In 1938, on the eve of the Second World War, fashion critics were returning from Paris with exclaims that ‘Paris has decreed a new women’ who would be ‘veiled and gloved and corseted’. It seemed that tight-lacing was about to return to the world of fashion, replacing the tubular and more practical styles of dress that had swept it away in the 1920s. But the outbreak of World War II in 1939 cut Britain off from Parisian Haute Couture and halted such transformations in fashion.
Shortages in materials made it necessary for strict regulations to be applied to all production. ‘The Utility Clothing Scheme’ was launched by the government in 1941, with the aim to save 15% of domestic fabric production. The use of zips was no longer allowed as the metal was needed for arms production – some cosmetics manufacturers even began re-filling lipstick cases because of metal shortages! Buttons were limited and skirt hems rose as the Scheme specified fabric widths and lengths. Turn-back cuffs, patch pockets and hoods were banned completely as a part of a ‘no fabric on fabric’ rule. An Order in 1942 even deemed it unpatriotic and illegal to spend time embellishing clothes for sale!
The Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (ISLFD) - a group of designers and couturiers including House of Worth, Molyneaux, Hardy Amies and Lachasse - was established in 1942 to work with the Board of Trade. Under the war-time restrictions, the ISLFD created 32 clothing designs for mass-production. The garments had to be hard wearing and practical. The emerging tailored, slim silhouette, with square shoulders and a pronounced waist echoed the cut of military uniforms. The CC41 label was applied by manufacturers as a guarantee that the garment met the strict conditions for design and production.
All clothing – Utility Clothing included – fell under the coupon rationing system which was introduced in June 1941. People were given 66 coupons per year, but by 1945, this was reduced to as few as 36. To purchase a suit you needed 18 coupons, and a dress would need 12. With coupons limited and stockings in short supply, many women began to go bare legged, some even painting or drawing lines on the back of their legs to imitate a stocking seam!
Money was still needed to pay for goods alongside the coupons, and some people were simply too poor. This encouraged a ‘make do and mend’ attitude. Women were encouraged to follow the example of “Mrs Sew and Sew”, a character featured in advertisements and propaganda to promote the recycling of textiles. There were also other ways to express fashion; through brightly coloured headscarves, bold hairstyles and elaborate hats (which remained un-rationed).
Shortages continued even after the war ended in 1945, but fashion was already breaking away from war-time styles. In 1947, Christian Dior’s revolutionary first collection was hailed as the ‘New Look’, its signature silhouette characterized by a long, full skirt and a tiny waist. Dior purposefully broke away from war time restrictions, his creations famously using up to twenty yards of fabric. Rationing finally came to an end in 1949, paving the way for a very fashionable fifties! Utility Clothes, are now recognised for their high quality, and you can see examples of those that have stood the test of time at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre.
By Shauni Sanderson