Earlier this week I visited the Fashion on the Ration exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London. The exhibition charts the war years and its impact on the nation’s dress; from luxurious couture to uniform and utility wear and much more. It is a really lovely educating exhibition, although sadly photography is prohibited.
I thought I knew the subject reasonably well, being an avid reader of fashion history, but it still made me think. As a child of the 1970s, I grew up with mass market fashion and a ready supply of high street outlets (even in the 1980s there were plenty of shops for the fashion conscious teen although far fewer than today), I have never considered the rise of high street and mass market fashion.
It’s obvious when I think about it, prior to 1939 fashion was inspired by Paris Couture and the rising popularity of Hollywood. However, from the 1940s onwards how we dressed completely changed. The obvious change was that around a third of the population were plunged into a uniformed existence, which meant that uniforms had to be quickly and efficiently produced – Savile Row for the masses would not be an option!
But it wasn’t simply uniforms that were governed by the war effort, the entire fashion industry was affected, as shortages in raw materials meant that clothing styles had to be streamlined. The exhibition charts the introduction of Utility clothing, which limited the styles and use of fabrics permitted for each garment. It was fascinating to see the surviving pieces (many of which were Marks and Spencer items, a brand which was an integral part of the development of Utility clothing) and whilst the styling detail wasn’t up to the pre-war standard, they were more detailed in style than their “value” twenty-first century counterparts. Of course, by this point clothing was also rationed (the number of coupons for a garment was determined by the amount of fabric and time taken to manufacture) so each item would be precious to the purchaser. This Utility clothing was clearly the front-runner for the modern high street, as it set the logistics for mass manufacture.
I marvelled at the couture uniforms (yes upper class WRNs had their uniform bespoke to their figure); the homemade patchwork house-coats to protect clothing; the rise of the Siren Suit (think modern day “onesies” to keep one snug in the air-raid shelter, of course); handbags which incorporated a gas mask in the way we’d incorporate an umbrella and how women continued to take a pride in their appearance, despite the harsh environment.
The exhibition made me think about the origins of mass-manufacture but also stop to consider how our current wardrobes would fair if suddenly fashion were put on a ration. True enough the majority of us have a larger pool of clothes than the average woman in 1939 but would that be enough? Would our modern mass-produced clothes stand up to six years of wear and tear? Would we be able to resourcefully make do and mend?
Unfortunately, the answer would be probably not. Whilst the average woman in 1939 had less clothes, the clothes she had were superior in both style, standard and quality than our modern day incarnations. Indeed the very nature of modern manufacture leaves little to work with if trying to repair, mend or let a garment out (look at the seams on any modern garment and you’ll find they’re virtually non-existent!).
More importantly, how would the twenty-first century woman cope without having the wealth of choice for purchasing, being able to buy a new frock for Saturday night on the town and having to make a choice, perhaps what amounted to one garment choice per season.
Definitely thought provoking for this fashionista, and worth a visit to anyone in London this August.