Fashion On the Ration by Julie Summers

How the toughest of circumstances brought out individual creativity

“Style in the Second World War: Fashion on the Ration” was written by Julie Summers to coincide with the exhibit Fashion on the Ration: Street Style in the 1940s, currently on display at London’s Imperial War Museum. This light volume (232p) is suited to both the coffee table and the scholar bookshelves. Packed with information and references, it chronicles a time when fashion wasn’t as present in people’s day-to-day lives as it has been in other decades, and certainly today.

Julie Summers is a specialist of this era much celebrated on the 70th anniversary of VE day. Her fascination for the war is not in the war itself, but how people coped in the face of adversity and triumphed. Her most recent work includes the novel “Jambusters”, which has been adapted into the ITV drama “Home Fires”. Both the novel and drama deal with life in Britain during the war as seen by a rural Women’s Institute.

Fashion on the Ration explores how fashion changed between the 1930s and 40s, taking on a distinctive masculine influence as the roles of women in society changed. Offering an overview of fashion during the Second World War, the book delves into the differences between street style and high-end fashion, correcting lingering myths. Like the IWM’s exhibit the book relates to men’s fashion is largely excluded. It is understandable given that men’s fashion changed very little during the war.

Julie Summers explains how, despite the growing masculinity of their attire, women took it upon themselves to maintain a sense of style, fashion and beauty. They often had to fashion their own garments and accessories making the most of what they had. This wasn’t just for distraction; it was a necessity. Despite very tough conditions creativity and skill allowed women to overcome many obstacles. Summers describes the period as one of “uniformity on the one hand and individual expression on the other”. “Make do and Mend” is looked back on nostalgically as an attitude we should adopt today in the face of austerity and financial pressures.

The book follows the 1940s chronologically. It starts with pre-war fashion in the late 1930s, it then moves into the introduction of rationing and increased functionality. It then considers the war years and concludes with the “New Look” that emerged from Paris in 1947 and reintroduced old ideas of fashion and femininity.

The book explains how designers and the post-war public were initially hesitant towards a renaissance of fashion after so many years of austerity. Eventually everyone fell captive to the romance and colours that characterised the new turn in the plot. Summers concludes that austerity was actually a great benefit to the fashion industry as it introduced designers to the mass market for the first time. It is an origin that is often forgotten.

‘Fashion on the Ration’ also looks at the leaders of fashion during the war. The most notable of these being Audrey Withers, the wartime editor at Vogue, who helped shape ideas of fashion and design, encouraging creativity and ingenuity in others.

Summers has created an interesting study of a time when it was deemed unpatriotic to throw something away and not adapt it. It studies how the toughest of circumstances brought out individual creativity that has long disappeared, calling for us to think about how we view fashion and what value we place on our clothes. As a primarily narrative text, it doesn’t get weighed down by a certain point of view. Instead the book works as a foundation on which to conduct further reading. Even as a narrative work visuals appear periodically to illustrate the evolution fashion underwent.

Fashion On the Ration by Julie Summers
Fashion On the Ration by Julie Summers Fashion On the Ration by Julie Summers

The book promotes the idea of the 1940s as a positive time for British fashion. With its specific focus on Britain this book easily fits into the meta-history of fashion with references to other periods that had a defining influence on the fashion choices of the era.

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in fashion and of history from a sociological perspective. It’s also useful just to gain a general idea of fashion at a time where there were tough circumstances that brought a lot of limitations with them. For anyone making a comparative study of fashion and attitudes towards fashion this would be an ideal period to look at given the ideas of creativity that this period is known for.

In short, this book is insightful, informative and the quality of its writing makes it an easy read.

Title: Style in the Second World War: Fashion on the Ration
Author: Julie Summers
Publisher: Profile Books
Language: English
Hardcover: 240 pages

  • Publisher: Profile Books (5 Mar. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • 2 x 2.7 x 24 cm

ISBN: 978-1781253267
Published March 201

Can be purchased from the Imperial War Museum Book shop

Fashion On the Ration by Julie Summers

Fashion On the Ration by Julie Summers

Written by Alastair James