However in 1939, towards the end of the Great Depression and on the advent of World War II, the general cost of living, including clothing, rose by 29%. The following year the cost of clothing rose by 69%. The main reason was the introduction of a Purchase Tax on clothing in 1940. This caused severe problems because it resulted in rich people buying whatever was available and those who were on lower incomes going without. The Government therefore decided that the fairest way of stabilising clothing prices was rationing and ration coupons for clothes were introduced on 1st June 1941.
The annual allowance was 66 clothing coupons per year for each person. People still had to pay but they were only allowed to purchase items of clothing if they could produce coupons as well. Examples of clothes coupon rationing in the autumn of 1941 included:
" suit 26 coupons + cost of garment
" herringbone tweed coat 18 coupons + cost of garment
" wool crepe dress 11 coupons + cost of garment
" rayon shirt dress 5 coupons + cost of garment
Pregnant mothers were allowed an extra annual allowance of 50 coupons.
Headwear, shoes and second-hand clothes were exempt, but a curious order went out that it should be possible to purchase' single shoes, socks and gloves'. Silk stockings were simply no longer available (unless brought into the country by returning or visiting members of the Forces) and it was this small luxury that women missed the most. The heavy knitted stockings which replaced them were generally disliked and many women wore ankle socks instead. Fashion magazines and designers adapted their approach to show women how they could still look smart and tried to give them a sense of pride and patriotism in doing so through the new restrictions.
The Board of Trade promoted a policy of 'make do and mend', using cartoon characters such as Mrs Sew-and-Sew, because the ships were carrying food and munitions rather than cotton and the factories were busy producing guns, planes and bombs, not civilian fabrics. By 1942 only 1,500 of the 30,000 pre-war clothing factories were still producing clothes. 'Sharing, swopping and second-hand' became the order of the day. Trouser suits came into fashion as women made over the suits of their men folk who were away fighting. Wedding dresses were in short supply and white weddings had begun to be considered inappropriate. Wartime brides often wore just a two-piece suit and a simple hat. A small corsage of white flowers pinned to the lapel would be the only concession to a traditional wedding ensemble. There still came a point however when people needed to replace items of clothing. Consequently towards the end of 1942 utility clothing was introduced so that clothes could be manufactured with an absolute economy of raw materials and labour.
Practicality and simplicity were the by-words for Utility clothing. A strict set of guidelines were laid down for the manufacture of Utility wear which included the following economies:
" pleats, tucks, folds or gathers were restricted
" trousers had no turn-ups
" lace and embroidery trimming was avoided
" velvet, fur or leather trimmings were banned
" most ladies skirts had to be knee length
" no double breasted men's jackets
" a maximum of three pockets were allowed on men's jackets
" a maximum of three buttons were allowed on ladies' jackets
Purchase Tax was removed from Utility clothes as an added incentive. At first 50% of all manufactured cloth was covered by the Utility Scheme, but this rose to 85% as the War Office required more and more cloth for the Armed Forces uniforms. Lesser quality wool mixture cloths, man-made rayon (artificial silk) and cotton were used for all civilian clothing. Female civilian clothes followed a theme of trousers, simple dresses, short skirts, box shaped jackets and coats. Factory workers wore overalls and turban scarves. Land Army girls had their own 'uniform' of shirts, pullovers, corduroy trousers and woolly socks. Boiler suits or 'siren suits' were worn in air raid shelters. Children's clothes echoed the spare and simple lines of their parent's clothes. Norman Hartnell (the Queen's dress designer), Berketex and Digby Morton were among those who designed special ranges of Utility clothes. All Utility clothing carried the Utility mark: CC41. CC stood for Civilian Clothing.
The newspapers and magazines gamely tried to promote the new Utility fashions. Women and Beauty came up with the slogan 'They're Beauties! They're Utilities!' while the Daily Mail trumpeted 'suburban wives and factory girls will soon be able to wear clothes designed and styled by the Queen's dressmaker' The News Chronicle saw this move as the great social leveller proclaiming 'before long the society woman who pays 30 guineas [about £220 at 2002 values] for a frock will share her dress designer with a factory girl who pays 30 shillings [around £31 at 2002 values]' Harper's Bazaar, to be different, used the 'squander bug', a cartoon character whose carelessness and waste was applauded by Hitler; entreating its readers to employ thrift and thereby help the War effort.
Hand knitting became a popular part of the War effort. Often the womenfolk whiled away the tedious evenings of the 'black-out' listening to the radio and knitting sweaters, socks, mittens, scarves and balaclavas for the troops, for their children and for themselves. This was entirely in keeping with the Utility aims of absolute economy of raw materials and labour. Knitting, however, like patching, darning and mending, was time consuming, requiring patience and skill, and many women grew to dislike it.
Utility clothing has been dubbed 'the first civilian uniform' when, as Harper's Bazaar put it in 1942, 'fashionwas out of fashion' The magazine patriotically went on 'the backbone of morale is smartness; smartness and fashion are no longer synonymous' That surprisingly still holds true. Utility clothing served a unique purpose and in doing so earned a place in the history books.
Robinson, Julian. Fashion in the Forties. Academy Editions, 1976.
McDowell, Colin. Forties Fashion and the New Look Bloomsbury, 1997.
Bond, David. The Guinness Guide to 20th Century Fashion. Guinness Publishing, 1988.
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Work wear 17th-19th centuries|