Clothes rationing was an all important part of the British war effort and rationing books and the make do & mend campaign dominated the 1940s. Hannah Eichler has caught up with her grandmother Hilda Kaye to get a first-hand account of what life and fashion were like during World War II.

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the British Government initiated a strict rationing program which was to affect the lives of everyday people for years after the war had finished. Britain was weakened by the War, imports were reduced, whilst home grown and manufactured commodities were in short supply. All resources were being used for the war effort, and so everything from clothes to food had to be rationed, to ensure that everybody was able to receive equal amounts of raw materials.

Wartime took away the fun and brought Britain back to a heroic sentimentality. The War required such a gargantuan national effort, every English woman was a sensible English rose buckling to, doing her bit. Class barriers fell and even high society had to be seen to dig lettuces. In the black and white pages of Vogue, Lady Diana Cooper was pictured in a headscarf, feeding the pigs.

The working class look of icons such as Rosie the Riveter became chic, as women of all social standings joined the war effort.  My Grandma, Hilda Kaye, was 19 when the war broke out in 1939 (pictured left in 1938, aged 18). She married my Grandfather, and by 1944 had given birth to their first child Pauline, whilst he was away at war. In a time of uncertainty, my Grandma had to keep things going at home, as well as being a new mother.

During the war most women undertook traditionally masculine activities which imposed a suspension of social conventions regarding dress. 80,000 women undertook predominantly male roles, serving as cooks, drivers and postal storage workers in The Auxiliary Territorial Service. Previous to 1938 they wore a khaki uniform of a shirt, tie, cap, jacket and shirt. However, with the introduction of clothing rationing in June 1941, government regulations ruled practical trousers and overalls, causing fashion to take a back seat.

In response to the shortage of fabric a range of utility clothing was introduced, which used the minimum amount of cloth and was devoid of embroidery. Men’s and boy’s jackets only had three buttons and two pockets and trousers had no turn-ups. Women’s and girl’s dresses had no pleats, elastic waist bands or fancy belts. Utility shoes had a heel which was less than 2 inches.

Read on!

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14 Responses

  1. Rebecka

    Thanks for sharing! The Make Do and Mend campaign wasn’t introduced by Vogue though, but by the Ministry of Information (in 1943 if I remember correctly). Although ratining was introduced in 1939, clothes rationing wasn’t introduced until 1941. Although some women in the ATS were issued with overalls/trousers for their uniforms (mainly drivers/mechanics and similar) standard ATS service dress remained the skirt, shirt, tie and cap as in 1938. If anyone’s interested im women’s uniforms this books is rather splendid – Braykey & Ingrams – World War 2 British Women’s Uniforms (http://www.amazon.co.uk/British-Uniforms-Photographs-Militaria-Special/dp/1861264755/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1334228127&sr=8-1)

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  2. Maureen

    I did Reminiscence Therapy for several years, mainly talking to women who were girls, young women and housewives through the war.

    It was interesting to hear ‘from the horses mouth’ so to speak, what it was like. It was interesting to learn that women who lived in London knew about and took part in a thriving black market trade in clothing coupons – 3d each. Many had money because they worked long hours and got paid more than they ever had before the war. I was told by several women at different places about going to ‘secret’ addresses at a certain time and there would be clothes to buy. One woman said she had something new most weeks top go to dances, clothes she later sold on.

    Fascinating, though they were willing to trade in black market clothing coupons, black market food coupons were considered a complete no no.

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  3. clare

    Great article, but just one small thing–although ration books were distributed in (September) 1939, rationing did not actually take effect until January 8 1940. And, as one other person pointed out, clothes rationing began June 1, 1941. Sorry to be nitpicky. ;)
    Again, interesting read and some nice pictures. Thanks for sharing.

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