There were two ‘uniforms’ during WW2; the ones that the armed forces and voluntary services wore and the second was the uniform supply and control measures the government imposed on the population of Britain.
From the outset, the government knew that clothing the people of Britain was the elephant in the room in terms of managing WW2.
Wars are expensive; they require man (and woman) power, raw materials, armaments up to the job and enough of a profit to cover costs. That wasn’t all; the armed forces must be clothed and factories must still manufacture what was required whilst their working men were unavailable and away.
The blockade of Europe and danger in the seas meant essential supplies of raw materials like wool, silk and cotton would fast run out. Fabric and clothing production, a thriving industry at the outset of the war in 1939 was also inefficient and wasteful.
Factories were needed to produce the millions of yards of material required to clothe people in uniform instead of the frilly and frivolous fashions of the late 1930s.
Wasteful of fabrics in short supply, a simple thing like adding a large hem to a skirt or embroidery to a dressing gown could save thousands of hours of man power and materials required elsewhere.
Zips were a no-no as the metal was needed for armaments, as was elastic, and silk for silk stockings were needed for parachutes.
Very quickly dressmakers and manufacturers were told that they didn’t have design freedom any longer and Austerity Regulations and Limitation Of Supply Orders – or LIMOSO’s – set out what they could and couldn’t use when designing or running up an item of clothing.
With the outbreak of war, inflation affected prices and the rarer commodities like silk started to shoot up in the shops. Inflation had to be kept under control and the economics of pricing became a hot issue; something had to give.
The government accepted it had to control all aspects of clothing supply, manufacture and retail. Initially it looked back on the lessons learned during World War 1 when a form of standard suit was devised to clothe the people of Britain.
They didn’t want to do the same, so unpopular was it, but needs must and from June 1st, 1941, Clothes Rationing was introduced across Great Britain.
Whitehall was particularly concerned about the poor and working class who were perceived to be suffering most from the materials shortages affecting clothes production and supply.
Middle and upper class women had large wardrobes that could survive rationing, they thought, but the working class didn’t.
To address this, by 1942 the Utility Scheme was fully rolled out which produced clothing with quality cloth and materials designed and manufactured to Austerity Regulations. Utility Clothing was in the shops at fixed prices to ensure affordable clothing was available for all people across the land.
It attracted none of the new and dreaded Purchase Tax which affected all non-essential items.
Utility was cheaper, of better quality and more long lasting than non-utility items. For the first time working class women could buy well designed, well made clothing to survive the war years regardless of income.
War was different for those with more money at their disposal. They were used to buying for pleasure and to dress for the right social occasions but it didn’t make any difference to the government, they restricted how many items of clothing could be bought by anyone in the country.
The press coined a phrase to describe the actions of government and “Wartime Socialism” was born.
On the Whitsun Bank Holiday Sunday of June 1941 a wireless broadcast told retailers and the British public that from opening on Tuesday morning, all clothing would be rationed. Margarine coupons were initially used but later on dedicated clothes rationing books were circulated.
Clothes had points allocated to them, usually determined by square yardage of cloth and whether the government deemed them necessary or a luxury item. Each point or half point was worth a full or half coupon.
People were told how many points they had to ‘spend’ over periods of time, 66 in the first year and less and less as the war drew onwards.
When spending on clothing people exchanged their coupons and paid cash also. When they ran out that was that, there were no more coupons to spend for anyone.
Budgeting for how many points you had was a national occupation and a source of misery for many. Although forces uniforms were not rationed, things like knickers and maternity clothes were. The government adopted a form of market research to respond to national need and changes were made regularly, filling the columns of newspapers and fashion magazines.
It was no good moaning; the government was entirely in control.
Many people commented that Mrs Sew and Sew’s advice in the famous Make Do and Mend campaign had been part of working class life forever and wearing second hand clothes and hand-me-downs was no different during the war than beforehand.
The wealthy who did have money to spend regardless of rationing tried other methods and the black market thrived on those with cash to spare.
Purchase Tax was implemented to prevent the buying of luxury goods; fur coats, a common staple of many a woman’s wardrobe, attracted 100% Purchase Tax for instance. That meant you paid the retail price to the shopkeeper then exactly the same amount again went to the government – very pricey.
Buying luxury was expensive and prevented excessive spending on items that weren’t necessary – after all if everyone bought unnecessary items, factories would have to produce them to demand and they were focused on war.
Eventually the country learned to knuckle down and see it out. Whether you were rich or poor, the regulations applied and everyone did their patriotic bit to adapt.
Southsea, near Portsmouth was no different from anywhere else in the country in what it had to endure.
It is appropriate that the museum is situated there as The Solent holds a long military and naval history. The castle looking across to The Isle Of Wight has existed in one form or another since Tudor times.
The Mary Rose, Henry V111’ths ship which sunk in 1545 resides in its low lit museum in the Portsmouth Dockyard.
The D Day Museum itself houses The Overlord Tapestry, a modern interpretation of the Bayeux which stitches together scenes from that day in a long piece of embroidery circling the main room.
The impact of the government’s measures in respect of clothing and apparel in WW2 was an enormous undertaking both for Whitehall administratively and for the people of Britain to comprehend and live through. Everyone but everyone was affected; women, men and children did not escape and those in the forces also.
When all rationing ended in 1952, the war years had seen a massive change to clothing and fashion.
The change was both attitudinal and practical; the efficiencies that the government implemented were strong enough to bear any national dislike and the influence of them affects fashions and expert consideration of those restrictions even today.
Throughout the D Day museum, the exhibits show how wartime fashion worked on the ground; for those in uniform, getting married, knitting for the forces or wearing Utility designs.
It is an extraordinary museum which isn’t only about the conflict – the presence of the Overlord Tapestry emphasises the great importance of the needle trades to Britain and the creativity, craft, ingenuity and adaptation that the British public made overall.
© Carrie Henderson 2016