The coats and jackets in the picture are 1940s originals on show at London’s Imperial War Museum but could easily be contemporary items. The “Utility” clothing produced and sold under wartime rationing and on show here demonstrates that resource restrictions need not limit good design. The shape of these jackets echo the real minks and sables worn by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford across the Atlantic in (non-rationed) Hollywood.
The exhibition includes a video of commentary from clothing historians putting the era into context. One of the most interesting points was the idea that the wartime utility clothing ushered in modern informal dress. This was certainly true in America where designers like Claire McCardell were producing garments that combined the elegance of Vionnet with soft fabrics and loose draping that made them easy to wear as well as efficient in their use of cloth. With the industrialisation of the US economy that had been advancing since the 1930s and the marketing platform offered by Hollywood, the scene was set for the US clothing industry to perfect this concept, making it the defining feature of American fashion.
Back in Britain, by the end of the war rationing fatigue was setting in. In February 1944 Nancy Mitford wrote to her mother from London: “I spent the morning looking at clothes – the most utter horrors (dresses) you ever saw for £23, cheap & dreadful looking, what is one to do? Then I tried to get a suspender belt – they have wooden suspenders….”*
The hard-pressed (and presumably splinter-blighted) Brits had to endure another five years of rationing until it was eventually phased out by 1949. They were encouraged to be resourceful: patching, lending, recycling or re-styling men’s suits.
They were even encouraged to use furnishing fabrics for clothes. Just in case we were in any doubt about the enduring influence of “make do and mend” on fashion today, we’ve recently seen SS15 and AW15-16 collections in which Prada and others made use of fabrics and brocades highly reminiscent of furnishing fabrics. We’re also about to be treated to a wonderful exhibition at Paris’s Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent is about to begin an exhibition of Yves Saint Laurent’s scandalous 1971 collection evoking the era of Paris’s Occupation. A fitting tribute to a modern clothing movement by a French couturier who pioneered the rise of pret-a-porter.
*The Letters of Nancy Mitford, ed Charlotte Mosley (Sceptre, 1994)