What To Wear To A Wartime Wedding
Rationing, restrictions and the uncertainty of the Second World War couldn’t stop these couples making their wedding a day to remember. These stories reveal how families, friends and communities worked together to pool rations, lend clothes and put on a wedding party despite wartime privations.
In February 1940 Eileen Stone received a court summons for riding her bike without lights in Littlehampton, West Sussex. The summons was written by solicitor’s clerk, Leslie Speller, who admired Eileen and, after recognising her name, included a note in the summons asking her to go to the cinema. Their ‘date’ was finalised when he sent her a letter notifying her of her fine. They went out together many times before Leslie joined the RAF in May 1940 and left for his training. Eileen joined the Land Army and they started to write to each other. They wouldn’t see each other again for four years.
After his training Leslie was posted to the Middle East, where he was shot down over Libya in May 1942. Wounded, Leslie was taken as a POW to Stalag Luft III, near Sagan, on the border between Germany and Poland. During his time as a prisoner Leslie was involved in a number of escape activities including writing coded letters. He was able to continue writing to Eileen, and her letters supported him during his three- years imprisonment. Leslie was liberated by US troops on 29 April 1945. He returned home on 9 May 1945 and was reunited with Eileen.
They were engaged immediately, and Leslie chose a blue sapphire ring to give to Eileen because it reminded him of the Mediterranean Sea he’d seen for the first time in 1941.
Eileen made her own wedding dress from one of Leslie’s parachutes. After the wedding she cut up the dress, dyed it brown and used it to line a coat. She kept a piece of the un-dyed silk to make an embroidered handkerchief. She also dyed a piece of the parachute cord and used it to bind a wedding album she’d made. The other pieces of cord were kept and used regularly for family camping trips.
Leslie and Eileen were happily married for 52 years.
Joan and Denis met at Plesseys factory in Ilford, London. Denis was a mechanical engineer and draughtsman and Joan an aeronautical inspector.
Joan and Denis benefited from having family members who worked at a local farm in Epping and were able to supply eggs, chickens and other rare supplies for the wedding breakfast. The highlight was a beautiful wedding cake, a rare treat as rationing made cake-making difficult. Some wartime wedding cakes were decorated with painted cardboard and rice paper with the actual, much smaller, cake hidden underneath.
Joan and Denis lived in Epping. Sadly, Joan developed tuberculosis shortly after the war and died in 1947.
During the war Mary worked for the Ministry of Food. James had wanted to join up but was needed in his role as a telephone engineer. When not on shift he also worked as a Fire Warden, putting out incendiary devices.
They got married in St Helens. Mary’s dress was made from a rare cloque fabric – which was very hard to get hold of under rationing. Her veil was kept in place by an orange blossom head-dress and she had a bouquet of pink roses. Mary was also able to have a tartan going- away outfit made for their honeymoon in Scotland.
The wedding photos were taken with surplus RAF reconnaissance film, so the pictures are very sharp for the time.
Winifred and Arnold met at Christian Union Meetings at Harrods, where both of them had worked from the age of 18.
They got married in Pinner Green, London. Winnie wore a turquoise dress. She bought all her wedding clothes using vouchers, probably from Harrods.
Winnie volunteered for war work at Shipton's Factory in Northwood Hills, which made electrical components. While working as an engineering inspector she was called into the manager’s office and told she would be paid a man’s wage for doing a man’s job – something she was very proud of.
Arnold registered as a conscientious objector and was given a job as a farm and dairy worker on Meadow Farm, Hatch End, where he stayed until 1949. Arnold was also put on Fire Watch and inspected bombs dropped locally.
Winnie returned to Harrods in 1992 to tell her story and was treated like a star.
Audrey and Hugh’s relationship began in early 1940 while she was studying English at Oxford and Hugh was training in the RAF. They met up a few times and wrote frequently to each other. During these early stages of their relationship the Nazis continued to advance through Europe and into France, leading to the evacuation at Dunkirk. The threat of invasion loomed heavily, and a number of Hugh’s friends and comrades from the RAF were killed during the war.
They were engaged in July but had no time to choose an engagement ring together because of Hugh’s training, so, Audrey and her mother asked an ‘honest expert’ from a London shop to send a number of rings for her approval.
The actual wedding date was decided very quickly because Hugh was allowed a rare 48 hours of continual leave. Seizing the opportunity, they planned the wedding in a week. Audrey’s mother organised all the clothes, a sherry party as a pre-wedding party, the wedding itself and a lunch party afterwards.
Given the wartime circumstances a white wedding was thought to be inappropriate - although Audrey later found out that Hugh was disapointed not to see her in a traditional wedding dress. Instead, she chose a dress, jacket and skull cap in Air Force blue. Her jacket was lined in pink silk and she had a pale pink veil on her cap. The famous British florist, Constance Spry, created the bouquet, which featured a red cabbage leaf. Audrey’s mother and bridesmaid wore dresses in red felt and silk. All the bridal clothes, and hats and dresses could be ready in four days. The groom, like many serving men, wore his uniform.
Ron was in the Navy during the Second World War and serving in the Far East. He met Eileen at her local pub while on leave. To earn the money needed for Eileen’s engagement ring he took on extra duties washing all the officers’ shirts.
The wedding was at St Michael’s Church in Enfield, North London. Eileen’s wedding dress, which she borrowed from a friend, was made of satin and lace and Ron wore his navy uniform. Eileen’s sister, Mary, whose story is below, is also pictured in the wedding photo. Another sister, Elsie, was a bridesmaid and wore a long pastel dress and veil.
For the wedding reception a friend’s mother made sandwiches and a cauldron of soup, and another friend pooled people’s rations together to make a fruit cake. Eileen’s father went round the local pubs and bought a barrel of beer, which the wedding party drank out of glass jars.
Eileen remembers it as a great party. The wedding took place during ‘double British summer time’ – which had been introduced as an energy-saving policy during the war – so the party went on late and spilled out onto the street. A piano was wheeled out from a neighbor's house, although unfortunately one of the keys was damaged by a cigarette during the party.
Mary and George met while she was working in her father's sweet shop. George was the butcher's shop delivery boy. Mary's sister Eileen, whose story is above, encouraged them to go out together.
During the war George served in the Navy and Mary worked in the Highlands Hospital in Enfield, North London.
Friends and colleagues gave Mary their clothing coupons so she could buy an outfit for the day. She wore a skirt, jacket suit and hat with a feather. George wore his Navy uniform.
Like Eileen, they were married at St Michaels’s church. The reception was at Mary’s father’s house, where they had a hot, cooked dinner served on small plates to make the ration portions look bigger.
Mary and George were married for 70 years.
Joan and Stanley met each other during the Second World War. Stanley’s work as a bio-chemist, researching pesticides, was deemed important to the war effort so he didn’t go off to fight. Joan, who had previously been a dress maker, was working in a factory making exhausts for aeroplanes. They met when Stanley took a room as a lodger in the house where Joan lived in Langley, Berkshire.
Stan and Joan weren’t married until after the war in 1947, however strict rationing was still in place. Joan made her own wedding dress from blue fabric. She’d been a seamstress before the war so was used to making her own clothes, as well as ball gowns for her twin sister who was a dancer. Her wedding dress had a tight bodice with a skirt that came down to the knee.
Restrictions on fabric at the time meant hems were kept short. It wasn’t until the early 50s, when fabric became more readily available, that skirts became fuller and longer. Joan used to shop for fabric on Berwick Street in Soho where she could get a good deal and where fabrics could sometimes be bought without using ration coupons, a practice which often went under the radar.
Joan and Stan’s wedding took place in Langley. The reception was held in Stan’s parent’s garden, where this picture was taken. All the wedding food was made by Joan and her family and they had to save up for months to get the ration coupons that they needed to buy enough butter to make the wedding cake. Friends and family clubbed together to save coupons so they would have what they needed for their big day.