Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Fashion on the Ration

Earlier this month I had to make a trip into London to renew my passport. So Jon and I made the most of it, and visited the Imperial War Museum. I was incredibly excited about this as they had an exhibition 'Fashion on the Ration', which I had been desperate to see.

The exhibition looked at the impact of war rationing and austerity on people's everyday clothing. 

For complete beginners, During World War 2, there were shortages of goods, including textiles in Great Britain, (not just Great Britain but the museum is in London). The government issued coupon books, and people could only buy new clothes if they had enough coupons to submit with payment at the point of purchase. This severely restricted the number of garments people could buy. 'Make do and Mend' came about as a slogan during this time. There were rules about the features that new garments could have as well  - limiting the number of buttons and prohibiting turn ups on trousers in an effort to reduce the amount of materials used. The number of pleats in skirts were restricted, as were the number of pockets on shirts. Dressmaking patterns were stamped according to whether the styles conformed to regulation or not. 

In addition to that, there was a strong military influence in the styles people wore.  The exhibition focused on those influences and changes which have had a lasting impact on clothing, both then and now. In some ways, that influence was surprising. 

In introducing 'Utility clothing', which guaranteed a level of quality whilst still conforming to regulations, established designers were employed by the government to create functional garments that were also appealing.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this design is that much of it would still look appropriate in a modern context.

Coat from the CC41 label. (Photo from IWM website). You could easily wear this today.

I was so excited, and having done lots of reading around the topic, when people standing next to me were pondering aspects of the exhibition in conversation with each other, I may have had to jump in and excitedly tell them things (not very British thing to do)!

My big revelation for the day was this - the production of 'utility clothing' developed some methods which are still used in mass production today. Ironically, the clothing worn in times of 'Austerity', which we view with nostalgia as a time of thrift and resourcefulness, laid a foundation for modern 'fast fashion'.

Stopped in the bookshop for books and CDs. I wanted to buy ALL OF THEM. Except the ones I already had. I left with just a few, and some things to go on the Christmas wish list.

For a wonderful overview of the many of the impacts of rationing on fashion, please click here for the Imperial War Museum article link.


  1. Wow that looks like a great exhibition.
    I had read somewhere that they would make clothing from furnishing fabrics as it didn't have as much rationing. Or was that during the actual war?

    1. Rationing applied both during and for a short period after the war (which I'm sure felt like a really long time for everyone fed up with it). And yes, people used furnishing fabrics. Also parachute silk. There was a flower girls dress made from white parachute silk on display. Looked uncomfortable!