War Fashion: 1940's Textile Rations & Women's Clothing

 

Benjamin Fitzgerald

From air raid shelter 'onesies' to gas mask leather handbags, ladies fashion was forced evolve under the strict rules of rationing in 1940s Britain. Reinventing new silhouettes and making-do with cheap fabrics, fashion survived – even flourished – in unexpected ways.

Before the imminent arrival of World War II, British women were fearing the ravages of war on home-front soil. By the Forties, the battle had come to London and touched upon even the most private domain women still owned, their wardrobe. As the bombs and bullets fired on, the fashions of the street in Britain fell in line with the state of the political world. This meant rationing textile fabrics for every woman and limiting the amount of clothing she could buy in one year.

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Under the British government-imposed Making of Civilian Clothing (Restrictions) Orders of 1942 and 1943, clothes had to be stripped back of excessive fabric. Gone were pleats, pockets and luxury trimmings, saving on fabric and the time it took to make clothes. Fabric production and garment manufacturing shifted to refocus on the war effort and became more British-made. Civilian clothing was seen as a way protect and survive like food, and the creative expression once found in fashion, was potentially snuffed out.

A ration coupon book was issued to each woman. Some 66 points were allocated for clothing per year. One could buy a wool frock for 11 points or a synthetic dress for 7. And a winter coat went for 14 points. Clothing rationing points could be used for wool, cotton and household textiles only, and people had extra points for work clothes. A ban on silk for civilian clothing came into effect too, as the imported fabric from Japan was needed to make parachutes.

 

The government’s Utility Scheme, as it became known, saw British manufacturers hired to produce solid textiles that would wear well - mostly from synthetic fabrics such as rayon. Clothing prices had doubled since the beginning of the rationing rules, meaning lower class women could only afford the new Utility clothing. Meanwhile, style-conscious Britain, under the Board of Trade and London’s Fashion Group, joined forces with British Vogue to create a suit, a dress, and an overcoat under the Utility specifications but with more fashion appeal. 

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Women were making war fashions work for them, despite only being allowed two pockets on their dresses and three on their coats. No leather or metal buttons were permitted and all braid, embroidery and lace was banned. All unnecessary luxuries were cut, too; corset manufacturers were prohibited from using shirring, ruching or fancy stitching on women’s underwear.

Come 1944, with victory in sight, some of the more severe restrictions were lifted: pleats and buttons on shirt were permitted and cuffed trousers were once more. The end of the war brought peace but austerity remained unto 1949. But women didn't seem to mind; proudly sporting functional slacks and calf-length skirts in grainy tweeds and wool that united them as women, and put them on equal fashion terms with men.