Last week I finally visited an exhibition that I had been planning to for quite a while, Fashion on the Ration at the Imperial War Museum. Despite living less than two miles from this impressive building for the last 5 years, I'm ashamed to say I've not visited the museum before. As a pretty massive history nut, particularly when it comes to European and World War history, I found all the museum exhibitions fascinating, particularly the brilliantly presented World War I exhibition. An afternoon is just not enough time to cover the whole museum, so I will definitely be returning anther time.
The Fashion on the Ration exhibition itself is again, right up my street. Something that combines both history and sewing/fashion??! I'm there. The exhibition is reasonably small but full of interesting artefacts and information. At the start there are several outfits of war time occupations, such as the Wrens and the Land Army, something I was very interested in as my Granny was a land girl. What I hadn't realised is that about a third of the population of Britain were entitled to wear uniform during the Second World War. That’s not just the armed forces, but also factory workers, dockworkers, policemen and women and such, meaning it became entirely normal to see uniforms on the street. This was also one of the first times women had been mobilized in a uniformed workforce to quite such an extent.
Even for women not in uniform, war-time conditions meant they had to adapt their usual dress standards. Siren suits were invented for quick dressing on night-time air raid visits. 'Make do and Mend' became even more of a way of life than before as outfits were required to last years rather than months. Even material was compromised, silk became wildly unaffordable so children clothes and underwear were made from parachute silk. One of my favourite items in the exhibition was a dressing gown made from silk escape maps.
In 1942, the Utility range of clothing was introduced, aiming to produce items of affordable good quality with minimal wastage. Never before had the government exerted so much authority over its citizen’s wardrobes. Everything from men’s trouser turn-ups to skirt pleats were tightly controlled. The Utility items on display in the exhibition, remain very stylish today mostly because of their lovely use of colour and pattern. Fabric with smaller repeated patterns was often used so less fabric is wasted in the cutting.
Another section I found particularly interesting was 'Beauty is Duty'. Having a well-dressed population was seen as being essential, as there was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance was a sign of low morale, hugely detrimental to the war effort. My favourite quote was:
"To work for victory is not to say goodbye to charm. For good looks and good morale are the closest of allies."
War-time fashion has had a lasting effect on today's fashion. developments in manufacturing helped led to the mass market of fast fashion we have today, and it was also when people began to move towards a more relaxed and informal style of everyday dress. Whilst I disagree with the exhibition that the effects of rationing in 1940 and today's austerity both led to a make do and mend culture, I believe we are now going full circle. After the last few decades of fast fashion and cheap labour, people are starting to want a more concise, personal and sustainable wardrobe.
If you have not yet managed to see the exhibition, I would definitely recommend it for a lovely insight into the everyday life of women during World War Two. It runs until the 31st August at the Imperial War Museum near Lambeth, in itself a wonderful museum to explore.