Fashion on the Ration


On Saturday I joined 20 lovely ladies on an outing organised by Katie. We went to see Fashion on the Ration. An exhibition at IWM exploring how fashion survived and even flourished during wartime. As a creative person I am always interested in trying to capture a trigger: i.e how people solved problems.


An official Ministry of Information Photo Division wartime photograph showing four fashionable young ladies enjoying a stroll in the spring sunshine Photo: Imperial War Museum

This exhibition wasn’t very large but included clothing, accessories, photographs and film, official documents and publications, artworks, wartime letters, interviews etc. A curation of what life was like during wartime. Looking at my bulging wardrobe in the mist of fast fashion mentality, it’s hard to imagine what was like to dress when austerity measures and the rationing of clothes took hold. It was inspirational to see so much creativity during austerity.

The exhibition is divided into six sections:

Into Uniform. It shows how Britain became a nation in uniform. Interesting even when people wasn’t enlisted they felt the need to alter their clothes to suit military styles so they could ‘belong’. There was even a certain level of “jealousy” as the American uniforms were perceived to be smarter. During this section I couldn’t stop thinking about today’s normcore trend. During war it was a necessity to dress the same, to fit in. It was imposed almost by ‘force’. The notion of normcore is predicated on the desire to fit in rather than stand out. On the premise of wearing a non descriptive uniform. Mainly because there’s an exhaustion with trying to seem different.  The human being is so contradictory in it’s needs. With little choice we try to diversify as much as we can and when we have too much choice we try to simplify.

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©IWM EQU 3967 Respirator Carrier Handbag Accessory

Functional Fashion explores how the demands of wartime life changed the way civilians dressed at work and at home, inspiring retailers to sell innovative and ‘stylish’ products, such as gas-mask handbags, blackout buttons and siren suits. (Just in case you need to evacuate from your bed).  Among fellow visitors I heard whispers about early onsies and a very grump faced illustrated woman. I guess the artist on that particular illustration was capturing the feeling towards that outfit.

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Just the thing to pull on in a hurry’: a siren suit. Photograph: © IWM

The government encouraged people to wear white so they don’t hurt themselves during blackouts. By making day-to-day objects incorporate war related issues was an attempt to ‘normalise’ the situation.

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©IWM EPH 3218 Bridesmaid dress made from parachute silk (1945) Clothing

Rationing and Make do and Mend looks at why clothes rationing was introduced in 1941, how the scheme worked and how it changed the shopping habits of the nation. With limited options for buying new clothes, people were encouraged to be creative and make clothes last longer by mending, altering, knitting and creating new clothes out of old material. What caught my attention? Vogue’s article on how to get married in 5 days and a bridesmaid’s dress made from parachute material. Other interesting items: a bracelet made from aircraft components, a child’s coat made from a blanket, Epp patchwork dress that divided opinions between us and silk maps bra and knickers.

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A set of Countess Mountbatten’s underwear made from a silk map given to her by a boyfriend in the Royal Air Force. Photograph: © IWM

Utility Clothing To tackle unfairness in the rationing scheme and standardise production to help the war effort, utility fashion ranges were made from a limited range of quality controlled fabrics. We could touch a selection of fabric as part of the exhibition. There was a fabric I never seen before, I cannot remember the name now but it was like super resistant tights.

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An ambulance worker in Kennington, London prepares for action, 1940. Photograph: © IWM

Beauty as Duty examines the lengths to which many women went to maintain their personal appearance and the pressure they felt to do so. I loved listening to interviews. One was a lady sharing her beauty tricks like painting their legs with foundation and using eyeliner to make the seam. Morale was very important that if you couldn’t afford lipstick, you should splash beetroot juice on your lips. Advertisement took a big role promoting war-themed make-up like ‘lips in uniform’. Every message was patriotic. By wearing these items women were able to express what they were doing to help during the war effort. Today we see people doing challenges on social media for their preferred causes.

Peace and a new look.  The impact after war upon fashion now and the future. A celebration ‘VE’ print dress. In 1947, the launch of Christian Dior’s  ‘New Look’. The exhibition ends capturing the thoughts of fashion insiders like designer Wayne Hemingway. Sewing fans familiar faces such as Great British Sewing Bee’s Patrick Grant and fashion historian Amber Butchart discussing the legacy of the Second World War upon fashion.

Fashion on the Ration: Style in the Second World War book is part of the exhibition accompaniment. More on fashion at that time by Telegraph.

On the museum shop we spotted Sew Over It patterns, fashion colouring book and even paper dolls.

Our day finished with High Tea. Couldn’t be more British.

I hope you enjoyed my account of the exhibition. Have you seen any exhibitions lately? Or Any exhibition on your radar you want to share.

  • I find sewing and fashion during WWII completely fascinating. I’ve heard about this exhibit and would love to see it! Loved hearing about it on your blog! Closest I can get to going!

    • Houseofpinheiro

      Hi Nikki, glad you enjoyed reading about it

    • That was very interesting. I can remember by Mom in similar clothes. I had a “Onesie” as a baby during the war, but in those days they were called Siren Suits, for obvious reasons.

  • Oh my I want those map knickers so badly!!

    • Houseofpinheiro

      Me too…

  • Mirce75

    When you say IWW, do you mean the Imperial War Museum?

    • Houseofpinheiro


  • I think the tights fabric was called lisle. It was a lovely day and really interesting exhibition. So lovely to see you all as well!

    • Houseofpinheiro

      Yes. Thanks Jo . Was lovely seeing you even if we didn’t had to much time to catch up.

  • I loved reading this post! So interesting and I too want those knickers!!! 🙂

  • Thank you for this detailed account. I am so jealous there are no fashion related expositions around me (Toulouse, France), so I particularly enjoyed seeing this one through your eyes. Plus, now my new mission is to make myself silk map undergarments. On the knickers pictured it looks like a map of my homeland Italy, so I could not resist and fell in love with them 🙂

  • Really interesting! It sounds like a great exhibit!

  • The creativity was amazing, I love the underwear made from the silk map.

  • This sounds like a fascinating exhibit, and of course the silk map underwear is priceless!

  • sounds so fascinating!

  • Not to knitpick but did you have High or Low Tea (the latter would be more ladylike, hence my question :P)?

  • Thank you. I never thought about fashion during the war. I do like the first photo and the ‘sensible shoes.’ Very interesting.