Fashion History: The D Day Museum, Southsea – Uniform, Clothes Rationing and Make Do and Mend

Uniform-D-Day-Museum-image-Copyright-Carrie-Henderson-2016There 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 Anderson Shelter. Dug into the gardens of many homes, protecting against The Blitz.
The Anderson Shelter. Dug into the gardens of many homes, protecting against The Blitz.

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.

Keep Calm and Drink Tea: The D Day Museum's cafe surrounded by the clothing of war.
Keep Calm and Drink Tea: The D Day Museum’s cafe surrounded by the clothing of war.

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.

Working for the war effort: woman were employed in their millions to aid the war effort.
Working for the war effort: woman were employed in their millions to aid the war effort.

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.

Parachute Silk was used to make wedding dresses and offcuts or mistakes in factories taken to make bras and knickers.
Parachute Silk was used to make wedding dresses and offcuts or mistakes in factories taken to make bras and knickers.

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.

Information plaque about the parachute wedding dress.
Information plaque about the parachute wedding dress.

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.

Knitting for the forces: women knitted for the men overseas and the gloves, balaclavas and woollies were gratefully received.
Knitting for the forces: women knitted for the men overseas and the gloves, balaclavas and woollies were gratefully received.

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.

Mrs Sew and Sew gives the rules that working class women already understood.
Mrs Sew and Sew gives the rules that working class women already understood.

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.

The beauty of war: the map showing the seascape between Britain and occupied Europe.
The beauty of war: the map showing the seascape between Britain and occupied Europe.

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.

Women's clothing was rationed and controlled. All made sacrifices for the war effort.
Women’s clothing was rationed and controlled. All made sacrifices for the war effort.

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.

D-Day-Museum-Exterior-image-Copyright-Carrie-Henderson-2016On the shoreline of the beach there is a museum dedicated to D Day, which took place on 6th June 1944.

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.

Southsea Castle. A setting with a clear blue view to the sea.
Southsea Castle. A setting with a clear blue view to the sea.

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.

Not only about the sirens: changes to clothing made during WW2 has an influence felt even today.
Not only about the sirens: changes to clothing made during WW2 has an influence felt even today.

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

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Book Review: Couture or Trade: An Early Pictorial Record Of The London College Of Fashion by Helen Reynolds.

Couture Or Trade A Pictorial Record Helen Reynolds Book Cover
Great British Sewing Bee Feedback
Patrick Grant and May Martin provide feedback about a skirt as Claudia Winkleman looks on in wonder.

Since The Great British Sewing Bee hit our TV screens, evening classes, fashion degree and pattern cutting courses have been inundated with a resurgence of interest from applicants who want to learn the skills required. 

The influence of the GBSB shouldn’t be underestimated – since it’s aired sewing skills have exploded into the nation’s consciousness with a fervour last seen in the late 1940s and 1950s.

You Tube is brimming with tutorials taught by gifted amateurs and professionals alike and home sewers watch Sewing Bee with stitching fingers twitching as we follow contestants’ efforts.

These days we are used to looking at the efforts of the GBSB contestants in glorious technicolour in the hour-long slots on telly.

But how did women learn the skills for sewing in the old days, long before TV was invented?

The answer can be found in Helen Reynolds’ book Trade Or Couture, An Early Pictorial History Of The London College Of Fashion.

When Reynolds uses the word ‘early’ in the title of her book she means very early; 100 years ago until the final days of the great training colleges of London in the 1950s.

The majority of this book focuses on the 1920s and 1930s though and it isn’t only factual description – the book is beautifully illustrated with photos.

In those days London was Great Britain’s go-to-place for all things fashion. It was a vastly important industry and it was necessary to staff it with women and men who had developed the not inconsiderable skills that were required.

At the turn of 19th to 20th Century the London fashion industry was suffering from a shortage in supply of people with the correct skills. Trade and staff were being lost to Paris, the acknowledged global capital of fashion as a result.

Recognising this, 3 trade schools were established in London. Eventually these schools became subsumed into creating The London College of Fashion. Then though, girls joined at primary or secondary level and spent their time learning the essential skills for employment in the London fashion houses when they graduated.

Now you may think of industrial sewing machines, large mechanical cloth cutters or computers and clever graphics packages like you’d find in the courses taught these days, but you’d be wrong!

The clothing industry was very different in the early days described in Reynolds’ book. Everything but everything was done by hand.

Measuring, designing, drafting, stitching, embroidering, cutting and finishing – the essential skills – must be done well and by hand or not at all.

In one section she describes how a lone sewing machine exists in a classroom but that it is barely used.  Embroiderers used more machinery than tailors but the intricate, meticulous and highly expert skills we associate with Haute Couture these days were what was required.

For educators this book is a fascinating wander through the relationship between industry and education that existed at the time.

There was such an explicit correspondence between the output of skilled labour from these trade schools and the London industry that the two could not be separated.

Couture Or Trade A Pictorial Record Poulin Mannequin Show 1924
Mrs Robert Mathis or “Poulin” was a society dressmaker. She staged this mannequin parade for Barrett Street students in 1924.

Teachers were often skilled tailors with no formal teaching qualifications and as many of the large black and white photos show, from mannequin parade to classroom the schools were set up for one reason only – to staff the London fashion houses, full stop.

So what would your day in a needle trades school be like?

It depended on what age you were and what speciality or stream you were studying.

You could specialise in embroidery for instance or pattern cutting. You had dedicated classes in these subjects but you also spent time learning skills in fashion illustration which meant drawing gowns and outfits in a life drawing class. Your uniform denoted which ‘stream’ you’d chosen.

Health and safety was not neglected either. The schools knew that the industry brought risks in terms of workers’ health and so PE lessons and games were as vital a part of preparation for the workforce as the needle skills themselves.

The schools were essential for career progression as well. Once employed by the London fashion houses, many women found themselves stuck in one position and on-the-job training was not available to them or ineffectual.

As a result the schools ran evening classes to update and expand on tradespeople’s skills. This, in turn, increased female expertise in the workplace which had a knock-on effect of increasing the earning power of women also.

Throughout the book there are large black and white photos either to advertise the schools or advertise the students’ work at the time.

For non-academics or people simply interested in getting an insight into fashion history it is in poring over the photos that you’ll get enjoyment from this book.

Advanced Sewing Class Mid 1920s
Women working in the needle trades updated their skills in evening classes. Image from Couture Or Trade: An Early Pictorial Record Of The London College Of Fashion.

They show moments in the learning process frozen in time.

Most of these photos have been set up with a camera in mind. Pupils are posed with hands poised like Greek statues, modelling their finished creations.

Classrooms are quiet and static, quite unlike how they would have been in reality.

It’s as if the reader is the school inspector coming for a visit or an employer seeking out their next staff member by examining each pupil’s work.

They are a joy to examine. You can see how hand embroidered dresses fell straight to the floor in perfectly crafted folds or how gowns were drawn, drafted, cut, made and modelled with the essential plumes expected at Court.

In many ways though this book shows you that the basic skills are still the same. You still have to know how to fit a dress to make one from scratch whether you are a tailor or a home dressmaker.

You still have to know how to finish seams whether you hand baste them or use a foot on your sewing machine.

It’s the transferable skills over time that make the book more than scenes from fashion history – most dressmakers and tailors will immediately be able to put themselves into these photos as they recognise themselves in the rooms.

There is a covert message in the book however and it’s that these skills can take years to develop properly. It makes the 3 – year fashion degree courses of today seem almost a breath in comparison.

It’s a book for academics, educators and fashion lovers alike but for those of you into the 1920s and 1930s, I’d say it was essential reading.

© Carrie Henderson 2016