Fashion on the ration- How WWII and clothes rationing affected fashion and street style in the 1940s

Neil Patrick
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You have surely seen photos of girls drawing on lines for fake stockings, photos that offer a glimpse in the time when clothes rationing was necessary. To mark the 70th anniversary of the Second World War,  last year The Imperial War Museum  held an exhibition, entitled  Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style  displaying surviving examples of wardrobe from 1940s.

 

‘Just the thing to pull on in a hurry’ a siren suit.

‘Just the thing to pull on in a hurry’ a siren suit.© IWM

 

Women walk down a London street during the Second World War in 1941.

Women walk down a London street during the Second World War in 1941.© IWM

 

A handbag that doubled up as a respirator carrier.

A handbag that doubled up as a respirator carrier.© IWM

Wartime austerity led to restrictions on the number of new clothes that people bought and the amount of fabric that clothing manufacturers could use. Women working on war service adopted trousers as a practical necessity. The United States government requisitioned all silk supplies, forcing the hosiery industry to completely switch to nylon. In March 1942 the government then requisitioned all nylon for parachutes and other war uses, leaving only the unpopular cotton and rayon stockings. The industry feared that not wearing stockings would become a fad, and advised stores to increase hosiery advertising. When nylon stockings reappeared in the shops there were “nylon riots” as customers fought over the first deliveries.

 

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.© IWM

In Britain, clothing was strictly rationed, with a system of “points”, and the Board of Trade issued regulations for “Utility Clothes” in 1941.In America the War Production Board issued its Regulation L85 on March 8, 1942, specifying restrictions for every item of women’s clothing. Because the military used so much green and brown dye, manufacturers used more red dye in clothing. Easily laddered stockings were a particular concern in Britain; women were forced to either paint them on (including the back seam) or to join the WRNS, who continued to issue them, in a cunning aid to recruitment. Later in the war, American soldiers became a source of the new nylon stockings.

 

A utility dress made of printed rayon at the exhibition.

A utility dress made of printed rayon at the exhibition.© IWM

Most women wore skirts at or near knee-length, with simply-cut blouses or shirts and square-shouldered jackets. Popular magazines and pattern companies advised women on how to remake men’s suits into smart outfits, since the men were in uniform and the cloth would otherwise sit unused. Eisenhower jackets became popular in this period. Influenced by the military, these jackets were bloused at the chest and fitted at the waist with a belt. The combination of neat blouses and sensibly tailored suits became the distinctive attire of the working woman, college girl, and young society matron

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

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

 

Bridesmaid dress made from parachute silk (1945)

Bridesmaid dress made from parachute silk (1945)© IWM

 

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.© IWM

 

Jacqmar dress ‘Happy Landings’ © IWM

Jacqmar dress ‘Happy Landings’ © IWM

Because of the war, current European fashion was no longer available to women in the United States. In 1941, hatmakers failed to popularize Chinese and American Indian-based designs, causing one milliner to lament “How different when Paris was the fountainhead of style”. As with hosiery hatmakers feared that bareheadness would become popular, and introduced new designs such as “Winged Victory Turbans” and “Commando Caps” in “Victory Gold”.American designers, who were often overlooked, became more popular as American women began to wear their designs. American designers of ready-to-wear contributed in other ways too. They made improvements to sizing standards and began to use fiber content and care labels in clothing

All photos by: Imperial war museum