1940s Rationing - Utility Clothing Fashion and Costume History
During the Second
World War Paris produced restrained clothing to match the economic atmosphere.
The general wartime scene was one of drabness and uniformity, continuing well
after the war finished in 1945. There was an
austere atmosphere and people were encouraged to 'make do and mend.'
Uniforms were seen at all civilian social occasions from cinemas, weddings, restaurants to gala
events. It was impossible to go anywhere without being aware of war as uniformed
men and women in auxiliary services were an everyday fact.
Jim and Connie Newbury's Wedding
Jim and Connie
Newbury my maternal aunt and uncle at their marriage in 1945 shortly after he returned home from World War II. She wears a powder blue silk and wool crepe mix
suit in a fashionable military style typical of the era.
Grooms usually married in their service uniform.
All the fripperies of fashion dressing pre-war were now
thought of as very bad taste and simplification of style became essential if a
woman wanted to appear patriotic. The silhouette became refined and unadorned
and consisted of a boxy square shoulder padded jacket and short straight skirt. Clothes had to be practical and restrained. They had to work in all situations
and give free movement.
As wool had been used for uniforms for all the services there
was shortage of wool and steps had to be taken to ration clothing for civilians
as they were finding it impossible to get goods at all.
Every type of cloth
was short worldwide so material was severely rationed. Rationing was very strict
in the UK and operated on a strict coupon system that for clothing started on
Whit Sunday on June 1st 1941. A similar system was set up in
America in 1942. You are reading an original Utility Clothing During
Rationing article by Pauline Weston Thomas at
Food rationing had
started early in the war in January 1940 and rationed goods were frequently
added to a growing list. So considerable restrictions were already in hand by
The weekly allowances
of foodstuffs for each adult were:-
Food Rations for 1 Week for 1 Person
4oz bacon or ham
2oz jam spread
1 shilling's worth of meat
8oz fats of which only 2oz
could be butter
Later sweets and tinned goods
could be had on a points system.
Bread was not rationed until
post war in 1946.
It's not surprising
then to realise that the nation was fitter and slimmer than at any other time in
its history. If you lay out this amount of food on a plate it is quite shocking
to see how little there is.
For example 2oz of tea is equivalent to about 20 teabags which
would make about 3 uses a day. An ounce of cheddar cheese, an average finger, is
a snack nibble by today's standards.
Many people supplemented their food with eggs from chickens kept on a scrap
of land. Local poached rabbits and hares and fruits and vegetables grown in
allotments eked out meagre resources. Fruit became as exotic as truffles
and tinned and dried goods supplemented diets. People were healthy and
often slender. Meanwhile, today you could be tempted by a
Details of the
rationing was announced in newspapers and women's magazines. The detailed
message was in simple language for the masses to understand without any
misunderstanding. If only the edicts of politicians and government were so
simply stated today.
Of Clothing, Cloth and Footwear
From June, 1941
has been introduced not to deprive you of your real needs, but to make
more certain that you get your share of the country's goods - to get
fair shares with everybody else.
the shops re-open you will be able to buy cloth, clothes, footwear and
knitting wool only if you bring your food ration book with you. The
shopkeeper will detach the required number of coupons from the unused
margarine page. Each margarine coupon counts as one coupon towards the
purchase of clothing and footwear. You will have a total of 66 coupons
to last you a year; so go sparingly. You can buy where you like
and when you like without registering.
This meant that women
were forced to wear clothes that they had in their wardrobes before the
announcement, adding items only as if essential. The coupons were also reduced
as the war progressed. Mid war they fell to 48 a year and by 1945 clothing
coupons were as low as 36 a year. The scheme continued to issue coupons until
1949 with all forms of rationing ended in 1952.
One aspect that never
seems to be much accounted for is the fact that even with the coupons some women
and families were simply too poor to buy new clothes at all. To some having the
coupons made no difference as money was still needed to pay for the goods.
Inevitably a black market arose in coupons and vast numbers of books, about 700,000 became lost or stolen in the early part of the scheme until the government issued
new rules which forbade the detaching of coupons. New rules meant coupons had to
be stamped in the book and detached only at the point of sale. You are reading an original Utility Clothing During Rationing article by Pauline
Weston Thomas at
Here's a list showing
the items as rationed for women and girls.
|Item Of Clothing
|Lined mackintosh or coat over 28"||
Under 28" short coat or jacket||11||8|
|Frock, gown or dress of wool||11||8|
|Frock, gown or dress of other fabric||7||5|
|Bodice with girls skirt or gym tunic||8||6|
|Divided skirt or skirt||7||5|
|Dungarees or overalls||6||4|
|Blouse, shirt, sports top, cardigan or jumper||
Pair of slippers, boots or shoes||5||3|
|Other garments including corsets||5||2|
|Petticoat or slip, cami knickers or combinations||
Apron or pinafore||3||
|Scarf, gloves, mittens or muff||2||2|
|Stockings per pair||2||1|
|Ankle socks per pair||1||1|
|1 yard wool cloth 36"wide||3||3|
|2 ounces of wool knitting yarn||1||1|
In addition to the items listed there were goods that could be
bought without coupons such as small items for babies under 4 months old. Boiler
suits, workmen's bib, brace and overalls, hats and caps, sewing thread, mending
wool, mending silk, boot and shoe laces, tapes, braids, ribbons and other
fabrics less than 3 inches in width, elastic, lace, lace net, sanitary towels,
braces, suspenders, garters, hard haberdashery, clogs and black out dyed cloth
were all ration free. Coupons were not needed for second hand articles.
Retailers had a notice
especially directed at them.
Special Notice To Retailers
Retailers will be allowed to get fresh
stocks of cloth up to and including June 28th of other
rationed goods up to and including June 21st WITHOUT
SURRENDERING COUPONS. After those dates they will be
able to obtain fresh stocks only by turning in their customer's coupons.
Steps have been taken in the interest
of smaller retailers to limit during the periods the quantity of goods
which can be supplied by a wholesaler or a manufacturer to any one
retailer however large his orders. Further information can be
obtained from your trade organisations.
Rationing was severe
and where economies in designs could be made they were. In 1942 under the
Civilian Clothing Order the British government introduced sumptuary laws
designed to give weight to the Utility scheme. The laws made it illegal and
unpatriotic to spend time embellishing clothing for sale, and forbade
manufacturers using the CC41 label shown in the header from using fancy trimmings, unnecessary
buttons, extra stitching or tucks or pleats or pockets more than was essential to
To boost morale, the
Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers led by Captain Molyneux, Norman Hartnell,
Digby Morton, Victor Stiebel, Angèle Delange, Peter Russell, Madame Bianca Mosca and
Hardy Amies also created 34 smart Utility Clothing designs in 1942.
They were officially
approved by the Board of Trade and a selection was mass-produced. Finally they
were finished off with the official and now famous CC41 (Clothing Control 1941)
label designed by the commercial artist Reginald Shipp.
followed the square shouldered and short skirted fashions of the war era whilst
sticking to the strict regulations for minimal cloth usage. Buttons were limited
to three and turn back cuffs were eliminated. Skirts some 19 inches from the
ground were usual. Right Standard utility suit designed by the Incorporated
Society Of London Fashion Designers.
Even within the Utility scheme there were couture garments for those who could afford them, but
they still used coupons. The wealthy also had their uniforms tailored at the
best tailors rather than wear standard issue. For lots more colour images
of fashions of 1946 see my
Tailleur Fashion plates page. You are reading an original
Utility Clothing During Rationing article by Pauline Weston Thomas at
Fashion items that
became popular were the wedge sole shoe, the turban, the siren suit and the
kangaroo cloak. The turban equalised people of all sorts. It began as a simple
safety device to prevent the wearer's hair entangling in factory machinery. It
doubled as a disguise for unkempt hair which women had less time to attend to
being so busy running homes, jobs and giving extra help wherever they could.
A woman's essentials - sketches of the turban, the tied
headscarf, a basic sensible military style suit and the sturdy wedge shoe of wartime Britain.
sketches of headwear are here.
For colour images of fashions see my
1940s Tailleur Fashion
Siren suits were the original jumpsuit and the all enveloping
sometimes tartan cloth garment was a huge hit especially at night when sirens
called citizens to the air raid shelter for cover. With its quick zippered front
individuals could wear the suit over pyjamas making it ideal for children. The
princesses Elizabeth and Margaret both owned siren suits as did Winston Churchill
and others. The siren suit was practical and warm in draughty situations. Later
in the 1960s it was developed into evening wear in slinky Pucci prints.
Over the siren suit some would have donned a Kangaroo cloak
coat so called because of its huge roomy kangaroo pockets. The oversized pockets
were ideal to stack with essential items as they ran through the house to an air
The severe shortage of leather meant that other thick sole
materials such as cork was used. The wedge sole was clumpy, but sturdy and wearers could walk
for miles as the wedge stopped the hard road from making feet sore. They also
lasted a long time and needed minimal repair as did clogs which were ration free,
but noisy in wear.
Women were encouraged
to 'Make Do' and 'Mend'. A 'Mrs. Sew and Sew' featured in advertisements in
women's magazines and propaganda cinema clips promoted the idea of recycling
textiles. To working class women who had always had to make do and mend this was
all rather patronizing and nothing new.
Pillowcases would be turned into white shorts for summer.
Wedding dresses would be worn several times, borrowed by sisters and friends, until the
original 1939 bride in desperation for new items, remade the dress up into
underwear, French Knickers or nightgowns. The only way to have feminine
underwear was to sew it yourself. Skirts were made from men's old plus fours or
trousers. Cast offs would be made into children's clothes. Collars would be
added and trims applied all to eke out a limited wardrobe.
Women who could sew
dresses had trouble getting hold of fabrics so they used everything from
industrial blackout cloth to parachute silk or the harsher new parachute nylon. Blankets were used to make coats and old voluminous swagger coats cut into
smaller garments. Pillowcases were trimmed with lace and made into blouses. Nothing was wasted and even milk top discs were covered in raffia and made into
handbags or accessories.
Everyone hand knitted
and knitted mitts and scarves and socks made up in open lacy patterns stretched yarns
even further. The finer the yarn the more knitwear a person could produce, but it was
mainly expert knitters that used very fine silky Mercerised cotton yarns.
Wool socks were unravelled to have the yarn intermixed with
random colours in fair isle designs often to make short waist cardigans or V
neck sleeveless waistcoats for either sex. You are reading an
original Utility Clothing During Rationing article by Pauline Weston Thomas at
Lorraine and Evan, guests at a wedding
They are still on rationed clothes after the end of the war.
She wears a short black velvet dress and pancake hat. Lorraine
said she bought the dress from her sister-in- law for ten shillings
because by the end of the war she had no other dress left to wear.
Lorraine looks quite beautiful and very smart considering
Evan wears a knitted fair isle waistcoat beneath his well worn wool
suit bought in the autumn of 1939 for their wedding. They brought forward
their wedding when they heard war had been declared, wanting to be
together and believing two could live as cheaply as one.
Lorraine heard war announced over the radio on a bus, when travelling
home to South Wales from London. She told me, they 'knew' something
was up when sandbags appeared everywhere! So many of the girls
originally from the countryside but working in London, just packed their
bags and went back home.
Stockings of all types
were scarce. Not even rayon stockings were readily available. Women were encouraged to wear ankle socks. Stockings might be found
on the black market and later in the war many befriended an American G. I. in
the hope of a pair of the new nylon stockings. Otherwise it was make do and mend
again and in the case of stockings, make do with leg make up or gravy browning
and get a friend to draw a straight line down the back of the leg.
Face make up was in
short supply and news of a fresh stock of well known branded lipsticks at the
local chemist meant that the shop sold out within an hour. Munitions workers
were encouraged to wear make up as a protective barrier to the grit and
chemicals they worked amidst.
Women working in dangerous conditions were helped
to keep up their morale and Max Factor officials from America visited munitions
factories handing out the new pancake make up and lipstick. Ponds cold
cream, Vaseline and Vitapointe conditioning cream for hair were the few items
usually available. Munitions workers often had skin that turned canary
yellow if they handled lots of explosive materials.
There was never enough
stock of anything, but women still did their best to look good and their hair
was important to them. By day it was kept out of sight in a turban or knitted
snood which stopped it getting caught in machinery. Generally hair still had
some length as women could wash and dress their hair in ways which made them
feel more feminine.
Left - Veronica Lake and her glamorous hairstyle.
The Veronica Lake hairstyle was very popular as was peroxide
bleached hair. Glamorous styles with curls were preferred to the short styles of
Some factories even installed hair salons to improve women's long
term attendance. During this era Princess Elizabeth popularised the wearing
of a headscarf tied under the chin.
Clothing, textiles and
furniture marked with the Utility scheme met certain specifications and were of
good design. By the end of rationing utility goods came to mean good quality. Many older citizens in their eighties still have damask tablecloths, blankets and easy chairs
bearing the CC41 mark shown in the header are in good state. You are
reading an original Utility Clothing During Rationing article by Pauline Weston
The ragtime dances led
the way for the equally outrageous Jitterbugging of the 1940s and the Jiving
and Rock and Rolling of the 1950s.
After the war the public became resentful and impatient when
rationing was not relaxed on clothes. People were bitter because clothes were
being made, but were exported in an effort to rebuild the British textile and
wool economy. Paris continued to produce exotic fashions, but America was
developing a look of its own which was mainly found in Claire McCardell's designs. The American look was simple and classic and continues to have followers
Christian Dior's New Look
of 1947 was frowned upon by both the UK and
USA governments and people were discouraged from wearing clothes that 'wasted'
so much fabric. The advice was ignored particularly by Princess Elizabeth and
Princess Margaret who were soon wearing it because it had influenced their own
designers. Manufacturers read the public's need and their craving desire for newness and innovative
change. They continued to manufacture replicas of the line and soon boxy uniform
were consigned to the history books. You have been reading an
original Utility Clothing During Rationing article by Pauline Weston Thomas at
Read more about Dior's New Look in
fashion history on the page on Fifties Fashion.
For colour images of
1946 fashion history see my Tailleur Fashion
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