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
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.
Labels: 1940s, durability, fashion, Fashion on the Ration, forties, Imperial War Museum, IWM, make do and mend, RAF, rationing, silhouette, style, vintage, WAAF, wartime, WLA, WWII