The Second World War saw unprecedented government intervention into everyday life on the British home front. Food rationing began in 1940 and clothes were rationed from 1 June 1941. Fabric was essential for war purposes, such as uniforms. By reducing civilian clothing production, factory space and labour could be freed up for war production.
Rationing forced people to be painfully mathematic in how they spent their limited supply of clothing coupons - and to find shrewd ways to avoid doing so. The government-backed 'Make Do and Mend' scheme was introduced to encourage people to revive and repair worn-out clothes.
Handmade and hand-repaired clothing became an essential part of wartime life. People got creative across the country out of necessity, finding ways to make and care for clothes - and forge their own wartime style.
1. Give your sewing skills a boost
Following the introduction of clothes rationing, people were encouraged to improve their sewing skills. This included the Boy Scouts in this photograph in 1943, seen patching and mending their clothes alongside their leader. A report by the Women's Group on Public Welfare requested government support for an official 'Make and Mend' campaign to exhort people to care for the clothes they did have, and to make new clothing from old fabric. The report stated that, 'the Women's Group are therefore convinced that nothing less than a nation-wide campaign on the lines of the food front will suffice to meet the urgent situation when the shortage of material begins to be felt in the second year of clothes rationing'.
2. Take advice from Mrs Sew and Sew
A Make Do and Mend scheme was given official support by the Board of Trade in autumn 1942. Publicity materials were produced which included promotional posters, booklets, and a series of instructional leaflets featuring the character 'Mrs Sew and Sew' explaining sewing tips. This wide-eyed doll became a familiar sight, emblazoned across posters like this. She was also brought to life in government-backed animation films to promote home sewing, along with helpful scissors, thimbles, and cotton reels.
3. Turn old textiles into something new
Rationing forced people to be mathematic in determining how they were to spend their limited supply of clothing coupons - and to find shrewd ways to avoid doing so. Making clothes was usually still cheaper and needed fewer coupons than buying ready-made garments. Old blankets and un-rationed materials, like fabric for blackout curtains, were transformed into dresses. Men's suits left behind by serving soldiers became their wives' skirts and jackets. This two-piece suit in a fabric printed with images of knitting needles and wool was made by a skilled home sewer.
4. Go to a clothing exchange
Clothing exchanges were set up by the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) to help meet the needs of parents struggling to clothe their growing children. Parents could take the clothes that their children had outgrown and were given a number of points for the clothes handed in. These could be 'spent' on other clothes at the exchange. This oil painting by Evelyn Gibbs shows the scene inside an exchange as children are fitted with clothes.
WVS Clothing Exchange, 1943, Evelyn Gibbs
5. Catch the knitting bug
Hand knitting was a very popular pastime during the Second World War. Many wartime handknitted items, like underwear, may seem unappealing to modern tastes but these items were warm, hardwearing, and saved on precious coupons. Knitted headgear, like this Dutch bonnet, also became popular. Most wool was rationed but some was available off-ration. To qualify, it had to be made of less than 16 per cent animal hair. Knitting woollen comforts for servicemen enabled people to contribute to the war effort. Organisations such as the WVS and Women's Institutes coordinated volunteers into knitting parties.
6. Moths, darn!
Clothes care was central to the Make Do and Mend message. This poster issued by the Board of Trade advised how to prevent moth damage to clothes. Darning was a vital skill to give clothes a long life. Darning thread was widely available and un-rationed. Initially it came on skeins but when it was discovered that people were buying the thread and using it to knit or crochet whole garments, it was instead sold in shorter lengths on card. A wartime instructional leaflet of 'Darning Do's and Don'ts' stated that 'a neat darn is a real badge of honour'.
7. Get creative with fabric
Much-loved silk was unavailable after late 1940 and cotton was also in short supply, so finding material to make clothing like underwear was difficult. Some women used 'butter muslin', used in food preparation, as it was available off-ration. Old silk garments such as evening dresses or night dresses were regularly cut up to make garments. By 1945, a new supply of silk became available when surplus 'escape maps' issued to Allied aircrew during the Second World War were sold off. Dressing gowns, blouses and underwear were just some of the garments that were made from these maps. This example, detailing central Europe, was purchased by a member of staff at the Air Ministry for two shillings six pence - around five pounds today.
8. Become a jewellery designer
As people got used to wearing the same clothes for long periods of time, women often crafted their own accessories to refresh or smarten up an outfit. Earrings and bracelets could be made by aircraft factory workers from scraps of windscreen plastic, like this example featuring the embellishment of a snake's face. Patterns for accessories were published in newspapers and magazines showing people how they could make their own jewellery, handbags, collars and cuffs.
9. Think outside the white wedding box
Many couples married in haste to enjoy a married life they feared could be short because of wartime dangers. Although many aspired to a white wedding, clothes rationing and shortages of materials made this difficult. Families pooled their coupons, refashioned dresses from other family members, or made imaginative use of fabrics which were not subject to clothes rationing. Some women chose to marry in uniform. Others favoured a non-traditional dress or a smart suit that they would be able to wear again. This pink crepe dress was worn by Gladys Mason for her wedding to her husband Frank in October 1939.
On loan to IWM from Mrs Barbara Hall and Mrs Rosemary Culshaw.
10. No make-up? No problem.
Creativity was applied to cosmetics as well as clothing. Women were constantly encouraged by magazines to invest in their appearance, and worries about shabbiness as a sign of low morale were very real. This face powder compact in the shape of a US Army officer's cap made a popular gift for servicewomen and the wives and girlfriends of servicemen.
But the production of metal compact cases ceased in 1942. The drastic reduction in cosmetic manufacture to spare raw materials for the war effort became a problem and women had to be sparing in their use of the limited make-up produced. Many face powders came without the usual puff to apply it. Other forms of make-up also suffered, but inspired ingenious solutions. Beetroot juice to stain the lips was a substitute for lipstick. Other beauty tricks included using boot polish for mascara and drawing lines up the back of legs to give the impression of stockings.