uniform stairsimage sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

The Wrens had a pretty stylish recruitment poster too!

Join the Wrens Posterimage source

The army uniform is pretty similar, but khaki and not navy – maybe it was just the colour people didn’t like? They look like they’re having more fun!

Army uniform groupimage source

Have you noticed, by the way, the nipple buttons? We reckoned these were designed by men who said ‘I don’t see any reason not to put buttons on the pockets’ and then probably saw women wearing them and thought ‘shiiit’.

The uniform I (and my friends) liked the best was the WVS uniform. The Women’s Voluntary Service (now the Royal Voluntary Service) was “seen as the enrolment of women for Air Raid Precaution Services of Local Authorities, to help to bring home to every household what air attack may mean, and to make known to every household [in the country] what it can do to protect itself and the community.”

WVS UniformWVS LadyWVS Uniform detailimage sources: 1, 2, 3

I like the gathered front at the yoke and the 30’s style shoulders and the spacing of the buttons in 2’s – it shows that some thought was put into the design of the uniforms as they aren’t as utilitarian as they could have been.

The other great uniform was the Women’s Land Army uniform.

Women's Land Army PosterI think this is my absolute favourite uniform! The Women’s Land Army, or Land Girls were recruited to do the agricultural work that could no longer be done by the men who were off serving in the armed forces.

Land Army Uniformimage sources: 1,2

Apparently the uniform wasn’t very popular among the women who were issued it as they thought it was unflattering and so would shorten the breeches.

Another major part of the exhibition was the part about clothes rationing. Clothes were rationed from June 1941 until March 1949 – which is after Christian Dior introduced his New Look in 1947 (which was unpopular to start with in Britain as it was considered too flashy after the austerity of the previous 8 years).

Ration Bookimage source

Clothing was rationed with a coupon system (like all other rationing), which apparently made people hopeful that it would make the price of clothing fairer, but this didn’t happen. People still had to have the money to buy the clothes, but they were limited by how many they could buy with the coupons. There were some pretty excellent posters to help people understand:

Coupon PosterPlan Ahead Posterimage source: 1,2

And then there was the famous ‘Make Do And Mend’ campaign – the few clothes people were able to buy meant they had to make the most of what they did have.

Make Do And Mend Posterimage source

Having sewing skills was definitely an advantage during clothes rationing – it meant you could remake, for example, an adult garment into one for a child, or a husband’s suit into a suit for the wife. Apparently a lot of men returning from war found they no longer had any clothes as their wives had cut them all up! But, to be fair, they mostly didn’t fit in their old clothes as they had changed size and fitness from being in the armed forces.

Sewing your own clothes was still an advantage as fabric was generally a bit cheaper than buying rtw clothing. Also there were some fabrics (not generally ones for dressmaking) that weren’t rationed, so people would try to use those where possible. The suit below was made from fabric by a home sewer.

Sewing & Knitting fabric suitimage source

Another source of potential fabric was from silk escape maps – these were maps printed on silk (duh!) and given to every serviceman so they would know the escape route of which part of the world they were in. Silk was otherwise in very short supply so these maps were a great option to remake.

Escape Map UnderwearThis underwear is just amazing – I want it! Also amazing is this dressing gown, made from what must be several maps:

Escape Map Dressing Gownimage source: 1,2

I could go on and one, but I feel like this post is already quite long! I haven’t event talked about the utility regulations. Maybe that will be for another post. I really found the exhibition inspiring because it was all about making the most of very little and having high quality clothes that you looked after, as you had little choice. It’s just completely different now – people buy things from Primark and then throw it away a week later because fashion is so ‘fast’. Well I’d rather have style than be fashionable to be honest – I hope I’m getting there!

I’ll just leave you with the souvenirs I bought myself (I couldn’t leave without some souvenirs!). I love a good tote bag and this one has a sewing machine on it! It couldn’t be any better. I kind of collect tote bags but didn’t have a sewing one yet, so this is a good addition to the fold!

P1030996I also bought this little facsimile of a 1943 Ministry of Information guide to how to Make Do And Mend and care for your clothes to make them last.

P1030998This is the contents page:

P1030999I’m definitely going to scour this for long-forgotten tips!

Did you go and see this exhibition? Are you a fan of the Make Do and Mend mentality? It’s making me want to buy the most expensive fabric that I can afford for each garment I make, and to take time over making things well instead of quickly.

I’ll just give you one more photo – a Cecil Beaton photograph of a sailor sewing on board a ship! Amazing!

Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War
image source

2 Replies to “Fashion on the Ration”

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