The enduring appeal of uniform


On my way to the gallery showing Fashion on the Ration at London’s Imperial War Museum, my eye was immediately caught by this fantastic flying jacket bearing the insignia of a B17 Flying Fortress, named Leading Lady. Though not part of the exhibition, it’s a perfect demonstration of two main themes of the show: the enduring influence of uniforms on fashion and the beauty innate in the highly utilitarian.

First the military, and the show includes male and female uniforms from the three services and the womens’ Land Army. Seeing them together it’s impossible not to conclude as women did at the time, that it was the Navy that got the best uniforms. The WRNS (Womens’ Royal Navy Service) uniform was the pinnacle of 1940s chic, with its square shoulders, broad lapels topping off a double-breasted jacket and serried ranks of brass buttons: for my money the single most desirable item in the whole show.

What is interesting about this exhibition is to see this flamboyant uniform alongside the much more utilitarian dress of the land army and civilians. The uniform’s sharp cut, braid and brass manages to be both masculine and flamboyant and clearly intended to confer rank on the wearer. Perhaps this is what goes with joining the “Senior Service” as the navy styled itself. It utterly outshines the army khakis alongside it and perfectly illustrates the plaintive comment reported by a contemporary journalist that British soldiers were “fed up because American soldiers, owing to their wearing a collar and tie, get the best girls.”

So much for the desirability of military styles, what of utility modernism?  More to come.


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