Uniformity, functionality and simplicity

What do you think about when you see the phrase “wartime fashion”? Most people would probably answer something along the lines of “make do and mend”.

Well I thought exactly the same. That was prior to visiting Fashion on the Ration: Street Style in the 1940s, on display until the 31st August 2015 at London’s Imperial War Museum. The IWM’s website explains the exhibit has been collated from 300 separate collections. It features an impressive range of paintings, sketches and mannequins displaying various outfits, and other ephemera. The occasional audio posts provide testimonies of people discussing different elements of fashion during the war.

The exhibit is set out chronologically following the evolution of fashion in the 1930s; to the changes demanded by the outbreak of war, and all the way to the end of the war in 1945 and Christian Dior’s 1947 revolution: the “New Look”.


The exhibition’s primary focus is on womenswear. I found the under representation of menswear odd at first. However most men were at the front at the time, menswear was essentially military uniforms and suits, with logically little need to elaborate further.

Despite the fact that the exhibit inhabits a relatively small section of the vast Imperial War Museum, I left feeling thoroughly informed and educated as to how fashion changed during the 1940s. Fashion during the Second World War could be summarized by three words: uniformity, functionality and simplicity.

The ascent of the uniform as the primary fashion, at the start of the war, was brought about for two reasons; firstly shortages in materials and demand for available resources to go elsewhere. Secondly women became increasingly involved in the war. Made up of dull muted greys, greens, blues and murky browns clothes became much less distinctive but identified one’s role and status. Phyllis Warner, a journalist in 1939, described everything as being “air raid shelter appropriate”. It certainly looked that way.

Fashion became about getting involved and practicality. Paintings like Ruby Loftus’ “Outstanding Factory Worker” show women in industrial environments with their hair held back, wearing practical outfits and working hard to support the war effort. Imagine the “We can do it!” poster. The only other uniforms were military and they were only ever slightly different from their male counterparts. The type you might have seen in any World War drama, or even Dad’s Army.

Consequently there was less need for designs and women’s clothes began to look “masculine and aggressive” as one testimony describes them.

Siren suits and trousers became new trends that blended fashion and practicality. The siren suit was the 1940s long sleeved equivalent to a jumpsuit. Housecoats were important when working around the house, as clothes became less affordable women became much more protective over what they had.

A lovely patchwork housecoat serves as the perfect example of recycling, being constructed from several different items into one colourful garment. As resources became scarce, people became increasingly creative and “Make Do and Mend” – indeed – took over. Underwear made from parachute or map silk was another demonstration of what people could do.


Jewellery was also made from anything – examples included crashed aircraft or plastic windscreens. Processes like knitting and darning were also showcased as easy and affordable ways for people to create and alter clothes where necessary. I was intrigued by what was achieved with so little.

A lovely regal red coat showed the rarity of slightly more extravagant clothing during the war. Resting in its own case, its isolation underlines its value and quality.

Later in the war the “utility clothes”, a government initiative to make quality and price controlled items, was the first determined effort to increase the range of fabrics and colours available in fashion. Again these were all fairly similar; dresses tended to have strong shoulders and flowed to below the knee. There was, after all, still a need to preserve resources for the war.

Designs were again kept simple but were now slightly brighter and more detailed representing the new efforts and bringing optimism back into fashion. As for men, colours remained muted and options were limited to uniforms or suits. Suits were basically just another uniform.

“Good looks and good morale are the closest of allies,” a Yardley cosmetics advert told me. “To yield carelessness is to lower standards to the enemy”. Despite the lack of most cosmetics women were still encouraged to look good in aid of boosting morale. This particular section proved the idea of beauty did not disappear completely during the war; however shallow it appeared to me at first.

The last part of the exhibit addresses the changes in fashion after the war, represented by Dior’s “New Look”. Dior’s goal was to move fashion away from the masculine influences two world wars had brought and reinstate typical ideas of fashion and beauty. This revival of traditional femininity was characterised by longer skirts, smaller waists and the use of richer materials. This period also marked the first time designers worked with the mass market in mind.

70 years later, the context is clearly different. At the end of the exhibition a video underlines how today society favours garments of lower quality or durability. Elizabeth Wilson, a cultural historian, discussing “fast fashion”, says people today are “less thrifty” and less creative with what they wear. Many would agree with her; I certainly did.
Despite this major shift in our attitude to clothes, wartime fashion does have a lingering legacy.


On this last video Patrick Grant, one of the judges on popular British TV programme “The Great British Sewing Bee” and owner of Norton & Sons and E. Tautz & Sons points out there are “military inspirations” in designer’s collections and on the high street quite frequently. “Make do and mend” is currently in revival, Grant also said, as people feel the squeeze under current austerity and financial pressure. Not wishing for more austerity, one can hope this trend of more a restrained consumption carries on; it certainly in sharp contrast to the previous decade of carefree spending.

There is definitely a sense of a journey in fashion during the 1940s. Fashion reflected the changing roles of women by becoming all about functionality and undeniably, more masculine. At the same time women made sure that it wasn’t all about uniforms, injecting colours and designs as much as possible in simple yet often delightful and imaginative ways. As the war progressed, the government and designers became more involved with fashion for the people and with the help of publications like Vogue, continued to inspire a sense of creativity and beauty. The decade was then rounded off with an explosion of more conventional ideas of fashion and beauty and things got a lot brighter.

What I walked away with was an understanding of how fashion during the war was dictated by the circumstances of the time. Just because all efforts were focused on producing materials for the war doesn’t mean that fashion went completely out of the window. “Make do and Mend” encouraged a sense of individuality and women managed to overcome adversity and produce creative and functional fashion. I agree whole-heartedly that we as a culture are just not in that mind set anymore and are much more changeable when it comes to ideas about old and new clothes.

It wasn’t until after I had left, and was able to reflect upon what I had just seen that I also realised it had been grey and cloudy when I entered and moderately sunnier when I left. I thought this mirrored the story I had just been told quite nicely.

Fashion on the Ration: Street Style in the 1940s
On display until 31st August 2015
Every day, 10am – 6pm
Adults £10, Children £5 and Concessions £7

IWM London
Lambeth Road
London SE1 6HZ
020 7416 5000

Written by Alastair James