Rather than the glitzy, oversized-shoulderpadded creations of the Mighty 80s or the freewheeling fashion favored by the flappers of the dripping-in-cash Jazz Age who liked the fringe on their frocks to move as fast as they did through life, today's fashionistas with a clue have ditched the form-over-function focus in favor of a much more practical approach. Witness the rise of the sharing economy amongst the Millennials. They enjoy the experience of whatever it is - from cars to clothing (eg. Rent the Runway) - without the burdens of owning it.
Which obviously puts function squarely in the spotlight. But this doesn't have to mean frumpy as this super-interesting and on-point exhibition at Imperial War Museums in London shows. FASHION ON THE RATION: 1940s Street Style examines the period in Britain from June of 1941 until four year's after the war's end in 1949, when the amount of new garments one could buy was restricted.
But what wasn't restricted was creativity.
Take the way people responded fashion-wise to the threat of gas warfare. Over 40 million respirators had been distributed in Britain and although it wasn't compulsory to carry them at all times, people were advised to. While the cardboard box with a string threaded through so it could be carried over the shoulder wasn't happening, a cute handbag (top) certainly was - complete with special gas mask compartment.
As was this plastic cuff-bracelet re-purposed from the windscreen of a crashed German aircraft. (image)
Tell me they don't remind you of many of the offbeat, craftsy-cute things you find on etsy right now?
Because such a large percentage of the British population was required - or entitled - to wear some sort of uniform as part of the armed forces, there was a massive surge in demand for uniforms and regulation footwear. Raw materials and labor had to be directed into the war machine and out of civilian production, so clothes rationing was imposed. First, common items of clothing were analyzed to see how much material and labor went into making them, which determined how many "points" something was worth. People were given an initial allocation of 66 points for a year as well as a booklet of coupons. When they went shopping, they paid for their purchases using a mix of both. To buy stockings, two coupons were required, while a pair of women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons. And a dress went for a hefty 11 coupons.
To help existing supplies of clothing last longer, the government launched a Make Do and Mend campaign covering everything from how to make shoes last longer to preventing moth damage to wool items, caring for fabrics and DIY. Classes were held around the country teaching people how to cut clothing patterns and sew (and repair) their own items. (Although coupons were still required even to buy dressmaking fabric.) "Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing," points out the exhibition's curator, Laura Clouting. "Individual style flourished." (image)
Life was also dominated by the much-feared German bombers, so to make it harder for them to find their targets at night, all street lighting and illuminated signs were extinguished and cars were required to put caps over their lights to dim them. Not surprisingly, the blackout caused a rise in collisions. So fashionistas began wearing reflective accessories, from pin-on flowers to bags to button trim, like this fun, club-ready light-reactive brooch:
As women were conscripted into industrial work, their long hair kept getting caught in machinery, so many turned it to their fashion advantage with headscarves and turbans, which they dubbed "glamour bands." (When life throws you drab factory overalls, bring your Accessories A-Game.)
"This exhibition explores how men and women found new ways to dress as the rationing of clothes took hold," adds Clouting. "This is a story not about the end of fashion but about creativity, innovation and coping in adversity, the impact of which can still be seen upon British style today."
FASHION ON THE RATION: 1940s Street Style is on display through August 31, 2015.
- Lesley Scott
NOTE: Honoring the past to help us pave the way forward fashionwise is a signature of the Folkspun fashion tribe. For more of my posts & podcasts about this tribe, CLICK HERE. To learn more about each of fashion's four mega-tribes that I track, START HERE.