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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.