The other day I visited the Fashion on The Ration exhibit at the Imperial War Museum. It was my first time to the museum and I was expecting a dark, depressing, dingy place full of dusty artifacts and crumbling photos. I could not have been more wrong. Straight from the offset standing out front, the epic architecture complete with canons; garden of English roses and the Union Jack flying high and proud overhead, struck me with awe and I got goosebumps of pride. I was welcomed at the main doors by the enthusiastic John from Loch Lomond who was only too helpful answering my questions and checked in at the end of my visit to see how I enjoyed it.
For those who may not know, rationing was the system the British Government used during World War Two to limit the amount of goods the general public could consume. Families were allocated a certain amount of key groceries weekly such as butter, eggs, and sugar, and this system also extended to clothing and materials. Individuals were assigned a ticket system for the year and could use only these for their entire wardrobe; you can imagine the steps they had to take to ensure their clothes stayed in good condition and didn’t wear out too soon. The number of tickets per item depended on the amount of time, labour and materials that made up that garment.
The government did this for a few reasons: first, they had to ensure there were enough raw materials such as wool for the soldiers’ uniforms. Secondly, they had to also ensure that (wo)man power was being allocated in the most advantageous way for the country and that the factories weren’t busy humming with sewers making “I’m with Stupid” t-shirts rather than using those same machines to make parachutes. At the time they didn’t know how long the war was going to last, so they had to take every precaution to ensure they would win the war in the long-term and not lose due to frippery in the first few years.
What struck me the most during my visit to this exhibit was that characteristics and nuances of 1940’s fashion that I thought were just due to preference and style were actually because of the war, and more precisely, the ration. For example, braces/suspenders for both trousers and socks were commonplace because zippers and elastic were strictly controlled because of austerity measures. Cuffs on trousers and double-breasted suits were seen as being a waste of fabric and were not allowed. Fair Isle knit patterns became wide-spread as they were an attractive way to use up scraps of wool. Shoes were banned from having rubber soles as they needed the rubber for other uses in the war.
I remember my dad showing me this school photo of him when he was 11 and at the time I thought it was strange that they were all wearing shorts, especially as he grew up in Newcastle which is not the warmest of cities.* This was 1950 however, during the war boys under 13 years old were only allowed to wear shorts to save on fabric. Mens trousers could be a maximum circumference of 48 cms at the hem, and socks a maximum height of 24 cms.
The photo that stayed with me the most was of this young man who is being deployed and given a sharp new outfit to go home wearing. I know my maternal grandfather received a long leather jacket when he was deployed from the Royal Air Force during this time and it was the warmest thing he owned so slept with it on the bed. You can only imagine how these men and woman must have felt returning to their families and homes, knowing that it was all over. Being given a sharp new outfit- well, that must have been icing on the cake.
For anyone considering a visit to this exhibition, please go. There has also been a book published on the topic. The exhibitions runs until August 31, 2015. Tell John I say hi.
*Side note- My father said they were too poor to own school uniforms and that what they were wearing were the only clothes they had. Pops is third from left in the second row.