From 1939-1945 Britain was at war, and to some extent late 1930s styles fossilised during this period. Rationing, especially of textiles, seriously affected the look of clothes. Government-devised ‘Utility’ clothes (specially designed to provide quality, economically produced clothing for the masses) restricted fashion excess. Women’s continuing need for feminine glamour and self-expression continued with interest in colour and making the most of coupon-free accessories like hats. Generally, lines became military, echoing the general atmosphere. Wide, padded shoulders, boxy jackets and knee-length, straight skirts were universally adopted. In the late forties longer skirts in a Britain struggling for basics, were desperately sought by women tired of ‘masculine’ fashions, skimpy lines and re-vamped old garments.
22a ‘Dorothy & baby in pixie hat’, c.1941
Mother and baby in winter outfits. Mum is wearing a military style camel coat over a flowery print dress. Her hair is concealed under a headscarf wrapped like a turban – a popular and practical way of dealing with long, waved and curled wartime hair for practical duties. Baby has a pointed ‘pixie’ hat, and matching coat. He might have just been picked out of his pram (babies were wrapped up and left out with the hood up in practically all weathers) as his feet are bare.
Lent by Mr and Mrs Beckett
22b Afternoon dress, coral and black rayon, c.1943
This dress has a Utility label (a double stylised crescent ‘CC41’ – Civilian Clothing 1941). Utility clothes used minimum cloth; hems and seams were skimped. Two-colour effects, combining smaller pieces of fabric to save waste, were common during the war. This example is of coral pink moss rayon crêpe and has a complex, but economically constructed top half: frills, cravat tie, covered buttons and belt buckle, puffed and padded sleeves and a short peplum. The skirt is 23.5″ long and has 3 box pleats at the front and one at the back and no hem to speak of. Tears have been carefully mended; a ‘good’ dress during bad times was treasured in any condition.
Given by Mrs M. Cliff of Frindsbury of Rochester, in 1980
22c Doll’s outfit, green/mauve, cotton and felt, 1940s
Homemade, of apple green cotton, printed with coloured sprigs, trimmed with scraps of felt. Probably ‘left overs’ from someone’s 1930’s work bag. The early Victorian shaped bonnet is made of mauve felt.
22d Knicker and slip set, scribble floral, pink, c.1947
Utility Scheme garments continued to be made until 1952. This slip and knicker set consists of French (wide leg) knickers with an elasticated top and a bias-cut, loose fitting slip. Made in shell pink rayon printed with a delicate design of spring bouquets and leaf skeletons, it is labelled ‘British made, ‘Handuc’ trademark, with utility label and original unused shop stock card tag.
Given by Noreen Marshall of Greenford, in 1984
22e High crown hat, felt and cellophane, 1945-47
Hats were not rationed during the War, but elaborate trimmings were not popular until peace was declared. Cellophane is made from wood pulp and though glassy in appearance, is air permeable. It was most popular for decorations and packaging during the 1930s to 1950s, and it is still used today. During the 1940s, the tilt of the hat varied – backwards in 1941, forwards from 1942-44 and backwards again in 1946. A variety of styles appeared through the decade – turbans, berets, cloches, snoods, skull caps, sou’westers, straw bonnets and the headscarf. Women expressed some individuality through hats, which allowed some indulgence. This hat resembles a late 18th Century French republican Phrygian cap of liberty and is made in dark brown felt and trimmed with cellophane and felt rosettes.
22f Shoulder bag and purse, tan reptile, c.1940
Although there were shortages during the War, many women back home who had family members on active service received exotic gifts ‘smuggled’ back to England. This crocodile bag and purse would have been considered very sophisticated. To show how fashion tastes change, it was bought for 10p in a jumble sale in the mid 1960s and never used – considered too gruesome!
Given by Veronica Tonge of Maidstone, in 1983
22g Seamed stockings, navy nylon, 1946
Nylon was the most important innovation in underwear history. It is a polyamide made from carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, and was developed in America in 1935 by Du Pont, but not announced until 1938. In 1941 nylon was restricted to wartime military use, even though Du Pont had granted nylon rights in Britain to ICI and through them to British Nylon Spinners and Courtaulds. Only rayon stockings were on the Utility Scheme, and even these were in short supply. Women hated going barelegged, and ankle socks were sometimes worn. Leg makeup, often improvised, was popular. A few lucky women, who had American G.I. boyfriends, sometimes got nylons as a much-envied gift. Nylon was finally ‘demobbed’ in 1947 and shown at the British Industries Fair as ‘a beauty and a revolution’. These navy Du Pont originals were seamed, with a reinforced foot.
Given by Joan Thompson of Eltham, London, in 1985
22h Wedge heel shoes, navy leather and suede, 1946
Slowly, after the War, travel to Europe for peaceful purposes began. These superior platform shoes were bought in Paris in 1946 for £5. They have a cork triple wedge heel of alternate suede and leather, the newly fashionable ‘peep toe’, and a sling back strap. Worn with the new, feminine, longer styles filtering from France, they are a symbol of the new look and women’s desire for real elegance and luxury again.
Given by Mrs Grant Dowdeswell of Biddeden, in 1982
1940s – What’s New?
A trademark of the Dow Badische Company for its plastic coated aluminium yarn which was introduced during this decade. Woven or knitted with cotton, nylon, rayon, silk or wool fibres.
Nylon stockings were first offered for sale in New York, USA. In 1941, British nylon was diverted to wartime military use and was not available as a fashion item during the war.
Clothing rationing, 1941
With the outbreak of World War II, ‘Utility’ clothing and furniture were encouraged. Clothing rationing started in 1941.
J.F. Winfield and J.T. Dickson of the Calico Printer’s Association introduced a polyester fibre. It is one of the most frequently used man-made fibres in the manufacture of clothing, crease-resistant, dries quickly and keeps its shape.
Man-made fibre developed by the Calico Printer’s Association. It was produced by ICI and became the tradename for their fibre.
Two-piece swimsuit launched simultaneously in France by Louis Réard, a little known designer and the more famous Jacques Heim. It acquired its name from the atomic bomb tests being conducted by the USA on a site called Bikini Atoll.
Synthetic fibre acrylic first launched as a wool substitute.