Fashion Trends in the Age of Austerity

I’ve been reading some interesting stuff lately from Laura Clouting (Imperial War Museum) on fashion and trade during the Second World War and how things develop in Britain in this industry from there on. As we all have very ingrained in our minds, this was indeed a period of great austerity in the UK with rations and shortages severely affecting people’s lives. So how did this affect fashion? And why does it matter? Well, I hope that by reading this update you will realise some measures taken during this time had a serious cultural and social effect, and they did much to revolutionise British fashion particularly for women.

This all comes from the realisation of the board of trade that things need to change: people needed to be clothed but also needed a moral boost due to the soaring effect of the war. Therefore, the board decides to work together with several fashion designers to provide a new range of clothing that was suitable for a war-scared Britain. During the age of austerity the accessibility to a good range of materials was seriously limited, and certainly good quality fabrics were hard to come by. But a deal was struck so that designers would have access to better resources in other to produce something known as ‘utility clothing’. The idea behind this was to enhance quality of clothes in a way that made them more durable whilst affordable at the same time. Some big names of the UK fashion industry contribute to these new designs such as Norman Hartnell, Hardy Amies and Digby Morton. With the help of these visionaries, clothing becomes actually stylish yet well made, and very colourful which is not a conception often associated with the Second World War. Nevertheless, a little help came from home as well. Throughout this period we see women at home adapting the fashion to their needs during war times, so that Brit gals were fashionable yet perfectly functional. If you see some of the designs you would probably laugh, but who did not want to be able to have  matching outfit to their latest gas mask? Many women did find long dresses and trouser suit pieces made this a quirky yet interesting look!

It is also during this time that we see some interesting developments in how clothes are made. For example, from 1942 onward, clothe designs saw a reduction in the number of buttons used in coats and jackets. Pockets were also kept for purely functional purpose, and many outfits found them reduced to none. Skirts too suffer transformations, and the popular pleated skirts of years past, become more simple and plain-looking. Due to the shortage of materials, however, the fashion industry had to think of ways around their design issues, and found some very creative solutions that we see completely ingrained in our fashion today. Due to the occupation of Japan and other parts of South East Asia, it was very difficult to obtain rubber for the elastic bands that had been incorporated into ordinary pieces of clothing. In addition, the high demand for leather in other industries made this a no go area for designers. So, instead braces were introduces as a replacement for elasticated waist bands (so all of you hipsters have loads to thanks to them chaps and chappetes in the 40s!). It is a similar case scenarios with wedge heels. Resources such as wood or cork were not rationed, which made this transition from heeled shoes into wedges and platforms very easy for fashion designers.And, you want to know something interesting? During this period, the length of socks gets reduced to a mighty 9.5 inches to save on materials. Imagine the roar it would have been if we had this trend for ankle socks ballerina tights back then!

In any case, the domestic economies did find this a real relief both economically and emotionally. Yet, these were still times when the made-do attitude were at a peak. We see fashion at home really pushing for amendments rather than buying new clothes. I am sure you are all aware of the old trick of rubbing ones legs with the bags of a recent brew and using eye lines to produce the impression that you were wearing tights. Holes were sawn back together, and clothes that were in no state to be worn, were recycled into rags or fabrics to mend other clothes. We think ourselves very cool for wearing sawn in and iron patches on our jeans and what not, but this was actually rather common back then.

So, next time you want some inspiration on how to keep your fashion cool yet sensible, perhaps you will have a throwback moment and think: what would have my grandparents or great grandparents do?


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