Fashion on the Ration: How Fashion Fought Back, and Won Out



Struggling to make that clothing budget stretch ’til payday? Wardrobe full of clothes you can’t force into any semblance of the perfect office-to-bar ensemble? Spare a thought for your wartime predecessors, who not only had to contend with the challenges of factory floor-to-air raid shelter styling, but were expected to make coupons adding up to just one full outfit last a year.

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The Imperial War Museum’s Fashion on the Ration exhibition, now in its final week, explores fashion’s – often rather ingenious – response to the restrictions imposed by wartime conditions (in a pre- hi-vis vest era, Selfridges made that blackout air raid dash a little safer, and a lot more stylish, with its luminous pin-on flowers, and, laugh though I may have at Alli Simpson’s Teen Choice Awards ensemble, it turns out that, back in the ’40s, fashioning garments out of surplus silk “escape” maps was a pretty darn clever way of scoring yourself a new nightgown without parting with any of those precious coupons).

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As undeniably horrific an impact as WWII had on Europe, it’s tough to deny the positive impact of its legacy on our wardrobes, with oppression and restriction somewhat paradoxically engendering sartorial freedom (- would we still be stuck in bustles and crinolines if it weren’t for the World Wars?), democratisation (- who knew designer diffusion lines began with wartime “utility clothing”?) and creativity (- whilst viewing a montage of “Make Do and Mend” campaign videos, I couldn’t help but wonder how much fun it might be to have a legitimate, government-endorsed excuse to fashion our other halves’/brothers’/dads’ trousers into chic little tweed midis).

With “austerity” once again the buzzword du jour, the Shoreditch Sisters reviving the Sewing Bee and the glue gun taking up pride of place in every self-respecting fashionista’s arsenal, the parallels with our own time are too plain to ignore. So why not learn a lesson from the past, stop complaining and get creative? You may not have any fighter plane debris handy from which to plunder jewellery-making materials, but there’s always eBay.

Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style is open for entry between 10.15am and 5pm daily until Monday 31st August at The Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ. Tickets cost £10 for adults and £5 for children (free for members; concessions available).

Samantha Simmonds
@Sam_Muses