Fashion on the Ration!

A couple of weekends ago I went to the Fashion on the Ration exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. As a 1940s re-enactor with a deep admiration for vintage styles and clothing, it was right up my street! I was delighted to see my beloved Women’s Land Army uniform on display as well as others such as the WAAF and RAF pilot uniforms, which were familiar to me. The exhibition was somewhat smaller than I thought it would be but working my way through the WWI floors and some of WWII before I got to the 3rd floor where the exhibition was had roused my British patriotism and put me in high spirits so I wasn’t too disappointed!


The exhibition was full of different outfits and key styles during the war years. There were samples of fabrics that were used as substitutes due to rationing, such as rayon stockings which replaced nylon as  it was needed to make parachutes, and examples of changing lingerie styles as a result of the war. The exhibition extended to encompass the Fifties and the ‘New Look’ with a stress on the changing silhouette and attitudes towards fabric with rationing gradually lessening.

I adore the fact that it was seen as a ‘duty’ for women to keep up appearances during the war; it was seen as a way of defying the enemy and showing that when threatened with destruction we still had the strength to put on a (glamorous) brave face. Make-up was seen as boosting morale to such a degree that it was one of the few things that wasn’t rationed.


I love the ‘make do and mend’ mentality. I love the way that it instilled a sense of community and togetherness; something we seem to be increasingly lacking in today’s world. It was interesting to see the depth to which symbols or patriotic colours infused clothing and influenced patterns and styles. There were some beautiful scarves made by Mayfair fashion house Jacqmar which were littered with British landmarks, the colours of the flag of Great Britain, and even depictions of Winston Churchill. I also find it hilarious that when the men came back from the war, they found their wardrobes mostly empty as their wives had customised their clothes in their absence! I think it’s a bit of a shame that women knew how to adjust their own clothes back then yet today us girls may have basic sewing skills, but altering our husbands’ jackets to fit our frames is beyond most of us!


It’s also fascinating to see how military cuts and elements influenced everyday dress. In a country at war, using military elements such as epaulettes or double breast pockets was in many ways seen as a sign of patriotism. With fabric becoming scarce and the rationing of clothes, women really had to use all they could find, and particularly as many women went off to fight in the forces, wearing something resembling a uniform was becoming increasingly familiar to them.

 At the end of the exhibition there was a short video made up of a collection of interview snippets with industry experts and those who had helped put the exhibition together. They spoke of how there seems to be a return to this wartime mentality of ‘make do and mend’ and how we are moving away from ‘fast fashion’ and seeking fabrics which are durable with a focus on staple pieces which will last. I have to say that I disagree with this view; I do think we are starting to customise our clothes more and there has been a return to shopping in charity shops for old items we can adjust, but I don’t think this has anything to do with a renewed concern for durability; I think that this is because in a world full of high-street chains and Photoshopped adverts, we are increasingly losing sight of ourselves. There has been a huge resurgence in the popularity of tattoos and vintage shopping; both these aspects help to set us apart from the masses by making us different in some way. We want to feel unique, and so this spirit of seeking alternative clothing to ‘fast fashion’ shops is owed, I feel, to the fact that we are desperately searching for autonomy.

Fashion on the Ration is a great little exhibition which pinpoints the key factors of WWII rationing and its impact on clothing silhouettes and styles. If you're a vintage lover or want to learn a bit more about pivotal moments in fashion history then definitely go along!

Fashion on the Ration is at the Imperial War Museum until the 31st August 2015
The books in the photos are: 'Vintage Fashion' by Carlton Books with a foreword by Zandra Rhodes and 'Forties Fashion' by Jonathan Walford
Clothing is my own from various charity shops and vintage fairs, used for 1940s civilian re-enactments.

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