Ever since I was a teenager I was interested in vintage clothes and one of my favourite periods was the 1940s. I used to particularly seek out the Utility brand, with its distinctive CC41 tag, in order to buy clothes made for war-time Britain. The brand represented a well-designed, price controlled product which I found appealing. Good quality, lasting, fashion for the masses.
I was attracted to the styling, quality, and classic design. Also the colours appealed to me as having a nice “old-fashioned” feel, and an appropriate one in the 1970s. Here are a charming set of Utility clothes modelled by, I am guessing, ordinary women, on the streets of Bloomsbury. I love this series – so similar to the kind of pictures you find on blog today (I am not sure why they are all looking to the right). A head scarf – tied at the front in the 1940s turban style – gloves, and essentially practical shoes complete the outfit. The one on the right – the young woman’s suit, required 18 coupons (see below).
Rationing, Coupons and Points
Prior to the Second World War mass-produced clothes were becoming more available at prices that could be afforded by ordinary working people. Once the war started fashion was seen as frivolous as most fabric was requisitioned for military purposes. Clothes rationing came into effect in Britain from 1 June 1941. It lasted, albeit in a gradually reduced format, until March 1949. Clothes produced for the civilian population had to pared down, simplified and stingy on cloth. As a result major designers such as Hardy Amis and Digby Morton worked with the government to design clothes with small patterns, fewer pleats and pockets, and for men’s tailoring there were specific rules – here are some from the Making of Civilian Clothing (Restrictions) Order 1942 and 1943.
no turnups on trousers
no double-breasted jackets
three buttons or less
three pockets or less
no slits or buttons on the cuff
As with food rationing, the main aim of the scheme was to ensure fair shares. But it was also intended to reduce consumer spending, to free up valuable factory space and release workers for the war industries. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a ‘points’ value as well as money. Each item of clothing had a points value, usually displayed alongside the price. The more fabric and labour that was needed to produce a garment, the more points needed. Eleven coupons were required for a dress. Everyone was initially given a book of 66 coupons to buy new clothes for a year. This was cut to 48 in 1942 and 36 in 1943.
Second hand clothes were not rationed. The WVS set up exchanges so women could swap clothes that didn’t fit or they were bored with. Clothes were handed down from one child to the next or sold to other families. In fact fewer points were required, recognising not just that less cloth was required, but also that children grew quickly. Pregnant women received extra points for maternity and baby clothes. Patching and repairing clothes was encouraged by the Make Do and Mend campaign.
At this time many women knew how to darn a sock and making your own clothes, or cutting up Dad’s prewar suit to make something fresh, became very popular. Unravelling old jerseys to knit up new ones became a national pastime. They used furnishing fabrics until these were rationed too, after which blackout material and parachute silk were some of the few fabrics that were recycled into evening dresses and lingerie.
And – the reason for this post – opening today (until 31 August 2015) there is an exhibition on Fashion on the Ration at the Imperial War Museum. I can’t wait to see it.
And here is a question – If you had to go for a year with 66, or indeed 36, points, do you think you could have done it? What would you have bought, and what would you have sewn to eek it out?