Posted in 1940s Fashion, 1950s Fashion, Costume In Museums, Fashion History, Fashion Museums, History Of 20th Century Fashion, History of Sewing, Oral History, Social History, The History Of Dressmaking, The History Of Haute Couture, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion History

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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Posted in 1940s Fashion, Book Reviews, Fashion History, History Of 20th Century Fashion, Social History, The History Of Haute Couture, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion History

Book Review: Fashion On The Ration – Julie Summers

Book Review: Fashion On The Ration – Julie Summers

On the back sleeve of Fashion On The Ration, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes says: ‘I would not have thought a book could make me nostalgic for rationing, but Julie Summers has managed it. A marvellous read.’

There lies the nub of the issue tackled in Summers’ book which accompanies the Imperal War Museum’s exhibition ‘Fashion On The Ration.’

From the perspective of the now, when vintage fashion is so popular and generations have been born with no direct experience of the war, it is easy to look at the fashion of this era with rose tinted spectacles.

This was a time of men in going to war, women in being called up or working in the jobs men left behind and children being evacuated.

All this happened alongside the clear and present danger of Nazi Germany finalising their advance through Europe and capturing Great Britain also.

For those not in the know, fashion rationing was a means by which central government controlled every aspect of clothes design, production, manufacture and purchase during the war years.

It was also a time of great invention. Rationing was balanced by the other central initiative – Austerity or the CC41 scheme.

Via Austerity the war years raised standards of clothes production, included famous couturiers in design and controlled prices of clothing. This ensured that quality clothes were available for all.

Summers has tackled what is an enormous subject with enough of a light touch to make it a genuinely pleasurable read – a page turner in fact.

This is an incredible achievement as the story does include its context; it was time of world conflict, danger, loss of life and huge change in the British economic, personal and cultural landscape.

That context is told in linear way throughout each of the chapters in the book. It explains how war was ongoing for many years and fashion was affected also – it wasn’t a one-off thing.

It very successfully avoids the style of stout academic texts; clothes rationing and Austerity were big ideas executed with an attention to detail from the British government that boggles the mind of even the most fervent fashion historian.

Once you delve into the detail of Limitation of Supply Orders (LIMOSO’s), for instance, you are faced with a complex wall of bureaucracy that launched a thousand letters in newspapers, confusion in shoppers minds and real personal hardship.

I was hoping that aspect to the story of clothes rationing would be tackled in a way that was interesting to read and I wasn’t disappointed.

That information is there but woven into the overall story as to make the pace quick and the depth of information delivered even quicker.

The pleasure of reading this book belies how detailed and well researched Fashion On The Ration is.

Summers has included the information that academics will need; explaining the dates that clothes rationing ceased, quoting from Mass Observation accounts and giving the fashion export figures for the war years also, but she’s written it in a way that non-academics will find enjoyable.

Quotes from the people experiencing fashion during rationing speak to the acceptance, gripes and frustration in making do and mend or not having enough rationing coupons to buy essential clothing and footwear.

Descriptions of how uniform changed fashion and designers solved problems with Austerity regulations also speaks to the creative limitations of the time.

Towards the end of the book the end of rationing and resurgance of Paris as the fashion capital of the world is told in a way that emphasises the before-and-after impact of the war and explains its lasting change.

After WW2, the US fashion scene asserted itself on the international stage and this is not forgotten – it points the reader forwards to the changes in the fashion scene that took place during the 1950s and beyond.

If you missed this exhibition, you won’t feel left out in reading the book. The illustrations and photographs are limited within it but you can do your own research and find examples readily.

Summers has very successfully balanced why fashion rationing was an extraordinary and unique period in British fashion history with the historical fact also.

Putting down the book I felt I’d lived through some of those years alongside the people quoted and reflected on why it resonates in our thinking even now.

Summers does not tackle that question explicitly but the book in its entirety explains why its reach and influence on fashion has lasted for years to come.

©Carrie Henderson 2016.