Tomorrow, a very exciting exhibition is opening at the Imperial War Museum. Fashion on the Ration is the story of everyday people in 1940s Britain, and how style and fashion endured and evolved under the strict rules of rationing. I’m getting a sneak peek tonight as I am DJing at the private view with The Vintage Mafia, and I can’t wait!
As a brief overview (please click on over to my pal Jeni Yesterday’s blog, she works for the IWM and therefore has the full inside scoop), there are six sections to the exhibition:
Into Uniform looks at how Second World War Britain became a nation in uniform, arguably the biggest visible change to how people dressed at the time. Many key pieces of uniform, both from the men’s and women’s services, will be on display revealing the pride and even jealousies felt by those stepping into uniform for war service.
Functional Fashion explores how the demands of wartime life changed the way civilians dressed at work and at home, inspiring retailers to sell innovative and stylish products, such as gas-mask handbags, blackout buttons and siren suits, as well as luminous faux flowers!
Rationing and Make do and Mend will look at why clothes rationing was introduced in 1941, how the scheme worked and how it changed the shopping habits of the nation. With limited options for buying new clothes, people were encouraged to be creative and make clothes last longer by mending, altering, knitting and creating new clothes out of old material. Items on display include a bridesmaid’s dress made from parachute material, a bracelet made from aircraft components, a child’s coat made from a blanket and on display for the first time a bra and knickers set made from RAF silk maps for Countess Mountbatten.
Utility Clothing was introduced in 1941 to tackle unfairness in the rationing scheme and standardise production to help the war effort. Utility fashion ranges were made from a limited range of quality controlled fabrics and this section will feature a catwalk of pieces, including a lady’s cotton summer dress, underwear, a tweed sports jacket and leather gloves, and a girl’s velvet green winter dress. Clothing restricted by ‘Austerity Regulations’ such as shoes with a maximum two inch heel will also be featured.
Beauty as Duty examines the lengths to which many women went, to maintain their personal appearance – and the pressure they felt to do so. On display will be adverts promoting war themed make-up such as Tangee’s lipstick for ‘lips in uniform’. Cosmetics and clothing often had a patriotic edge to them as shown in a colourful display of scarves by Mayfair fashion house Jacqmar, with wartime slogans such as “Salvage Your Rubber” and “Switch That Light Off”. By wearing these items women were able to overtly demonstrate they were doing their bit for the war effort.
Peace and a new look? This section looks at how the end of the war impacted upon fashion, and considers the long-term impact. On display will be a ‘VE’ print dress worn by the comedienne Jenny Hayes to celebrate the end of the war, and an example of the ubiquitous demob-suit, issued to men leaving the military services. In 1947, the launch of Christian Dior’s ostentatious ‘New Look’ shook the fashion world desperate for something new after years of pared down wartime fashion.
I think my favourite thing about it all is that despite wartime being the exact opposite of a barrel of laughs, and even though in the last years of it, everyone felt understandable beaten down, us Brits never lost our sense of humour and that’s reflected in a lot of the fashion. The famous novelty Blackout Scarf (based on a poster, I believe) sums it up perfectly!
The exhibition site has a section on wartime weddings, and so I thought I’d re-share this one from my family archives:
Clothes rationing came into effect on 1st June 1941. My grandmother and grandad married on 8th June 1941 – so she must have numbered among the last brides who didn’t have to forge wedding dresses out of parachute silk or whatever they could scrounge up! What a dress.
There’s also a brilliant book written by Julie Summers, also called Fashion on the Ration (link to the IWM shop) to accompany the exhibition. I haven’t read it properly yet, though I have read the first chapter and flicked through the rest – it’s very thoroughly researched and very interesting, with chapters that roughly correspond to the sections of the exhibition. I expect to be an authority on the subject after finishing it!