Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Fashion on the Ration

Fashion on the Ration at the Imperial War Museum looks at how fashion survived and even flourished under the strict rules of rationing in 1940s Britain. Often in new and unexpected ways. The exhibition starts 5 March.

Despite the hardships of WWII, fashion in the 1940s was creative and innovative. 'Make do and Mend' was a pamphlet full of useful tips issued by the British Ministry of Information in the midst of WWII, it encouraged housewives to be both frugal and stylish in times of harsh rationing.

Make do and Mend pamphlet

The rationing of the 1940s enforced an era of required minimalism. The shortage of fabric created the popularity of the two piece suit known as a Victory or Utility suit which took on a sleek, military look. Women could mix and match skirts, blouses, and jackets for a new outfit everyday. Even after the war the suits remained popular due to its comfort and practicality.

The Victory suit

Even during the war years, hats were very fanciful. The hat continued to play an important role in women's fashion. It may have been even more important than usual, as many of the materials that went into the making of hats were not rationed although it was commonplace to add a corsage made of fresh flowers or feathers to snazz it up. Many women also owned corsages made of artificial flowers or gathered netting to accessorise a dress.

Leg make-up

The shortage of silk stockings resulted in leg make up becoming a popular choice.  To recreate the look of stockings, a line was drawn along the length of both back legs. If a lady had no money for decent leg cosmetics, she would resort to staining her legs with ‘tea’.

While London was bombed, people also feared a gas attack. Harvey Nichols offered gas protection suits of pure oiled silk in a variety of colors. Many women owned utility jumpsuits which one could put on quickly when the sirens blew. The jumpsuit, a new innovation, was warm and comfortable and featured pockets for papers and valuables.


During this time, there existed a particularly visually rich tradition of propaganda scarves, created for the benefit of an army. Jacqmar of London propaganda scarves were created from remnants of silk fabrics that were used to make gowns. These scarves, depicting militaristic iconography, patriotic flags and maps, were then sold to profit the war effort, simultaneously creating a new class of fashion and very loaded 'conversation’ prints. 

London Wall, designed by Arnold Lever and produced by Jacqmar. Arguably, one of the most iconic propaganda textile images of the Second World War. Offered by Tin Tin Collectables.

The thrifty nature of the 1940s even extended to wedding dresses! The method of creating wedding dresses from parachute silk was customary. A number of dresses made from parachute silk can be viewed at the Imperial War Museum. The dress pictured below was made for (the then) theatre actress, Miss Jean Neville. Be sure to view the stunning intricacy of this dress in person, Fashion on the Ration is on until 31 August.

White silk full-length dress with tie belt made from parachute material. Image taken from IWM website.

If the 1940s is your favourite decade for fashion, make sure you plan a trip to Alfies, we have vintage clothing dealers who stock pieces from this era. Here's a small selection of what you might find:

Large brown 1940s clutch bag with lucite clasp, offered by Tony Durante

Lipstick shape ladies pocket lighter, offered by Tony Durante

Crepe silk dress in burgundy floral print, c1940. Offered by Tin Tin Collectables

Brown 1940s wool felt Cocktail tilt hat, offered by Carole Collier

1940s Ring with ruby and diamond, offered by Connie Speight

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