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Rationing Fashion: Women's Clothing of WWII


War a la Mode: From Rayon to Race Riots

Several years ago, I bought an awesome vintage suit on eBay. I recently decided it would be the perfect outfit to wear to my cousin's upcoming wedding. Of course, I want my look to be as perfect as possible, so I started doing some research. What sort of shoes would have been worn with a suit like mine? What sort of hat? Would I need a full on, Mad Men style bullet bra to really rock the look?

To answer these questions, I turned to my old friend, The Internet. What began as a simple research project turned into a journey through history.

After looking at several images of vintage womens suits, and doing a lot of reading, I decided that my suit most resembled pictures and sewing patterns from the early 1940s. The more I read about 1940s fashion, the more interested I became in its fascinating backstory. Just as with all fashion, the clothing of the 1940s was shaped by its times. I knew it had been influenced by the cut and color of military uniforms, which were ubiquitous due to the war raging in Europe. I also knew that women who were replacing men in the factories had started wearing pants, and found them to be comfortable and practical.

What I hadn't known was how much 1940s fashion was shaped by the acute pressures of wartime rationing. The fabrics used and the styles employed are a direct result of restrictions on materials put in place to help the war effort. 1940s fashion can even be added to the (long) list of things that have led to race riots in Los Angeles.

Below is some of what I learned about clothes rationing in Britain and the United States during the war. I've included plenty of great pictures, some wartime film clips from the Home Front, and to add to the ambiance, a few WWII era songs. Enjoy!

Image retrieved from carbonated's flickr stream

1940s Womens Fashion - Form Follows Function

1940's Pendelton Plaid Womes Jacket

1940's Pendelton Plaid Womes Jacket

Image Source: Huzzah Vintage on Flickr

When I think of the fashion of the 1940s, I think of sleek lines and square shoulders. The sleeves are fitted instead of puffed or draping. The simple simple A-line skirts fall just below the knee, or the skirt is forgone in favor of slacks. I imagine good, solid shoes with a square heel or a wedge.

I'd always imagined this to be the influence stars like Kate Hepburn and Rosalind Russel, and to be sure, they played a part. What I didn't realize is that 1940s fashion was highly economical. The sleek lines saved precious material. The solid shoes were practical for women going to work for the war effort. Even certain combinations of color and fabric, which look odd --even outlandish -- to my modern eyes, can be explained by creative women who lived by the slogan "Make Do and Mend".

Great Britain

Great Britain

Scarcity and Rationing in World War II Britain

Small Island Nation, Large Population, Few Natural Resources

The last successful invasion of England was achieved by William the Conqueror in 1066, but that doesn't mean that Great Britain is invulnerable. It is an island nation with a large, dense population, and not a lot in the way of forest plantations or mineral wealth. The resulting economic pressures led Britain to seek raw materials through colonial expansion. In 1939, the defense industry and the consumer economy both relied on goods shipped from overseas, either from Britain's colonies or from other countries.

Germany had spent the interwar period developing viable and deadly submarine technology. With the outbreak of war, Germany began to attack Atlantic shipping lanes, disrupting the imports Britain relied upon. U-Boats and other ships were deployed against supply convoys from North America and the South Atlantic, with the goal of denying Britain the supplies it needed to continue fighting -- or even to prevent famine.

Merchant convoys were protected by the British and Canadian naval and air forces, and, after 1941, by American forces as well. The German blockade was never a complete success, but supplies remained scarce. Rationing was required to ensure that everyone in the population got enough food, and also to ensure that enough textiles, leather, rubber, and other raw materials were available for the war effort.


Clothes Rationing in the United Kingdom

This Book Is Your Only Means Of Buying Clothing

Food rationing was introduced in early 1940. In 1941, austerity measures were enacted to conserve textiles. To prevent a run on stores, clothing rations were announced abruptly -- literally overnight.

The population awoke in June of 1941 to see announcements of shop closures in newspapers and women's magazines. When the shops reopened, ration coupons would be needed to make any purchase of clothing. These measures were undertaken not to deprive anyone of what they needed, but to make sure that each person got their fair share of the country's goods. At first, each person received 66 coupons per year -- enough for one new outfit of clothes. That number would go down to 48 coupons the following year, to a low of 36 coupons in 1945.

Women were encouraged to "Make Do and Mend". They used their creativity to repair and extend the usefulness of the outfits they already had, they remade old outfits into new ones, and they turned drapes and bedding into clothing. With nylon and silk needed to make parachutes, many painted their bare legs to simulate stockings. With rubber and leather needed desperately by the war effort, they turned to shoes with soles made of cork, which was not subject to rationing.

Make Do and Mend - A Ministry of Supply and Warwork News Production

"Make Do and Mend" was a common slogan in wartime Britain. This short film by the ministry of supply demonstrates how old items can be be made into new -- a baby's cot from old sacking, dressing gowns from patchwork, and ladies' dresses from men's dress clothes -- and includes a short "fashion show" with examples.

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CC41 Utility Mark

CC41 Utility Mark

The CC41 Utility Scheme

The laws of economics don't apply! Don't you know, there's a war on?

There's a saying about economics: you can control price of a good, or you can control the quantity of a good -- but you can't control both.

Nonetheless, the Civilian Clothing Act of 1941 managed to simultaneously control the price of scarce goods while controlling the supply of valuable war materiel. The CC41 Utility Scheme limited extraneous uses of fabric, such as cuffs and pockets; and both manufacturers and retailers faced restrictions on their profits from making and selling their goods.

The CC41 logo came to be known colloquially as "the cheeses". At first there was resistance to the Utility Scheme, but in time, clothing carrying the CC41 logo was found to be durable, cost effective, and offering a fair degree of consumer choice. In 1942, the government issued the Civilian Clothing Order, adding force to the Utility styles. By this time, superfluous trim, embroidery, buttons, or pockets had come to be considered bad taste and even unpatriotic.