Fashion on the Ration

A very well-curated and informative exhibition at the IWM North of wartime clothing, uniforms and fashion. It was fascinating to see the lengths that women went to to be smart when clothing was rationed, silk stockings were a distant memory, and replacing a corset was problematic because of the shortage of elastic, rubber and metal. (Just stop wearing the things!) Keeping up appearances was practically a duty: the government was concerned that the sight of slovenly, slipshod women might be detrimental to national morale, so it ensured that cosmetics remained available. Ah, priorities!

A quarter of the population was “entitled” to wear a uniform (perhaps just an armband), and the WRNS uniform was considered the smartest and most covetable (black stockings, my dear). It certainly used the most fabric: box-pleated skirt and double-breasted jacket. Oh, the smallness of the waists of both the men’s and women’s uniforms! I did wonder about the smell of all that heavy fabric; with constant smoking and no deodorants, perhaps it was as well that the uniforms were behind glass.

Trousers for women were problematic: practical but boundary-pushing. I recall how the narrator of “A Provincial Lady in Wartime” agonises over whether or not to wear them: the question occupies her mind more than the possibility of a direct hit . . . which, on balance, is probably the best approach.

A dress made from “patriotic” fabric with a design of Winston Churchill, tanks, aircraft and the flags of the UK, US and USSR . . . nice.

As well as interesting, it was also salutary. My mother was not always an elderly woman in elasticated-waist slacks and a shapeless acrylic knitted pullover. She once dressed something like this. This thought sent me back to old postwar photographs of my mother and aunt; how invigorating it must have been for them, as young women in 1947, to be to have pretty new frocks with surplus fabric for gathers and pleats!

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