Fashion on the Ration

The Imperial War Museum in London is launching an exhibition of 1940s wartime street style.

The exhibit will showcase how fashion survived and flourished under the tight rationing rules in Britain during that time. Pieces from air-raid ‘onesies’ to jewelry made from airplane parts can be seen on
display. “This is a story not about the end of fashion
but about creativity, innovation and coping in adversity, the impact of which
can still be seen in British fashion,” says Bryony Phillips, a rep for the

Original pieces of clothing from the era give a glimpse into
functional fashion used by women and men during the war. It provides an
inspiring perspective on both fashion and creativity, but also an historical
insight into the home lives of wartime Brits, and the various restrictions the
war placed upon them.

WWII put a huge number of men and women in uniform which
became an enormous pressure on Britain’s textile and clothing industries.  “Both raw materials and labour
had to be directed away from civilian production to ensure that the demand
could be met for uniforms. Commitments by shoe and boot manufacturers to
produce footwear for the services contributed to shortages of civilian shoes,”
explains Bryony.

To reduce the consumption of clothes and safeguard materials
for the army, the British government introduced clothes rationing in 1941.  This came as a complete surprise to most
people and retailers, and was similar to food rationing, in that it sought to
ensure fairness, and availability of garments.

Since most people couldn’t afford to buy new clothing, a
campaign called ‘Make Do and Mend’ was launched to encourage fixing up and
repurposing old clothes and fabrics. This made for some great innovations and
creative power to be introduced into the world of fashion.

“Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric
to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability
in dealing with rationing,” explains Bryony. “Individual style flourished.
Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating
of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter
or smarten up an outfit.”

Many women used furniture fabrics and blackout material for
dressmaking. Parachute silk was popular for underwear and wedding gowns. Scrap
metal materials from factories were used as jewelry materials. And many women
were encouraged to keep up appearances despite the rationing, in order to
maintain morale. Since make-up was also in low supply, women used fruit juices
and boot polish as makeup.

A snake bracelet made
from air plane scrap metal.

This face powder compact in the shape of a US Army
officer’s cap made a popular gift for servicewomen and the wives and
girlfriends of servicemen.

To learn more about the exhibit, please visit
their website.

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