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How Clothes Rationing Affected Fashion In The Second World War

Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942.

Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

  • War didn't mean the end of fashion

    Women walk down a London street during the Second World War in 1941.
    Women walk down a London street during the Second World War in 1941.
    D 2937

    When Britain went to war in 1939 it seemingly spelt an end for fashion. The people of Britain now had more pressing concerns, such as widely expected air raids and possible German invasion. In many ways war did disrupt and dislocate fashion in Britain. Resources and raw materials for civilian clothing were limited. Prices rose and fashion staples such as silk were no longer available. Purchase tax and clothes rationing were introduced. But fashion survived and even flourished in wartime, often in unexpected ways.

  • Functional fashions for wartime life

    Handbag with a gas mask compartment.
    Handbag with a gas mask compartment.
    EQU 3967

    For men and women not in uniform, the war changed how they dressed both at work and at home. It became important for civilian clothes to be practical as well as stylish. Clothing and accessories manufacturers were quick to see commercial potential in some of the war's greatest dangers. By the outbreak of war in September 1939, over 40 million respirators had been distributed in Britain as a result of the potential threat of gas warfare. Although not compulsory, people were advised to carry their gas masks with them at all times. Usually they were issued in a cardboard box with a string threaded through so it could be carried over the shoulder. Retailers were quick to spot a gap in the market for a more attractive solution. The handbag seen here, like many others specially produced, has a compartment for a gas mask.

  • Blackout restrictions sparked a bright trend

    Luminous buttons for wearing during the blackout.
    Luminous buttons for wearing during the blackout.
    EPH 235

    A 'blackout' was enforced in Britain before the war had even begun on 1 September 1939 to make it harder for much-feared German bombers to find their targets. Street lighting and illuminated signs were extinguished and all vehicles had to put caps over their lights to dim them. The blackout caused a rise in collisions. A government campaign urged people to wear white clothes to make them more visible to fellow pedestrians and drivers. The blackout and its dangers provided an unexpected commercial opportunity. A range of luminous accessories, from pin-on flowers to handbags, were produced that would reflect light and help make their wearers more visible. These also included the buttons seen here in normal conditions and when aglow in the dark.

  • Wartime 'onesies' for the air raid shelter

    A woman's all-in-one garment, nicknamed the 'siren suit'.
    A woman's all-in-one garment, nicknamed the 'siren suit'.
    UNI 5309

    The 'siren suit' was an all-in-one garment which could be pulled on quickly over night clothes if the wearer had to escape to an outdoor air raid shelter. Some suits had a stylish twist - this woman's siren suit has puffed shoulders, bell-bottom cuffs to the legs and a fitted hood. It also has a detachable belt and piping decoration. A more practical drop down panel is attached to the rear so the wearer could visit the lavatory without removing the whole garment. Siren suits were a popular wartime trend with many retailers advertising their ranges. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was often photographed in his own tailor-made siren suits.

  • Factory fashions

    <em>Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring</em>, 1943, by Laura Knight
    Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring, 1943, by Laura Knight
    Art.IWM ART LD 2850

    The demands of wartime life meant that more people needed clothes that were fit for purpose, most especially for war work. As women were conscripted into industrial work from 1941, factory safety became a big issue. Accidents caused by long hair getting caught in machinery became too common, so headscarves - or turbans, or 'glamour bands' - were adopted by many. Headscarves were a chance to bring a flash of colour and individuality to drab factory overalls. This oil painting by Laura Knight depicts 'outstanding factory worker' Ruby Loftus at her lathe in the Royal Ordnance Factory in Newport, south Wales. It presents an idealised version of the female factory worker. Loftus is shown deep in concentration and neatly attired in regulation overalls with her hair safely covered.

  • Utility fashions hit the high street

    The Utility clothing mark 'CC41' on a pair of men's socks.
    The Utility clothing mark 'CC41' on a pair of men's socks.
    EPH 1746

    In 1942, the first 'Utility' clothes went on sale on the British high street as part of a government scheme. These clothes were made from a limited range of quality controlled fabrics. The Utility scheme developed out of a need to make production of civilian clothing in British factories more efficient and to provide price-regulated better quality clothing. Until Utility clothing was introduced, the less well-off had to use the same number of coupons for cheaper garments that might wear out in half the time. Utility fabrics - and clothes made from these materials - gave the public a guarantee of quality and value for their money and coupons. In autumn 1941 it became compulsory for all Utility cloths and garments to be marked 'CC41'. The distinctive logo - often likened to two cheeses - stood for 'Civilian Clothing 1941' and was designed by Reginald Shipp. It is seen here printed onto a pair of men's socks.

  • Strict rules for fashion - the austerity restrictions

    A man models clothes designed as part of the Utility scheme.
    A man models clothes designed as part of the Utility scheme.
    D 11587

    Utility clothing came in a limited range of garments, styles and fabrics. In 1942 and 1943, the Board of Trade introduced the Making-up of Civilian Clothing (Restrictions) Orders to make further savings of labour and materials and minimise manufacturing costs. These orders, often known as the 'austerity regulations', applied to the production of both Utility and non-Utility clothing. Some of the most unpopular austerity regulations were those that applied to men's clothing. Single-breasted suits replaced double-breasted. Lapels had to be within a certain size. The number of pockets was restricted and trouser turn-ups were abolished. The ban on turn-ups was particularly unpopular, and many men circumvented this regulation by buying trousers that were too long and having them altered at home. The length of men's shirts was restricted and double cuffs were banned. It is estimated that these measures saved about 4 million square yards (approximately 5 million square metres) of cotton per year. Braces would have been a vital element of a man's outfit as both zip fasteners and elastic waistbands were banned under the austerity regulations. Elastic was in very short supply throughout the war, and women's knickers were one of only a small number of garments where the use of elastic was permitted.

  • Designer fashion in wartime

    Fashion designer Norman Hartnell compares a finished garment to his original sketch and fabric sample at his studio in 1944.
    Fashion designer Norman Hartnell compares a finished garment to his original sketch and fabric sample at his studio in 1944.
    D 23067

    There were worries that Utility clothing meant 'standard' clothing, with people dressed too similarly. The government was at pains to reassure the public that 'the Board of Trade have no wish to adopt the role of fashion dictator'. It brought in leading fashion designers to design a prototype range of Utility clothing which were attractive, stylish and very varied. The Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (IncSoc) was founded in 1942 to represent the collective interests of the fashion industry in Britain, promote exports and develop standards of design. There were originally eight members: Peter Russell, Norman Hartnell (pictured here), Bianca Mosca, Digby Morton, Victor Stiebel, Elspeth Champcommunal and Hardy Amies. Edward Molyneux and Charles Creed joined soon after. They were commissioned by the Board of Trade to produce designs for stylish yet economical outfits that could be produced under the Utility scheme. As well as using Utility materials, the designers also had to work within the austerity regulations.

  • Utility was a surprise hit

    Utility mustard wool coat made by Alexon.
    Utility mustard wool coat made by Alexon.
    UNI 14387

    This is an example of Utility design at its best, featuring simple lines and minimal trimmings. It is a style that could easily be worn today without looking dated. Utility clothing covered a range of dresses, coats, jackets, trousers, shirts, socks, gloves and shoes. Utility ranges were produced for men, women and children. To encourage long production runs of Utility clothing, only 15 styles were permitted for infants' and girls' dresses. Although there was a maximum price set for Utility garments, there was a spectrum of pricing and cheaper items were also available. Once launched, the clothes received many favourable reports, despite the initial hesitation. Celebrity endorsement was sought, and a March 1942 edition of Picture Post featured the actress Deborah Kerr modelling Utility clothes.

  • The end of war and peacetime style

    An example of a man's 'demob' three-piece suit, with a double-breasted jacket.
    An example of a man's 'demob' three-piece suit, with a double-breasted jacket.
    UNI 2964

    By 1945 British people had grown tired of rationing, restrictions, and calls to 'Make Do and Mend'. Advertisements promised new styles but often shops lacked many new offerings. Production of clothes and other civilian goods did increase after the war, but most of what was made was exported. Clothes rationing - albeit in a reduced form - continued until 1949. The best-dressed were those leaving the military services. Demobilised men were issued with a full set of clothes, known as the 'demob suit'. Reactions varied - although there was some degree of choice, and quality could be very good, many simply felt that they had swapped one uniform for another. Women leaving the military services were given an allocation of coupons rather than a new outfit. The coupons gave women more freedom to choose what clothes they wanted, but they were still limited by what was available in the shops.