Friday, 27 March 2015


The Second World War didn’t just alter the way British women lived. It also drastically changed the way they dressed, discovers The Lady’s inhouse 1940s enthusiast, Melonie Clarke

Written by Melonie Clarke
photoThe Lady’s inhouse 1940s enthusiast, Melonie ClarkeMany believed that the outbreak of the Second World War would stifle the fashion industry and women’s ability to show their identity and creativity through their clothing. But as the new Imperial War Museum exhibition, Fashion On The Ration, reveals, women’s style thrived, despite the shortages.

The war certainly marked an end to opulent fashion. As more and more women were called up for war work in factories or to serve in the armed forces, garments had to become practical and functional. People were also urged to buy only the essentials, a disaster for clothing companies as many women – especially wealthy ones with full wardrobes – simply stopped shopping. This was made worse by the huge fluctuations in the cost of clothing.

RationFashion-Mar27-02-590From left: A wedding dress worn by 15 different women. Rayon crepe utility dress

Although women were still expected to look their best – an opinion voiced in many contemporary women’s magazines – there was a general feeling that if they let themselves go they would be letting others down, too. Initially, they were urged to dress in a feminine way, but as shortages hit harder and clothes – at least the glamorous ones – became harder to come by, they were encouraged to make the most of their looks instead. Beauty was a duty; they had to be beautiful and brave.

Trousers became a staple, although questions were asked about when women should and should not wear them. The opinion of journalist Anne ScottJames was that trousers should only be worn in the proper place – ie, for war work. This was an opinion shared by a number of men. Some even believed that women used the excuse of war to ‘parade around in slacks’ at inappropriate times.

RationFashion-Mar27-03-590Jacqmar scarf

Despite this, by 1940, ARP (Air Raid Precautions) women had been offered the choice of trousers or skirt for their uniform. After all, trousers were practical and easy to put on in a rush should one need to hurry to the Anderson shelter. Like trousers, dungarees soon became common. With practicality in mind, the Siren Suit (essentially the first onesie) was also introduced in 1940, and became a favourite of Winston Churchill. The blue or green onesies had puff ed shoulders, baggy legs, elasticated bottoms and cuffs, and a hood.


The introduction of rationing and the coupon scheme in June 1941 entitled every person to 66 coupons annually. More than 2.5 billion coupons were issued in the first year. But what could your coupons get you?
Knickers, corsets, aprons: 3 coupons
Stockings: 6 coupons
Skirt or a dress: 7 coupons
Women’s winter coat: 14 coupons
Men’s trousers: 8 coupons (5 for corduroy)
Men’s winter coat: 16 coupons
Men’s suit: 26 coupons

RationFashion-Mar27-04-590From left: A mustard wool coat by Alexon. A siren suit. A female uniform

Fabrics also had a coupon value. Woollen cloth, measuring 36in width, was three coupons, one coupon more than other material, owing to its durability. Blackout material was never rationed and nor were hats, which were vital in order to hide hair, which hadn’t seen shampoo for some time.

Hats did get increasingly more expensive, however, and by 1943, women began to go hat free. The Board of Trade even asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to announce that women could go to church ‘without impropriety, hatless and stockingless’. As shortages became more severe, the coupon ration was reduced to 60 in 1942- 43, and to just 41 in 1944.

On top of rationing, the Utility clothing scheme was introduced in 1942. This restricted the number of pleats in a skirt, the buttons on a coat, the length of men’s socks, and forbade turn-ups on trousers, which was deeply unpopular among men.

RationFashion-Mar27-05-590From left: Fashion ideas in The Lady. Two ladies. Countess Mountbatten's underwear made of a silk map

Worried this could damage morale, the Board of Trade hired top London couturiers to produce mass-production designs, all of which had to include the letters CC41, standing for Civilian Clothing Order 1941. Calling on designers such as the Queen’s couturier Norman Hartnell, along with Digby Morton and Captain Edward Molyneux, and two women designers – Bianca Mosca and Elspeth Champcommunal, who led the world-renowned House of Worth, massively increased the profile of Utility clothing. For the first time, garments from top designers were available to all and the visible gap in clothing between the upper and lower classes, which was hugely marked before 1939, was now closing.

Another positive was that clothes produced under rationing and the Utility scheme had to last and be of good quality – in fact, I’m writing this wearing an original 1940s dress and it’s still in perfect condition.


In 1942, the government also introduced the Make Do and Mend scheme, encouraging women to rifle through their wardrobes and repair and make the most of older items. The Women’s Institute was already educating the public in thrifty fashion but the Board of Trade printed its own leaflet in 1943. Advice was given on patching and darning, and sold half a million copies in the first two weeks. The scheme also saw the government create Mrs Sew-and-Sew and by 1943 she appeared in magazines, encouraging people to take part in classes run by the Women’s Voluntary Service and the WI. A patch on your clothes was no longer a sign of disadvantage: it was a badge of honour.

RationFashion-Mar27-06-590A scarf featuring Winston Churchill, declaring 'We shall never surrender'

Women began to make clothes out of all sorts. Old blankets became winter coats, curtains became skirts, architect’s paper boiled down became underwear, and parachute material became dresses, wedding dresses, nightwear, and knickers. It was a matter of pride, being able to take old materials and create something wearable. A highlight of the exhibition is a pair of silk camiknickers and a bra created from a map for Patricia, the daughter of Lord and Lady Mountbatten. A less popular suggestion from the WI was to collect dog fur and spin it to make wool and knit socks.


By 1940, 15 million Britons were in uniform. Mirroring this, fashion began to take its lead from the war. The government approached designers to help when it came to producing women’s uniforms and Irish designer Digby Morton created the uniform for the WVS. A woman in uniform became a powerful symbol, used in a number of advertisements. Fortnum’s advertised ‘clothing for heroines’, while Helena Rubinstein produced a lipstick in the shade ‘Regimental Red’. Women should never be without the red badge of courage, as it was often called.


By 1940 many magazines began to run advertisements for clothing with a military touch, too. Although some women disliked uniforms as they felt that they lacked femininity, the majority wore theirs with immense pride.

The Women’s Royal Naval Service was the uniform that was most admired, thanks to its flattering fit. WRNS members were also given coupons to get stockings, much to the jealousy of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and other services.

RationFashion-Mar27-07-590Fashion ideas from The Lady


In the rush to marry sweethearts before they left for the war, 1939 saw the greatest number of marriages ever registered in Britain. Many prospective brides resorted to borrowing dresses, while others opted for two pieces. Women in the services were expected to marry in uniform. The author Barbara Cartland, then an adviser to young women new to the services, was determined that they should marry in a wedding dress, despite the shortages.

RationFashion-Mar27-08-590From left: Child's coat made from blanket. Luminous buttons lit up to make people visible during the blackout

She started by placing an ad in The Lady seeking to buy two wedding gowns. And when she was successful, she continued to buy more, creating a wedding-dress pool. Each dress was lent to a bride for the day, then given back and passed to another. Cartland ended up buying hundreds of dresses (she bought them out of her own pocket, realising 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’) and hundreds of women married in them.


The blackout saw civilian car accidents rise from 6,648 in 1938 to 9,169 in 1941 – despite there being fewer cars on the road. Clearly something needed to be done and it was fashion that answered the call. Imaginative companies, as well as designing handbags that would conceal a gas mask, began to market luminous buttons and flowers that women could attach to their clothing, enabling them to be visible during the blackout.


Despite some restrictions on clothing being eased for men towards the end of the war, those on women’s clothing remained until 1946. It was believed women’s morale was higher so they could wait. Dior’s New Look in 1947 helped blow away the constraints of austerity, despite the fact that a number of women feared that these huge, restrictive skirts would push them back into their pre-war lives. Others felt it might be too opulent after the shortages.

RationFashion-Mar27-09-590Clockwise from top left: Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech-ring by Laura Knight, 1943. A special made handbag to carry a gas mask. Join the ATS poster. Women's Land Army hat

Post-war, women thought differently about the way they dressed: they had to be inventive. The legacy of rationing and Utility clothing was huge. It effectively led to mass-market fashion, with chain stores flourishing, creating clothes for all budgets.

The resounding message of Fashion On The Ration is that women, thanks to their adaptability and ingenuity, not only kept the fires burning on the home front, but did so while looking stylish. Go, ladies.

Fashion On The Ration: 1940s Street Style, is at IWM London, Lambeth Road, London SE1, until 31 August: 020-7416 5000,

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