Posted in Activity, Fashion History, Film, Historical Hair and Make-up, History, Literature, Vintage, Vintage Retail, World War Two

Rationing Fashion in 1940s Britain – Make Do & Mend

The Complete Book of Sewing by Constance Talbot (1948). ©Come Step Back in Time
The Complete Book of Sewing by Constance Talbot (1948). ©Come Step Back in Time

  • June 1943, Berketex Utility Fashions. Those shown in the picture were designed by Norman Hartnell (Photo by James Jarche/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • World War Two Utility clothing for women, c.1942. Photograph by James Jarche. (Photo by Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images)

Every now and again, scavenging in local charity shops pays dividends. Lurking behind a glut of seventies kitsch my mum (Queen of retro scavenging!) found two cloth-bound publications. She had a ‘hunch’ they might be something special and was right.  The Pictorial Guide to Modern Home Needlecraft (1946) and The Complete Book of Sewing: Dressmaking and Sewing For The Home Made Easy by Constance Talbot (1948). Both books cost the princely sum of £2. Mum had struck gold again and I am very grateful that she combs her local charity shops on a regular basis.

  • ‘Make Do & Mend’ World War Two poster. (Photo by The National Archives/SSPL/Getty Images)

These books are superb examples of the 1940s ‘Make Do and Mend’ culture. A trend borne out of economic necessity and inspired by government legislation. Home dressmaking became extremely popular in the 1940s. In recent times, this approach to needlecraft has returned, although is now referred to as ‘upcycling’ or the ‘pre-loved, re-loved’ trend. Whatever term you choose, it still makes perfect economic sense.

During World War Two, clothes rationing come into effect in Britain on the 1st June, 1941, lasting until March, 1949. Initially, clothes were rationed on a points system and no clothing coupons were issued. Britons were asked to handover their unused margarine coupons if they wanted a new item of clothing.

  • ‘Mrs Sew and Sew’ (1944) British Pathé, Ministry of Information Government film. Uploaded to You Tube 13.4.14.

When clothes rationing first began, the government allowed each adult enough coupons to buy one new outfit a year. However, this standard issue soon became unworkable, as the years of rationing progressed you would be lucky if your coupons purchased you a coat, let along a whole new outfit!

  • ‘Make Do & Mend Trailer’ Aka Clothing Coupons Trailer (1943) British Pathé. Uploaded to You Tube 13.4.14.

Coupon values for women: lined coat over 71 cm in length (14), jacket or short coat (11), wool dress (11), non-wool dress (7), blouse, cardigan or jumper (5), skirt or divided skirt (culottes) (7), overalls or dungarees (7), apron or pinafore (3), pyjamas (8), nightdress (6), slip, petticoat or combination undergarment (4), corset (3), stockings (2), ankle socks (1), pair of slippers, boots or shoes (5).

  • A book of clothing coupons dated 1947-8, plus three sheets of coupons

Coupon values for men: unlined cape or mackintosh (9), raincoat or overcoat (16), jacket or blazer (13), waistcoat or cardigan (5), wool trousers (8), corduroy trousers (5), overalls or dungarees (denim) (6), dressing gown (8), pyjamas or nightshirt (8), wool shirt or combination (one piece undergarment) (8), shirt or combination, not-wool (5), socks (3), collar or tie or two handkerchiefs (1), scarf or pair of gloves (2), slippers or rubber galoshes (4), pair of boots or shoes (7).

  • ‘Deft Darns’ by Mrs Sew and Sew, 1939-1945 (Photo by The National Archives/SSPL/Getty Images)

In order to make a purchase, the shopper handed over their coupons as well as money. The more fabric and labour that was needed to produce a garment, the more points required. Children’s clothes had lower points value, pregnant women were given an extra allocation for maternity and baby clothes. Furnishing fabrics were also used for dressmaking until they were placed on the ration too.001

The government tackled the problem of clothing civilians in three ways, rationing, Utility and Austerity. In 1943, the British Ministry of Information issued a Make Do and Mend pamphlet which was:

…intended to help you to get the last possible ounce of wear out of all of your clothes and household things…No doubt there are as many ways of patching or darning as there are of cooking potatoes.

(Hugh Dalton’s Foreword from Make Do and Mend by The Ministry of Information (1943))

  • Mannequins parading before service women are showing the latest Utility fashions and the ‘731’, an artificial silk-plated stocking called ‘Mr Dalton’s Stocking’ after the President of the Board of Trade, Hugh Dalton. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

During the first week of February 1942, the Utility Apparel Order came into force, all garments produced would now be marked using a ‘CC41’ label (‘Controlled Commodity 1941’).  It carried a reference to 1941 because the mark had been designed by artist Reginald Shipp during the early planning stages for Utility dress. In 1942, 50% of all clothes produced came under the Utility scheme by 1945 this number had risen to 85%.

Clothes have simply got to last longer than they used to, but only the careful woman can make them last well. If you want to feel happy in your clothes as long as they last, start looking after them properly from the very beginning.

(Make Do and Mend by The Ministry of Information, 1943)

  •  June 1943. Models wearing Berketex Utility fashions designed by Norman Hartnell (Photo by James Jarche/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • Utility Clothes,1943. A model leans against a window sill as she shows off her mustard-coloured wool Spectator dress, costing eleven coupons. She is also wearing a dark-coloured turban and holding a handbag with a large metal clasp. (Photo by Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer/ IWM via Getty Images)

Top 10 Make Do And Mend Tips

A selection of tips and hints from Make Do and Mend (1943), advice that is just as useful in today’s cash-strapped times. Upcycle your wardrobe don’t go out and buy something new, most importantly, look after the clothes that you do have:

  1. Mend clothes before washing them or sending them to the laundry, or the hole or tear may become unmanageable. Thin places especially must be dealt with, or they may turn into holes;
  2. For grease use a hot iron on a piece of clean white blotting paper placed over the stain [brown parcel paper is excellent when used this way to remove candlewax from fabric];
  3. Use dress shields to protect clothes from perspiration, but don’t leave shields in when putting clothes away for any length of time [this also cuts down your dry cleaning bills for silk/satin dresses/blouses. Simply remove the dress shields and wash those in hot soapy water];
  4. When folding clothes, put bunched-up newspaper [or tissue paper] between the folds to prevent creases;
  5. Never hang knitted wool or silk clothes, wet or dry. Store them flat in a drawer, and dry on a flat surface. Spread them out flat in the open air after shaking them gently, to air them;
  6. Remember that even the smallest scraps left over from your renovations will come in useful for something: patching, tea-cosies, coverings for buttons, hanging loops, binding for buttonholes, trimmings, kettle holders, polishers, and so on;
  7. Open the front of a blouse which has become too tight, and put in a contrasting button band, complete with collar. Or, if it has long sleeves, make them short, and use the material left over for your button band;
  8. A useful skirt can be made from a dress, the bodice of which is past repair. Cut it away at the waist, make a side placket and mount it on a Petersham band. The best parts from the bodice can be cut into a belt to finish the waistline or to make patch pockets on the hips. Pocket patches would hide any defects in the front;
  9. A man’s discarded waistcoat can be made into a woman’s jerkin by knitting a woollen back and sleeves. Beige with chocolate-brown, or canary coloured sleeves and back on a black pin-striped waistcoat would be very effective;
  10. Felted or matted wool. Have you a hopelessly-looking, thoroughly shrunk and matted old jumper or jacket? Unpick the seams carefully, don’t unravel it. You can then treat it just like cloth, cutting it out from a paper pattern. If, of course, it is not matted all over, you must tack the parts where stitches are likely to run, before cutting. Machine round the edge of the pattern and join up by hand. This keeps the garment firm and stops it from stretching. This cloth will make boleros, waistcoats, children’s coats, caps, gloves, capes, hoods, indoor Russian boots and many other articles. Old white wool, dipped in cold, clear coffee, will make attractive accessories.
From my copy of The Complete Book of Sewing by Constance Talbot (1948). ©Come Step Back in Time.
The Complete Book of Sewing by Constance Talbot (1948). ©Come Step Back in Time

How To Make A Wrap-Around Turban (The Complete Book of Sewing by Constance Talbot (1948))

Use soft woollen, a wool jersey, or a very firmly woven rayon crêpe. A yard of 40-inch material will make two turbans. Cut the turban 36-inches long and half the width of the material. Fold at A and seam the folded end. With a series of gathers, gather this seam into a 2  1/2 inch measure. Place the gathered material at the beginning of your hairline in the centre front, mark the turban, as shown at B. Split the unfinished end through the centre of the fabric up to the mark on the material, so that the ends can cross and wrap around the head. Tie the turban and make sure you have split it so it ties at the most becoming angle. When the effect is just what you want, hem the unfinished edges.

  • February 1943. Model wearing a dress, Green Park is the colour and herringbone allies with plain yoke. The dress costs sixty shillings to buy. (Photo by James Jarche/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

How To Make A Pill-Box Hat (The Complete Book of Sewing by Constance Talbot (1948))

Cut a band and a circle of buckram as shown in the diagram. To get the size, measure the head with a tape measure. Use this measure on line A of the diagram, and cut a strip of paper, shaping it as shown in the diagram. Join the ends of the band and place it over a piece of paper as you can outline on that paper the circle formed by the band. This circle is the top of the crown. When you have fitted the paper band to the head in the effect you like, cut a band and a circle from the buckram with these patterns. Cover them with fabric and join the two pieces with small stitches which do not show. Line the hat with pieces cut by the same patterns and seamed together.

  • Hats Aka ‘Make Do & Mend’ Hats (1942) British Pathé. Some Utility fashion ideas from Anne Edwards, fashion editor of Woman magazine. Uploaded to You Tube 13.4.14.

The term ‘Mend and Make Do’ – a familiar phrase – sums up all possibilities for helping a worn garment to last just a little longer. This chapter, devoted to all aspects of garment renovation, shows how imagination and the application of small fashion touches can make the repaired garment still a pleasurable one to wear.

(Extract from The Pictorial Guide to Modern Home Needlecraft (1946)

The Complete Book of Sewing by Constance Talbot (1948). ©Come Step Back in Time
The Complete Book of Sewing by Constance Talbot (1948). ©Come Step Back in Time

Replacing Frayed Collars (The Complete Book of Sewing by Constance Talbot (1948))

Collars can be turned by ripping the seam which holds the collar in place. Reserve the collar, turn it over, and replace it. Baste it before sewing and try it on to see that the collar fits properly round the neck. Or a new collar of contrasting material or fur can be sewn on top of the old one, and in that case the trimming can be extended down the front edge of the coat.

Imperial War Museum London – ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style’ Exhibition

 A new exhibition, ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style’, opens at the Imperial War Museum, London on Thursday 5th March, 2015 and continues until Monday 31st August, 2015. Artefacts (300 of them) include accessories, photographs, film, artworks, interviews and clothing. On display will be key pieces of uniform from the men’s and women’s services as well as more unusual items such as gas mask handbags, blackout buttons, a bridesmaid’s dress made from parachute silk and an underwear set made from RAF silk maps for Countess Mountbatten. Click here.

  • April 1944. (Photo by Planet News Archive/SSPL/Getty Images)

    ©Come Step Back in Time
    The Pictorial Guide to Modern Home Needlecraft (1946) ©Come Step Back in Time
The Pictorial Guide to Modern Home Needlecraft (1946) ©Come Step Back in Time
The Pictorial Guide to Modern Home Needlecraft (1946) ©Come Step Back in Time

  • Lady Reading using a sewing machine at the Women’s Voluntary Services headquarters during World War Two.
My grandmother's 1948 Singer sewing machine. ©Come Step Back in Time
My grandmother’s 1948 Singer sewing machine (Serial No. EE617052). My grandmother ordered this machine as soon as World War Two ended in 1945. Due to the shortage of materials following the war, she had to wait three years before taking delivery of her beloved sewing machine. This machine was my grandmother’s pride and joy which resulted in many, many years of home dressmaking. Home dressmaking in our family is a tradition that has been passed down from my mother to me. ©Come Step Back in Time
Detail of my grandmother's 1948 sewing machine. ©Come Step Back in Time
Detail of my grandmother’s 1948 sewing machine. ©Come Step Back in Time
The Complete Book of Sewing by Constance Talbot (1948). ©Come Step Back in Time
The Complete Book of Sewing by Constance Talbot (1948). ©Come Step Back in Time
The Complete Book of Sewing by Constance Talbot (1948). ©Come Step Back in Time
The Complete Book of Sewing by Constance Talbot (1948). ©Come Step Back in Time
The Complete Book of Sewing by Constance Talbot (1948). ©Come Step Back in Time
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