It was a time to make do and mend by transforming an old chenille bedspread into a truly startling new coat, put on a brave face by applying beetroot juice as lipstick, and put a best foot forward treated with Moondusk Cyclax fake stocking cream, complete with paint on false seam, advertised as “bare leg freedom with the beauty of sheer hose”.
A new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum celebrates the ingenuity, determination, and sometimes plain battiness of the attempts by the stylish to get around rationing, clothes coupons and shortages of everything from knicker elastic to buttons.
The government issued regular bracing suggestions, including cheerful pamphlets on how to darn and patch by Mrs Sew and Sew. Propaganda films included instructions on how to chop up and remodel a man’s felt hat, ending with the unconvincing assurance “when he sees your new sports hat, he certainly won’t regret his old trilby”.
The surprise, in archive photographs and films, and original clothes from the period, is how good many people looked. Designers including Hardy Amies became involved, and Winston Churchill’s much copied one-piece siren suits were immaculately made by tailors Turnbull and Asser.
“People now think that ‘utility clothing’ meant cheap and nasty – but in fact the reverse is true,” curator Laura Clouting said. “They were actually extremely well made because they were expected to last and last, which is why so many that have survived are still in such good condition.”
“The restrictions, the narrow elegant cut, the simplicity of line, the absence of frills and trimmings, means that the clothes look remarkably stylish today – much more so than those before or immediately after the war.”
The rules were strict: no more than five buttons and two pockets, two pleats, no trouser turn-ups for the men, and braces not elasticated belts – any spare elastic went for women’s underwear. Trousers for women changed from beach to town wear, with one ad boasting “for the home front but with a military touch” showing a woman in a pinstripe suit vaulting over a five bar gate.
People were ingenious at finding sources of unrationed materials. The exhibition includes supremely stylish underwear made for Pamela Mountbatten out of a navigation map printed on silk given to her by an RAF boyfriend.
Although everyone was subject to rationing and coupons, some did much better than others: Vogue offered tips on cutting down a dinner gown into a smart black silk day dress, which wasn’t much help if you didn’t have a black silk dinner gown to start with.
“If you were well off, and started the war with a fabulous extensive wardrobe of clothes, obviously you would have looked much better,” Clouting said. “In the earliest days there was strong disapproval of any kind of ostentation, but by the end it was regarded as a patriotic duty to be seen to make an effort and look your best.”
Many chose to marry in uniform, but one wedding dress on display, made from a length of pre-war lingerie silk, was worn by the bride it was made for, and later borrowed by 12 other women.
The vintage photographs include several of family members of the museum staff. When Clouting’s parents married in 1940, her mother wore her older sister’s dress, before the couple went on to spend their wedding night in an air raid shelter.
Another photograph shows Rosie Linton’s aunt Ida, who had been a dancer and chorus girl and made her glorious white dress out of old costumes – then dyed it pink to wear at parties. Members of the public are invited to contribute their own family photographs of war wear to the museum’s Twitter, Instagram or Facebook pages.
- Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style, Imperial War Museum London until 31 August