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Fashion On The Ration: Street Style In The 1940s

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Fashion on The Ration explores how World War 2 affected fashion and the the way people dressed.

London’s wonderful Imperial War Museum (if you’ve never been, then go – it’s fantastic) hosts an exhibition exploring how men and women found new ways to dress as the rationing of clothes took hold. It is the story of “creativity, innovation and coping in adversity”.

 

A handbag that doubled up as a respirator carrier.

A handbag that doubled up as a respirator carrier.

 

The imposition of clothes rationing was announced by Oliver Lyttleton, President of the Board of Trade, on 1 June 1941. Making the announcement just before a Bank Holiday allowed the Board of Trade time to brief retailers before the shops reopened.

 

A set of Countess Mountbatten’s underwear made from a silk map given to her by a boyfriend in the Royal Air Force.

A set of Countess Mountbatten’s underwear made from a silk map given to her by a boyfriend in the Royal Air Force.

 

The rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a ‘points’ value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man’s shirt or a pair of trousers. Women’s shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men’s footwear forced the surrender of seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a ‘points’ value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. The coupon allowance was at its lowest from 1945 and 1946. For the eight month period from 1 September 1945 to 30 April 1946 only 24 coupons were issued, effectively allowing the shopper only 3 coupons a month.

 

A poster encouraging women to join the ATS from 1941 shows a popular waved hairstyle.

A poster encouraging women to join the ATS from 1941 shows a popular waved hairstyle.

 

The ‘Make Do and Mend’ campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer.

 

A woman models an example of austerity clothing.

A woman models an example of austerity clothing.

 

Winston Churchill in his Siren Suit

Winston Churchill in his Siren Suit

 

 

One memorable item of clothing was the ‘Siren Suit’, a Onesie

 

 

A Jacqmar scarf reminding people to “salvage your rubber”.

A Jacqmar scarf reminding people to “salvage your rubber”.

A utility dress made of printed rayon at the exhibition.

A utility dress made of printed rayon at the exhibition.

 

6th January 1944:  ATS girls watch models displaying wedding dresses from a pool set up by the War Office to save ATS girls the expense of buying special wedding wear.  (Photo by Fred Morley/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

6th January 1944: ATS girls watch models displaying wedding dresses from a pool set up by the War Office to save ATS girls the expense of buying special wedding wear. (Photo by Fred Morley/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

circa 1942:  Models at Bush House, London, displaying clothes made from government utility materials, at the first mixed mannequin show ever held.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

circa 1942: Models at Bush House, London, displaying clothes made from government utility materials, at the first mixed mannequin show ever held. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

A 'Make and Mend' Exhibition organised by women's organisations, demonstrates how to make new clothes from discarded materials. A Viyella house coat made from eight difference pieces, and another made from old garments such as pyjamas.   (Photo by Charles Trusler/Getty Images)

A ‘Make and Mend’ Exhibition organised by women’s organisations, demonstrates how to make new clothes from discarded materials. A Viyella house coat made from eight difference pieces, and another made from old garments such as pyjamas. (Photo by Charles Trusler/Getty Images)

A woman looks at a collection of utility suits at a London store.   (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

A woman looks at a collection of utility suits at a London store. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

 

An ambulance worker in Kennington, London applies her lipstick, 1940.

An ambulance worker in Kennington, London applies her lipstick, 1940.

Conserving fabric was vital, this wedding dress was worn by 15 different women.

Conserving fabric was vital, this wedding dress was worn by 15 different women.

The perfect blackout accessory – luminous flowers on sale at Selfridges, 1940.

The perfect blackout accessory – luminous flowers on sale at Selfridges, 1940.

 

In 1942, the first ‘Utility’ clothes went on sale on the British high street as part of a government scheme. These clothes were made from a limited range of quality controlled fabrics. The Utility scheme developed out of a need to make production of civilian clothing in British factories more efficient and to provide price-regulated better quality clothing.

 

Everyday items reflected military themes, such as this powder compact in the shape of a US army officer’s cap.

Everyday items reflected military themes, such as this powder compact in the shape of a US army officer’s cap.

Painting of factory worker Ruby Loftus wearing overalls and headscarf, Laura Knight, 1943.

Painting of factory worker Ruby Loftus wearing overalls and headscarf, Laura Knight, 1943.