Keep Calm and Dress Well


The Second World War could understandably be assumed to be a lost period in the world of British fashion. A time in which sensibility and utility took over from the Hollywood style glamour and decadence of the inter-war period, it is not obviously a favourite amongst fashion writers. The Second World War, unlike the first, brought no escapist follies, no fashion fantasies and in June 1941 clothing, cloth and footwear began to be rationed. It came as a shock, and wasn’t well received. Few expected it to last long. Its effects were swift and far reaching, and changed, at least for the duration of the war, the way that women dressed; a new element of utility and practicality entered the wardrobe and whilst individual styles did not particularly develop or expand, attitudes to the industry did. There is something about this period in the world of fashion that has a striking kind of resilience and attractiveness to it. To still present oneself as glamorous, fashionable and well-kept during the hardship and destruction of the war years was seen as a kind of emblem of British defiance and public morale. As Vogue put it in the 1940s, “the woman who could change instantly into uniform or munitions overalls and looking charming, soignée and right, is the smart woman of today”. During the war years fashion magazines recommended ingenious ways of re-inventing trends and coping with limited resources.

The war was a watershed for fashion, forcing the development of a ready-to-wear structure capable of prosperous, large scale production – for example the famous ‘siren suit’, the equivalent to a modern day jumpsuit, was a practical solution to quick dressing for an air-raid. Standards of manufacturing were streamlined and better mechanized by the pressures of rushed uniform production. For the first time sizing and cost were worked out accurately so as not to waste materials or production time. Initially the clothing allowance accommodated for approximately one outfit per year, yet as the war progressed the points were reduced to an extent that purchase of a coat constituted almost an entire year’s clothing allowance. Mrs Sew-and-sew was the Make Do Mascot, and her image was to be seen on magazines and posters of the time encouraging woman to re-use and re-vitalise old outfits. The average woman was said to have owned two lipsticks for the entire war. When lipstick ran out, solid rouge was used. Alternative forms of luxury were sought after, particularly under the influence of the enchanting American servicemen. Vogue warned, “Remember everything is twice as much fun to these American boys if there’s a girl in it…” In pursuit of girls the Americans had everything their own way, earning about four times as much as the average British soldier, they were able to provide women with stockings off the black market and show them an element of much needed fun and decadence which had been so long missing from British social life.

Fashion houses and magazines, in an effort to constantly boost morale and change the mentally of the fashion world advertised the possibilities of stylish practicality. The ban on silk stockings in 1941 brought a new wave of distress to women attempting to cling on to their small pre-war luxuries. In a feature called ‘sock shock’, Vogue published a woman in a smart summer afternoon dress, big hat and ankle socks. “Socks can continue to look charming”, said Vogue, boldly. “But we believe that it’s easier to achieve a smart, stocking-less look with quite bare legs (smoothly tanned or made up) and footlets. We hope the board will put these into production”. Lux, the stocking and hosiery brand encouraged women to save and mend their stockings as best they could in an advertisement from the mid-forties:

No wonder Julia shouts hurray!

Her Sweetheart’s home on leave today

And frequent washing in the past

Has made his favourite stockings last

The war period for Britain was period in which fashion adapted and developed to the necessities of life. As American editor Edna Woolman Chase said in 1941 “fashions would not be fashions if they did not conform to the spirit and restrictions of the current time”. In some ways this period was a time for fashion liberation. Comfort and practicality outstripped rules of femininity as women began to enjoy wearing working clothes and general rationing meant that small amount of glamour and luxury that were attained were not in general particularly class based – fashion had an edge of defiance and charisma that ushered in a new age of glamour.

Rosa Schiller Crawhurst

Liked reading this article? Sign up to our weekly mailing list to receive a summary of our best articles each week – click here to register

Want to contribute? Join our contributors group here or email us – click here for contact details