We sent stylist Bertie Bowen to Imperial War Museum London’s exhibition exploring 1940s street style. Here’s what she thought.
Before going to the IWM I had no idea what clothes rationing involved apart from a conversation I once had with my boyfriend’s Nan. She told me that to this day she still unravels her hand-knitted jumpers and re-knits them when she wants something new, which seems extreme to say the least. I was eager to discover how clothes rationing worked and, crucially, how people coped.
Fashion on the Ration explores how fashion not only survived but flourished during wartime. It brings the 1940s to life with its rich assortment of photography, paintings, posters, audio interviews, grainy news reels, TV adverts, magazines, letters and – most lovely of all – actual garments.
The ingenuity and skill that went into retaining a sense of style really proves how important fashion was to the average person in 1940s Britain. Even in the extreme circumstances of war, dressing with style was still an instinctual and vital part of everyday life for most people.
The war also influenced fashion. Elements of military uniforms made their way into civilian outfits and still do today – hence the ubiquitous military trend. In fact, I found many elements of 1940s fashion very familiar.
For example, Churchill had a fondness for his ‘siren suit’. Worn for practical reasons during a raid, the siren suit was comfortable, warm and quick to pull on when spending time in a bunker – not dissimilar to the ‘onesie’ worn these days when hiding out on the sofa with a pizza and box set.
The well known ‘Make Do and Mend’ campaign arrived in 1941. TV ads and magazine articles made it sound suspiciously easy but the resourcefulness people found within themselves was nothing short of heroic.
Innovative use was made of all sorts of unexpected materials: in one glass case is some jewellery thought to be made from the windscreen of a crashed German aircraft. There’s also an elegant dressing gown made from a silk map that could be a modern designer piece and a beautifully delicate wedding dress displayed in perfect condition even though it has been worn by no less than 15 brides. That level of camaraderie is humbling.
We are so used to seeing black and white photos from this era that it’s an unexpected treat to see the clothes in real life. There’s even a small selection of fabrics you are invited to touch so that you can feel how rough, scratchy, thick and heavy they are: purely functional, in other words.
One highlight of the exhibition is a series of ‘utility outfits’ (tea dresses, suits, kidswear, corsets and sturdy shoes) displayed along one side of the room, only just out of reach. Without protective glass you’re really able to see the fabrics. They’re so vivid; the prints vibrant and cheerful.
Bright, colourful clothes represented part of the attitude Britain upheld throughout the war. They believed that looking one’s best and not letting standards slip helped with morale. Women were also encouraged to wear makeup and do their hair every day.
The headscarves (or ‘glamour bands’) worn by wartime women protected their hair when working with machinery but were also popular because shampoo was very limited. The iconic headscarf-wearing women of the 40s were borne out of a need to cover dirty hair – precisely the reason I wear one today (literally today: at the time of writing I haven’t washed my hair in six days).
There’s an entire wall dedicated to colourful scarves with home front themes, Churchill quotes, flags, badges and wartime cartoons. I was in my element.
I came away inspired, not just by the beautiful clothes but by the mindset and imagination of the British people. The rules and restrictions set by the ration, rather than limiting and suffocating creativity, generated a gritty determination. People (particularly women) used their imagination; they improvised and persevered and in the end the fashion that was born in the 1940s was so fabulous that it still resonates with us today.
So too does some of that ‘Make Do and Mend’ attitude, with the recent revival of knitting clubs and upcycling prime examples of this. The exhibition ends with a series of interviews with designers and historians discussing how they hope consumers and manufacturers have come full circle and begun to react against ‘fast fashion’.
A slower fashion that places the focus on quality and longevity as well as style may be within our grasp and Fashion on the Ration proves it’s not just an idealists dream: it could be the reality for future generations.
There’s so much we can learn from the past. I’m off to darn some socks and wash my hair – because we have plenty of shampoo.
Fashion on the Ration will run at the Imperial War Museum, London until August 31.2021 Views
Stylist, writer and mother living in East London. A clompy shoed, curly haired, Radio 4 enthusiast. www.mothershoppers.com