Fashion on the Rationby 159
This lively exhibition has an element of fun, despite the serious context, using six themes: Into Uniform, Functional Fashion, Rationing and Make do and Mend, Utility Clothing, Beauty as Duty, Peace and a New Look. It tells the extraordinary story of clothing in wartime Britain and the incredible creativity which transformed just about every item of dress for men women and children when austerity and rationing were imposed. In 1939 a third of adults were wearing uniforms, generating a massive visible change to society. Some were so well-designed that they aided recruitment. The story at the heart of this exhibition examines the creative ways that British people, mainly women, took pride in their appearance despite limitations. On the one hand was the shortage of goods and on the other the clear message that it was women’s patriotic duty to look good while their men were away fighting. This was important on a number of levels, the economy being one of them. In 1942 the ingenious Utility Clothing Scheme was launched to equalise class differences and encourage guilt-free shopping, as it was vital to keep textile and clothing industries running. The Board of Trade saw that rationing was the only democratic way for poorer people to have fair shares of dwindling supplies. That it was the same for everyone was important for morale. The scheme allowed 66 clothing coupons per person, enough for one outfit a year. Each item had its price and a set number of coupons had to be exchanged on purchase.
Interestingly the government also understood that if clothing was not attractive life would be dreary. Everything was rigorously redesigned to accommodate shortages of materials and labour. The exhibition reveals how inventive designers were. Fashion designers such as Norman Hartnell, the Queen’s dressmaker, produced elegant clothes with a sense of public unity. Men’s suits were single breasted without turn-ups. The removal of excess fabric, shorter skirts, minimum pleats and pockets created a sleeker silhouette for women. Colour was vibrant and patterns cleverly designed to reduce wastage. Completely new items such as a siren suit were invented – designed to be thrown on for the dash to the air raid shelters; and remarkably similar to today’s onesies. This is an extract from Brenda M King's review in the Pop issue of Selvedge. Fashion on the Ration27 May 2016 – 1 May 2017 Imperial War Museum, North
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