Dressed for war: fashions of the Second World War

Far from being a casualty of the conflict, fashion flourished during the Second World War – as Laura Clouting, curator of a new exhibition on 1940s style, tells Charlotte Hodgman

Women wearing unrationed shoe soles during the war

This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Advertisement

Brylcreem Boys and Brown Jobs

Uniforms were public statements of your contribution to the war effort, but it was a case of ‘one size fits all’

When war broke out, Britain’s look changed almost overnight. Soon, a quarter of the population was entitled to wear uniform – among them, the ground personnel of 98 Squadron RAF, who are pictured below servicing an American aircraft at Dunsfold, Surrey in August 1944. The streets were flooded with regalia of all colours and styles, with most proud to wear their military fatigues, keen to show the world that they were ‘doing their bit’.

“From the very start of the war, Britons compared and coveted their uniforms”, says Laura Clouting of the Imperial War Museum. “For men, the RAF uniform had the glamour: these were the Brylcreem Boys – smart, well-cut and dashing. For women, the Wrens were the epitome of wartime style in their chic, dark blue suits. But for others, functionality had to take precedence over style, particularly in the army where the brown, often ill-fitting battledress earned soldiers the nickname ‘Brown Jobs’.”

A morale makeover

In 1942, some of Britain’s top designers injected much-needed colour back into Britons’ lives

Nine months after the introduction of clothes rationing in Britain in 1941, the Board of Trade, with the help of prominent fashion designers, introduced a new range of clothing, made from a limited range of quality-controlled fabrics. Known as Utility clothing, the scheme provided people with affordable styles that were made to last – as seen below in the Norman Hartnell-designed outfits being modelled by three women in June 1943.

“By 1942, shortages in clothing were becoming a real problem – both practically, and in terms of morale,” says Clouting. “The Japanese occupation of south-east Asia, the world’s primary source of rubber, meant that elastic was scarce, while shipping losses were at an all-time high. The government’s response was to work with a number of fashion designers such as Norman Hartnell, Hardy Amies and Digby Morton. And the results surprised many: the clothing was both stylish and well-made, and it boasted splashes of colour not usually associated with Second World War fashion.”

Air raid chic

Not even the threat of Luftwaffe bombs could curb the quest for style

The practicalities of wartime life and the dangers it posed could easily have put a halt to individuality in fashion. But, as the two women pictured below in London, September 1939 prove, even the threat of German bombs provided an excuse to try out a new look. Both are dressed in the latest air raid fashions – the woman on the right is wearing an all-in-one air raid ‘siren suit’, while her friend sports a slip-on hooded dressing gown.

“Many women adapted fashion to their new wartime lives,” Clouting explains, “and outfits like these provided functional fashionability.

“By September 1939, some 38 million gas masks had been distributed across Britain. One way of retaining a sense of control over the new, frightening situation was to find something stylish in which to carry your gas mask.” Cue the chic handbag, shown above.

Fashionable frugality

From shoe soles to socks, pockets to pleats, less was more in austerity Britain

From April 1942, alongside new fashions in Utility clothing came additional austerity measures in design, which restricted, among other things, the number of buttons on coats and jackets, pleats in a skirt and pockets on an outfit.

“With factory space and labour needed for the war effort, clothes had to be quick and simple to make,” says Clouting. “What’s more, with shortages in specific items such as rubber and leather, the fashion industry had to get creative.”

The popularity for practical, wedge heels soared during the war – though heel height was restricted to 2 inches. The lack of rubber meant that wedge soles were usually made of unrationed cork or wood.

“The limited supply of elastic was channelled to women’s knickers,” adds Clouting, “so men were forced to wear braces on their trousers as they bade farewell to elasticated waistbands.”

In May 1942, men also lost the turn-ups on their trousers and there was uproar when sock lengths were restricted to 9.5 inches to save on material.

Make do and mend

Waste not, want not was the wartime message

The concept of ‘make do and mend’ wasn’t new to 1940s Britain – there was a long tradition of families endeavouring to reuse clothes, rather than buy new. But now it was patriotic to do so – as the government declared in posters such as the one shown below.

Wives raided their absent husbands’ wardrobes to turn their suits into chic outfits, while parachute silk could be fashioned into beautiful bridesmaid dresses like the one shown here.

“When clothes rationing was introduced in 1941 it came as a big shock to the nation,” says Clouting. “It was planned in secret in order to stop a run on clothes shops, and so people suddenly found that they had to be mathematical about their shopping. Once your coupons were spent, that was it.”

The initial clothing allowance was 66 coupons, which allowed for roughly one new outfit a year. Clouting: “The clothing you already owned had to be cherished and cared for, and people came up with innovative ways to customise and refresh their wardrobe.”

Keeping up appearances

War was raging in Europe and Asia, but at home women were urged not to let themselves go

“Never should we forget that good looks and good morale go hand in hand,” chirruped Yardley Cosmetics in May 1943, and they were not alone in their message. All over Britain, women were being exhorted to invest in their appearances: to look drab and dowdy was to concede to the enemy. So they drew lines up the back of their legs to give the impression that they were wearing stockings. And some wore designer silk scarfs covered with patriotic slogans, like the woman below.

“To keep up morale, the government decided to continue producing cosmetics during the war, albeit in reduced quantities”, says Clouting. “Powder and lipstick were the cosmetics of the day, and new shades were created to complement all styles of uniform.

“But as the war dragged on and cosmetic companies, too, were turned over to the war effort, women were forced to be resourceful in creating their desired look. Beetroot juice could be used as lipstick, while gravy and tea were used to add a bit of colour to pale legs.”

New look for a new era

Christian Dior’s ostentatious collection breathed life into the fashion industry

By the end of the war, the endless cycle of make do and mending had taken its toll on the British public. Clothes rationing would continue until 1949 but in 1947 French designer Christian Dior rocked the fashion world with a new collection that broke away from the years of austerity, exemplified by the beautiful evening dress pictured below.

“Dior’s new look was so flamboyant when compared to the sleek, clear lines and frugal use of material of the war years,” Clouting explains. “Despite people’s best efforts, fashion had been constrained, yet suddenly, the tiny waists and long, full skirts of the Edwardian era – using swathes of fabric – had made a reappearance. It took a while, but by 1948 the new look had made it to British high streets and fashion trends began to change at last.”

From soldier to civilian

The demob suit heralded a return to normality, but not everyone was a fan

As servicemen and women returned to their old lives, the government recognised that many would no longer have, or fit, their old civilian clothes. Women were given coupons but for men – such as Private Bill Krepper of the Pioneer Corps, pictured below with a tailor in Olympia – the answer was the government-issued demobilisation (demob) suit.

“For many, the demob suit felt like stepping out of one uniform and into another”, says Clouting. “For others, it was the nicest suit they had ever owned, and they were thrilled with it. However, problems with distribution meant that men sometimes had to take the sizes that were available at their fitting – even if they were too big or too small.”

Laura Clouting is a historian at the Imperial War Museum, London, and curator of the forthcoming exhibition.

Advertisement

Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style. Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style, featuring some of the items on these pages, is on show at IWM London from 5 March–31 August. iwm.org.uk