THE WAY WE WERE; Glamorous Forties-Style Tailoring Is the Next Vintage Look to Hit the High Streets. but the Reality of Dressing Yourself during World War Two Was Much Less Appealing, as Post Style Editor Caroline Foulkes Finds Out

The Birmingham Post (England), September 8, 2004 | Go to article overview

THE WAY WE WERE; Glamorous Forties-Style Tailoring Is the Next Vintage Look to Hit the High Streets. but the Reality of Dressing Yourself during World War Two Was Much Less Appealing, as Post Style Editor Caroline Foulkes Finds Out


Byline: Caroline Foulkes

From 1914-1918, fashion reached a standstill.World War One, then known as the Great War, was a time of drab, functional clothing and uniforms.

Society changed radically in the aftermath of the war, with beginnings of a breakdown in class barriers.And nowhere was this new freedom more celebrated - and notable - than in the world of fashion. Hemlines, fabrics and ways of cutting clothing all changed. Mass production was introduced on the back of lessons learnt by uniform manufacturers, making fashionable garments more readily available to all. In spite of the Great Depression, it was a time of experimentation, of daring.

But trouble was looming on the European horizon.The threat of war was imminent once more, and fashion designers, sensing the mood change, developed their collections accordingly to include more military inspired, square shouldered clothing and more practical garments.Yet even as war broke out in September 1936, the fashion industry rolled on relatively unhindered.

On June 1,Whit Sunday, 1941, that all changed.

With the war in full swing, materials of all kinds were scarce, and those that were available went towards the war effort first. Rationing was introduced.

Initially, every adult was issued with 66 clothing coupons to last a year.

Although that might sound a lot, when you consider how many coupons went towards one item, it was actually verylittle. For example, a woman's 'frock, gown or dress of wool' cost 11 coupons, while one made from other fabric was seven.A skirt would set you back seven, and a jumper, five. Shoes were five and a long coat 11. Shopping sprees were completely out of bounds, unless you wanted to be in rags after six months.

Yet this was generous: by 1945 the allowance had fallen to 36 coupons a year. As a consequence, those who had uniforms generally tended to wear them almost all the time, even on a night out.The only other way around the situation was to make do and mend.

With the help of a prim looking, matronly housewife called Mrs Sew-&Sew, the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Information issued a series of pamphlets and posters designed at helping women get around the tricky business of making clothing last.Wornout sheets were turned into shirts, shorts and dresses.Trousers were turned into skirts. Old socks became children's mittens.

Fripperies such as frills, wide sleeves and any form of trim were considered in bad taste - under the 1942 Civilian Clothing Order the government introduced sumptuary laws making it illegal to spend time embellishing clothes for sale.To appear patriotic and be seen to be supporting the war effort, simple, unfussy styles were adopted - boxy, square shoulder padded jackets and short straight skirts, some as much as 19 inches from the floor, were the order of the day.

Clothes had to be practical, restrained and hard wearing.The one advantage for most adults was that food rationing meant there was no chance of getting too fat for their clothes - you were more likely to wear them out than be straining at the seams.

Even occasionwear didn't escape - women who got married just before war broke out often attended weddings where their original dress was worn by the bride as frocks were handed down from sister to sister.And once it had been worn to death, it would be turned into underwear.

Shoes didn't escape either. Leather was in short supply, so soles were often made from durable materials like cork and rope.The practical, sturdy and hardwearing wedge shoe was standard fare for women, although many rebelled against its clumpy, dowdy appearance by painting the soles in bright colours. Ironically, the wedge has gone in and out of style ever since, although it is now valued more for its fashion aesthetics than its practicality.

Underneath the sensible shoes, the chances are most women would have been wearing bare legs. …

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