This week marks the 75th anniversary of clothing rationing being introduced in Britain.
By Dr Alison Slater
A new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum North looks at what this meant for the fashion industry and textile trade in Lancashire.
The exhibition’s Dr Alison Slater reveals how these unexpected clothing regulations affected working-class families.
If this brings back memories of how your family coped with clothes rationing, drop us a line or an email at Retro.
Dr Slater writes: “Much of what is written about wartime dress focuses on how fashionable styles were influenced by the unprecedented way in which the Government dictated how many clothes were permitted and what style those clothes should be.
Under the new restrictions, the purchase of clothing required everyone over the age of four to provide coupons.
At first, 66 coupons a year were issued, this soon dropped to 48, and by 1945, 36 coupons a year were given to each adult.
Clothes rationing had a more of an effect on the wardrobes of the middle classes, as opposed to their working class counterparts.
From our current perspective of easy access to ready-made clothing for a variety of budgets, it is hard for those of us without first-hand experience to understand how limited the working-class wartime wardrobe was.
An average woman in this social class in the North West might have one dress, one skirt, one blouse, one pair of shoes, one coat and two sets of underwear (one to wear and one to wash!).
Garments were looked after to ensure they lasted as long as possible: hanging them up after wearing, brushing to remove visible dirt and laundering (by hand) when needed.
As well as having coupons for clothes, families also needed money to purchase items. For those with limited incomes, managing the household – including clothing – was a constant struggle.
Purchases were prioritised according to what was needed, how long it would last and what was available; whether or not you liked something often came last, much to the dismay of those interested in a fashionable appearance!
There was a black market for material, although acquiring fabric in this way went against ideas of working class ‘respectability’.
The date of the introduction of clothing rationing – Whit Sunday – also gave an advantage to many. A practice of getting new clothes for Whitsun had begun in the 19th century and meant that many had already got their annual purchase of new ‘best’ clothes for the year prior to rationing being introduced.
Best clothing was often prioritised as it presented the all-important respectable appearance in public; after a period of time, these best clothes would then go down to everyday wear.
Parents had to sacrifice their clothing choices for those of their growing children.
In June 1942, the Government Make Do and Mend campaign was launched, encouraging people to sacrifice the purchase of new clothing to allow the labour and materials to be used in the war effort.
In our age of fast fashion and the ethical issues that come with this, we could learn a few things from the wartime generation’s clothing practices.”
Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style is on now until May 1 next year at the Imperial War Museum North, Trafford Wharf Road, Stretford, Manchester M17 1TZ. Website: www.iwm.org.uk
Enthusiasts don 1940s-era vintage clothing to celebrate the Fashion on the Ration exhibition