Clothes rationing in Britain

From June 1941 until 1949, buying new clothes was rationed in Britain. This newsreel trailer, made by the Ministry of Information in 1943, is called ‘Make Do and Mend’. It was part of the Government's campaign urging people to repair, reuse and reimagine their existing clothes during the Second World War. Film curator Michelle Kirby introduces us to this delightful and humorous short film.

[archive] "we haven't got enough coupons!"

"and I've got to have a few for towels and things for the house."

[knocking] "perhaps we can help you."

"and who may you be?"

"your old clothes put away and forgotten"

[Michelle Kirby] This is one of those films that makes me smile. It's a newsreel trailer made by the Ministry of information in 1943 and it's all about Make Do and Mend. This was a government campaign urging people to repair reuse and reimagine their existing clothes because it wasn't just food that was rationed in the Second World War. From June 1941 buying new clothes was rationed too.

The cinema audiences who would have watched this before the main feature started would probably have groaned inwardly at the sight of the ration books. They symbolized sacrifice. There was a real scarcity of new clothes because fabric was needed elsewhere for uniforms and the general war effort. Many in the cinema audience would have identified with a very glum-looking family who appear in this film visibly fed up with their limited clothing coupons which just won't buy them enough. Not to worry though because here come the family's old clothes, talking and moving no less, to save the day.

[archive] "for instance I could make a smart costume for the young lady"

"something very stylish for madam?"

"well if the youngster wants some shorts I don't mind being cut down"

"and we'll join forces and make John a new sweater."

"Three boys shirts out of us."

"My wedding dress!"

"I'd like to be a nightdress and panties."

"Well folks what are you waiting for?"

[MK] A lot of people didn't like the rhetoric of Make Do and Mend and they felt quite daunted by it and there is an undercurrent of that running throughout the film. I can't help but smile at a blank expression on mother's face as her clothes throw down the gauntlet and try and reassure her that it's really quite easy when you know how.

"I've never turned a pair of trousers into a skirt in my life!" 

"never mind, it's quite easy to do, ask at your Technical Institute"

[MK] Ee know that Make Do and Mend classes and groups did spring up all over the country as people tried to help each other. The whole thing is deliberately playful and we'll see that playfulness replicated in many posters and leaflets as well which also promoted Makes Do and Mend. The government had been genuinely concerned that if the people of Britain had let standards of appearance slip it might be seen as a sign of the low morale, of just giving up and that
would have been bad for the war effort and that's what I like about this film.

There's an acknowledgment that these times are hard. On the Home Front a lot is being asked of people but it's not a lecture, it's a strangely uplifting call to action to encourage ingenuity and creativity to bring some smiles back on
faces and I think it encapsulates brilliantly that wartime spirit of pluck. All you need to get through this we're told is a bit of imagination and a little help from your friends.

[archive] "There's probably a local Make Do and Mend class where you can learn"

"or why not get together with your friends and form a Make Do and Mend group, then you can all help each other."

Related content

2. Take advice from Mrs Sew and Sew
Second World War

10 Top Tips For Winning At 'Make Do And Mend'

The Second World War saw unprecedented government intervention into everyday life on the British home front. Clothes rationing began on 1 June 1941. Handmade and hand-repaired clothing became an essential part of wartime life. 

two young boys dressed in school uniform. The boy on the left is smiling and wearing a uniform that fits him well. The image on the right appears to be the same boy but a little older and taller, wearing the same school uniform. He appears miserable as the uniform is far too small for him. text: Plan ahead allow for growing.

8 Facts about Clothes Rationing in Britain During the Second World War

The imposition of clothes rationing was announced by Oliver Lyttleton, President of the Board of Trade, on 1 June 1941. Making the announcement just before a Bank Holiday allowed the Board of Trade time to brief retailers before the shops reopened. 

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

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.

Battle of Britain Spirit of Britain photo shoot

1940s Fashion: How to get the look

The Second World War had a profound influence on fashion. Discover more about how women dressed during the 1940s and follow our tutorials to achieve a 1940s hairstyle and make up look.