How did the government policies during the World war II affect women's fashion?
(Essay by Nina for a CRS at uni May 2010)
During the second world war, the UK faced an increasing scarcity of goods which were normally imported, such as food, clothes and furniture. In order to stave off the public anger caused by soaring prices, the government imposed a rationing program which put a cap on individual consumption.
In this essay I will look at how the government intervened in the clothes market during the second world war, and what consequences the government policy had for fashion in the long run.
I will argue that the rationing program in the clothes market had two main effects. Firstly, it equalized fashion in the sense that it became more available also to the working class. Secondly, the narrow rules for clothes production in this period caused fashion to evolve differently than I believe it would otherwise would have done.
Secondly, the narrow rules for clothes production in this period, together with the new role of women in the industry created a more strict fashion, and brought the industry uniform into the everyday fashion.
In this essay, I will focus on the policy of the British government, and how the new rules for clothes manufacturing affected women’s’ fashion during second world war. I will look at the policy implemented between 1940 until the end of war, and how it has affected fashion since then.
Issues concerning state intervention have a clear political aspect. This essay is about fashion, and because of this I will not investigate the political dimensions of the government policies.
Neither will I look at the consequences from a normative perspective, i.e. as “good” or “bad”. I will only take into account the fashion in Britain during the time period. I will not look at mens’ and children’s’ fashion during the time period.
Although this is an essay about fashion, I will not go into any detail of how the clothes were designed or produced. The main purpose of the essay is to investigate the consequences of second world war on fashion on a deeper level. For instance make do and mend was an important concept during this time, but for the purpose of the essay I will only mention it briefly, without any technical references.
Rationing during the second world war
The British government imposed a coupon system for clothes which came in use in June 1941, and lasted until 1952. This was done because of an increasing scarcity of goods, caused by the slump in imports during the war. Since it was anticipated that rising prices would cause public anger, the government wanted to control the supply and consumption of materials that were scarce.Every adult received coupons on a yearly basis, 66 the first, which decreased as the war went on. For instance, one needed 14 coupons to buy a jacket, 5 to buy a pair of boots and 7 to obtain a dress. (Maggie Wood “We wore what we’d got. “Women’s clothes in world war ll. Page 8).
CC41 improved the clothes and materials. The main purpose of the clothes were to cover the body, and last for a long time. This caused the seeming to improve, and prices to sink.
“If manufactured garment had to functional rather then decorative, it was possible to bring a touch of individuality to dress by making clothes at home, where you were not subject to government controls over pleats and pockets. The war introduced many women to the joys, and perils, of home dressmaking and the results of their labors often ensured that they were uniquely clad!”
Those who did not have enough money or coupons began borrowing garments from friends and other family members, and clothes that had been used before the war, such as evening dresses, were resown into something completely different. A cushion case could become childrens wear or new underwear, and a spread could turn into a jacket.
The government also opened different second hand shops where the coupon system was not used. At these, different goods could be traded between people.
Womens’ use of uniform
Another consequence of the second world war was the entry of women into the labour market, and into industry areas which had formerly been run by men.
The ministry of labour spread a store campaign for labour in industries, farms and the forces for women in december 1941. Since so many men were in the war, the women had to go into the industrial manufacturing. It was completely voluntary for the women to quit her old employment for this new type of work. Since the industrial worksites contained a lot of machinery, it became a hazard to use skirts and dresses with reduced movement possibilities. Because of this, women started to use labour uniforms such as trousers and overalls.
The women started to notice how practical these garments were. It was easier to move, and the uniform was a sign that the women had reached a new level in society. Women started to use trousers and uniforms also outside of their work.Fashion is an instrument with which people build an identity in different social settings. Before the second world war more was consumed overall. This meant that people within certain levels of society were relatively more constrained by their lack of economic means than they would be after the imposition of the rationing system. In other words, the new ways to discriminate the scarce clothing, i e the coupons system, had an equalising effect on class in Britain. New groups in society were given an opportunity to build their identity at the expense of the previously more privileged.
For working and middle class women, the stricter rules on clothes production forced them to change their utility garments themselves to make the garments more individual and identity-bearing. With home-embroidered patterns on a new coat from CC41, the bearer of the coat became an individual, rather than a part of the mass produced movement. The government, through CC41, created garments – garments with the sole purpose of covering the body – whereas the woman herself created fashion.
Fashion is an important part of our culture, and will be influenced for many reasons. During second world war, fashion was notably influenced by government policy and the weakened economy. The material constraint which this implied was, perhaps contrary to one’s belief, not a cause for anger and frustration among the women. On the other hand, the problem was turned into a possibility, and the women now got an opportunity to be more creative, and they were quickly adapted to the radical change.
Almost paradoxically, state intervention in the market for clothes meant more individual freedom in fashion than had been the case in the market economy of before. The government expanded fashion to the masses, and with the rationing system people’s background mattered less, which gave people more equal opportunities to take part in its the creation.
To this day, it is possible to find clothes which are strongly influenced from the fashion of the 1940′s, such as the two parted uniform with a blazer and knee-long skirt.
The women ideal was also strengthened during the war. When the men served in the forces far away from home, the woman was the leader in the home at the same time as she was engaged in hard work. With these changes, she would afterwards stand side by side with the man, dressed in an everyday uniform, strong and unafraid.
In conclusion, the government’s policy during second world war had three main effects on fashion.
Firstly, the stricter rules for clothes manufacturing, together with the rationing system made fashion more accessible to more people in society. Although at first, the garments were mass produced to fit the state’s utility standards, they became individualized through domestic handcraft. In that sense, government policy had an equalizing effect on the access to fashion: both in an economic sense – the person’s individual economic standing mattered less – and in a creative sense; people were made able to embellish the garments precisely as they wished.
Secondly, the need to economize on scarce resources increased the role of the second hand markets in fashion. Garments were now being reused, resown and traded in a way that had not existed before. The first second hand stores were set up, which have had very successful followers since then.
Lastly, together with the entry of women in the industry, the utility clothes that were produced soon became integrated into everyday fashion of women. For the first time, women could be seen wearing trousers outside of work, and more parts of what had traditionally been industrial uniforms were brought into the colloquial fashion.
The second world war has had lasting effects on British society in almost all of its spheres, including fashion. Together with the new strengthened role of the woman, her fashion has since then been an increasingly important part of society.