Guns & Dresses

How clothes ratioing affected fashion in the second world war. Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war’s end.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain’s high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942.

Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

For men and women not in uniform, the war changed how they dressed both at work and at home. It became important for civilian clothes to be practical as well as stylish. Clothing and accessories manufacturers were quick to see commercial potential in some of the war’s greatest dangers. By the outbreak of war in September 1939, over 40 million respirators had been distributed in Britain as a result of the potential threat of gas warfare. Although not compulsory, people were advised to carry their gas masks with them at all times. Usually they were issued in a cardboard box with a string threaded through so it could be carried over the shoulder. Retailers were quick to spot a gap in the market for a more attractive solution. The handbag seen here, like many others specially produced, has a compartment for a gas mask.

A ‘blackout’ was enforced in Britain before the war had even begun on 1 September 1939 to make it harder for much-feared German bombers to find their targets. Street lighting and illuminated signs were extinguished and all vehicles had to put caps over their lights to dim them. The blackout caused a rise in collisions. A government campaign urged people to wear white clothes to make them more visible to fellow pedestrians and drivers. The blackout and its dangers provided an unexpected commercial opportunity. A range of luminous accessories, from pin-on flowers to handbags, were produced that would reflect light and help make their wearers more visible. These also included the buttons seen here in normal conditions and when aglow in the dark.

This is an example of Utility design at its best, featuring simple lines and minimal trimmings. It is a style that could easily be worn today without looking dated. Utility clothing covered a range of dresses, coats, jackets, trousers, shirts, socks, gloves and shoes. Utility ranges were produced for men, women and children. To encourage long production runs of Utility clothing, only 15 styles were permitted for infants’ and girls’ dresses. Although there was a maximum price set for Utility garments, there was a spectrum of pricing and cheaper items were also available. Once launched, the clothes received many favourable reports, despite the initial hesitation. Celebrity endorsement was sought, and a March 1942 edition of Picture Post featured the actress Deborah Kerr modelling Utility clothes

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