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Looking Good in Wartime, Part One

Apr 18,2012
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It was a bit of a challenge, dressing well during the Second World War. To illustrate why, here's an excerpt from an early draft of The FitzOsbornes at War:

     "Julia and I went to a fashion show this morning, featuring the new official ‘Utility’ outfits. Of course, they are all very plain, to conserve both materials and labour – no more than three buttons per item, only one or two pleats, no lace trimmings or turned-back cuffs, no appliqué or embroidery, and the skirts are rather short, with hardly any hem. Still, they are beautifully cut and most importantly, new. I know I was lucky to own so many clothes when the war began, but some of them seem a bit schoolgirlish and old-fashioned now, and they’re all starting to look very shabby. There’s only so much one can do as far as re-dyeing fabrics and swapping buttons and letting down hems – sometimes a girl just longs to wear something crisp and bright and unfamiliar. So we all sat there at the show (in our baggy tweed suits and grey-seamed blouses), and practically salivated over the display. Just my luck I’ve recently had to use up eleven precious clothes coupons on new shoes and some socks, so I really can’t buy anything else for a while. But Julia said she’d found some lengths of curtain material, including a very pretty pale blue cotton, so she’s going to make me a short, plain summer frock from it. I’ll give her the pearl buttons from my old white blouse that had an unfortunate encounter with a leaky pen, and I’ll see if I can find a lace handkerchief for a little collar."

 

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German U-boats were sinking the ships that brought supplies to England, and any available materials were requisitioned by the military, so clothes for civilians were in short supply. As a result, the British government brought in clothes rationing. At first, everyone was allowed sixty-six coupons each year, although two years later, this had fallen to a mere forty coupons. You had to pay for the clothes as well as hand over the correct number of clothing coupons, and there were complicated rules about how many coupons were needed for each garment. For example, a woman's woollen dress required eleven coupons, but a cotton dress only seven coupons. Women's pyjamas needed eight coupons, but a nightdress only six. Shoes needed seven coupons, stockings needed two coupons and ankle socks needed only one coupon. Balls of knitting wool and lengths of fabric were also rationed. Some women made dresses out of sheets and furnishing fabrics, but soon even these were rationed, so the really creative types used torn parachutes (which were made from silk in those days), old blankets and pillowcases. Have a look at this Ministry of Supply film clip, part of the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign, to see how resourceful women were. [The photo above is of some volunteers from the Women of the University War Work Group in Brisbane, 1942.]

In 1943, the first 'Utility' clothes went on sale. The name wasn't very appealing, but the clothes had been designed by famous fashion designers including Hardy Amies, Edward Molyneux, Norman Hartnell and Victor Stiebel, and the outfits turned out to be very popular. 

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Of course, some women were in uniform because they'd enrolled in the armed services or were working as nurses (the photo shows three US Navy nurses in 1944). The Wrens (the British women's navy) were especially popular with women, with some debutantes confessing that they'd only enrolled in it because the uniform was so glamorous. But then, other women, doing equally important war work in munitions factories, wore distinctly unglamorous blue overalls and cotton head scarves. 

 

If you're interested in 1940s fashions, check out this website, which is filled with pictures of everyday clothes, wedding dresses, hats, hairstyles and more. 

 

Next: Looking Good in Wartime, Part Two

 

 

 

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Apr 29,2012
anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Well, I would definitely agree that those nurses above are very glamorous. They make wearing uniforms look fashionable. Maybe the hair-style comes in to play as well. Historical fashions are one of my favorite things to study, especially early 1900-1940s fashion.

Signed, Elizabeth, from the U.S.

Apr 20,2012
anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Wonderful pictures in this post.  My Grandmom wanted to join the WACS during the war, but her mother said she heard that the WACS were fast girls, and forbid it.  My Grandmom laughs when she tells this story, now.

Andrea Zu

Apr 18,2012

Platypus, I like 1930s and 1940s fashions, too - it was one of those rare periods when clothes seemed both comfortable and flattering for most women. I couldn't have coped with having to wear a hat and gloves all the time, though. (Note the nurses above are all diligently carrying gloves.)

Araminta - Sophie and Julia find rationing quite frustrating (although Veronica and Henry are so uninterested in fashion that they barely notice the new regulations).

Steph, that's so interesting about your great aunt! I read so many interviews with women saying how glamorous the Wrens were. Apparently, Wrens officers got to wear TRICORN HATS and BLACK SILK STOCKINGS, which were the height of elegance!

Apr 18,2012
anonymous's picture
Anonymous

I don't think I would do well in wartime. I like clothes too much. That said, I do think the uniform of the Wrens are pretty. I have a great aunt who was in it and she said the same thing, that among other reasons, she joined because they had prettier uniforms then other services! lol

 

-steph

Apr 18,2012
anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Wow--that whole idea of coupons and things sounds kind of fun to me, but that's only because I've never lived through it.  Must be horribly frustrating--I can't wait to read it and see how Sophie and everyone deal with the rationing during the war.  You must have had to get very creative!

--araminta18

Apr 18,2012
anonymous's picture
Anonymous

In my opinion, those clothes are quite a bit nicer than those popular now! I'd take tweed any time over skinny jeans. However, I can't really imagine wearing clothes made out of parachutes.

-Platypus

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