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)

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  • 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.

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  • ‘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).

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  • ‘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))

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  • 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)

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

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  • 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

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  • 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
Posted in Event, Exhibition, Fashion History, Museum, Vintage, Vintage Retail

1950s Britain – Part Three


Christian Dior’s salon launch of his revolutionary New Look took place on 12th February 1947. This date marked a watershed in the history of post-war fashion in Britain and the rest of Europe. The New Look style inspired a whole generation of fashion designers and helped kick-start a boom in couture and ready-to-wear clothing for women during the following decade. Women’s clothes became more light-hearted and feminine, shaking-off the austere aesthetic of utility clothing. Clothes rationing ended in March 1949.

Me wearing the 1948 New Look at the first Goodwood Revival meeting in 1998.

In September 1998, I was very lucky to be at the first Goodwood Revival event dressed in a Dior New Look outfit. The jacket was original but the skirt a later copy. The Goodwood Revival is still as popular today as it was fourteen years ago. This year’s event takes place at The Goodwood Estate, Chichester, West Sussex between 14th and 16th September inclusive. CLICK HERE. The perfect opportunity to wear your newly created fifties inspired vintage look.

At the beginning of the 1950’s, shoulders were more rounded and waists defined. Long narrow skirts or full circular skirts were worn, about 30cm off the ground. The full skirts made a statement; they celebrated the end of post-war clothing restrictions. Criticism was levied at designers for the excessive amount of fabric needed to realise their creations. The full skirts held their shape thanks to the many layers of frilled petticoats of stiffened nylon. Sometimes these petticoats contained upwards of twelve metres of nylon net. Previously, women had had to make do with just over a couple of metres of utility tweed.

The playsuit was a popular item of leisure wear and would traditionally be teamed with a wedgy pair of espadrilles. The playsuit has made a recent comeback. This time around it is often worn with a thick pair of tights and statement-making footwear. There were a number of European key designers and design houses producing high-end fashion in fifties. I list here the more well-known but this is by no means an exhaustive roll of honour: Balmain (fashion house); Balenciaga; Coco Chanel; Hardy Amies; Hubert de Givenchy; Norman Hartnell and Victor Stiebel. The last three of these designers were British. In 1958 The Fashion House Group of London was formed. This group of British designers created collections to be sold in high street stores. The designers were: Susan Small (mostly evening and party dresses); Horrockses; Peggy Allen; Jaeger; Dannimac; Polly Peck and Aquascutum.

French fashion magazine from my own collection, 1957.

In order to achieve the fashionable tiny waist of the fifties, a short corset of five or six inches deep, called a “waspie” would be worn. The waspie was often worn over the panti-girdle. A foundation garment controlled by stretch rather than boning.

1950s evening dress. Portsmouth City Museum.

Strapless, glamorous, evening dresses required another type of undergarment, the basque which had incorporated bra cups. Bras in the 1950’s were under wired and had spiral stitching, creating the conical-shaped bosoms synonymous with the film-inspired “Sweater Girl” look. Padded bras or inflatable inserts were a suitable alternative if nature had not blessed you in that department. In 1952, seamless stockings were introduced into Britain.

Ready-to-wear ranges emerged in the 1950’s that made good use of the new, man-made materials such as Nylon, Crimplene and Orlon. These materials meant that garments were easy-care and required little or no ironing. Crimplene revolutionised the colour palette of fifties fashion due to its colour fast properties. Ready-to-sew kits were also popular and made sewing accessible to a wider number of women.

Original shop sign for Liz Tilley Millinery, Lymington. St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire.
An original Liz Tilley hat made from black pedal straw and trimmed with a white Cire Camelia. St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire.
Liz Tilley hat box 1950s. St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire.

St. Barbe Museum’s recent exhibition ‘1950’s – Having it so Good’ included a display featuring the work and career of society milliner, Liz Tilley.  Liz opened her haute couture millinery store on No. 1 High Street, Lymington in 1959.  She had trained with Aage Thaarup, the Mayfair based Danish designer. Thaarup is known for the hats he created for Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth.  Thaarup recognised Liz’s natural talent for millinery design and encourage her to move to Paris.  The aim of the move was to expose her to the houses of Dior, Chanel and Jacques Faith.  Liz lived with her sister in a tiny Parisian bedsitter in the Latin Quarter.  She borrowed a friend’s salon in Paris to display her designs but the hats themselves were created from the confines of her tiny bedsit. Liz’s shop in High Street, Lymington closed in the 1990s.  In the course of my research I did manage to find a couple of British Pathé films of Thaarup at work in his Mayfair salon:

  1. Easter  Bonnets (1954);
  2. Albert Hall Hat (1957).

Men in the fifties often wore dark, two or three-piece suits to the office and a tweed sports jacket and flannel trousers at weekends. Neatly laced brogues of either brown leather or suede (‘brothel creepers’) were often worn. English gentleman’s athletic clothing was also popular. Teaming an old college blazer with a cravat. The classic English city gent would wear a black bowler hat, three-piece suit or black jacket and waistcoat with pin-striped trousers worn with a white or finely striped shirt with semi-stiff detachable collar. To complete the ensemble, a pair of black Oxford shoes, coat in Crombie woolwith a black velvet collar and a rolled umbrella.

1950s wedding dress belonging to Barbara Clapham. On display at the recent 1950s exhibition at St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire.

St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire.
My mother as a bridesmaid at my Great Aunt’s wedding in February 1955.

I asked my mother and mother-in-law about fashion memories that they had of their teenage years in the fifties. My mother recalls:

fashions were very feminine, tightly fitted bodices, full skirts and lots of net petticoats. To starch my petticoats I would dip them in sugar-water and leave to dry. However, if it rained it was awful as you ended-up with sticky legs. I remember my petticoats had a channel in them and I had to pass a corset guide or flat stiffener – which you brought by the foot – through it to make the petticoats stand out. I had to be careful on the bus so that when I sat down the skirts wouldn’t flip-up and show my underwear. That was a big no, no. Girls in those days were trimmer than they are today. The waists were tiny and nipped in. I had an elasticated waspie. I also wore wide, about two inches wide, elasticated belts which had either a metal clip or a pretty buckle. On my feet I had flat ballet pumps and wore my hair either in a pony tail or had it curly. I didn’t wear that much make-up as I was very young. I do remember that a lot of girls wore quite thick eyeliner, Cleopatra style. You had to practice a lot to get your eyeliner straight but most girls became quite expert at doing their own make-up. I did have a block of mascara that I had to spit on to moisten and then would apply using a mascara wand. I wore light coloured lipsticks and always made sure my eyebrows were tidy. I also liked wearing a few bracelets, so too did my friends. Padded bras with circular stitching were popular. There were no tights. Instead you had stockings and suspender belts. The rubber bits on my suspender belts often perished and I would use a six pence penny piece to keep them up. It was quite breezy in the underwear department. There were no skimpy pants, thongs or g strings. I do remember some girls had seamless stockings but my nylons had seams up the back. I wore a lot of waist length cardigans with buttons up the front. Women of my mother’s generation always wore a hat but the young women did not wear hats as much. Gloves were also always worn.

I enjoyed making my own clothes. One of the first dresses that I made was in 1957 when I was thirteen. It was in a cotton fabric, which was sky blue with white spots and white bias binding trim. I sent for the fabric pieces from Honey magazine, which was a popular teenage magazine. It cost me about £4 and I was so proud of it. There was a choice of blue or pink and I preferred blue because I was fair-haired. It wasn’t a full skirt but a shift dress. It had a fabric tie in the middle. There was no paper pattern. All the pieces of fabric came ready cut and you just had to sew them together. My mum had a Singer sewing machine which she had waited three years for after the war and it was always in use at home. During the war they were not manufacturing sewing machines as the metal was needed for armaments. My mum was a very good needlewoman and came from the ‘make do and mend’ generation. She always brought her bras from Marks and Spencers in the 1950’s and 60s. She had a French figure. Big bust, nipped in waist and ample hips.

My mother-in-law grew-up in rural Northern Ireland in the fifties and her fashion choices reflected her musical interests at that time.  She recalls:

I loved rock n’ roll and jive dancing. I was a big fan of Elvis Presley too. I used to wear skirts that were plain but not fully flared. The skirts had a wide waistband or were gathered in at the waist. They were called Dirndl skirts I think and were mid-calf length. I think they were based on traditional maid’s style costumes worn in Germany. They did still have a lot of material in them though. My underskirts were bright colours. Layers of pink, yellow and white netting. I remember that I also had a black feather hat. The feathers were bunched on one side of my head and secured to the head. The feathers would then lay flat across the top of the head reaching to the other side. The hat did not last long. We came back from Mass one Sunday to discover that the family dog had shredded it to pieces. It looked like a blackbird had been massacred in our kitchen. I used to wear my ‘V’ necked jumpers back to front as well, with the ‘V’ at the back. We didn’t refer to suits as suits, they were costumes. I never wore red lipstick. I wore pan stick foundation, a little powder with a pink or peach coloured lipstick.

McCalls 1952 pattern no. 9028 from my collection.

Last year I purchased McCall’s blouse pattern no. 9028 at a vintage fair. It is from 1952 and I thought that it would be a good project to have a go at making one of blouses. I consider myself to be a fairly competent needlewoman but I am afraid I could not make head nor tail of the pattern instructions. I admitted defeat and passed the pattern to my mother who cheerfully took-up the challenge. I come from a long line of excellent dressmakers but know my limits. My mother has made a wide variety of clothes over the years: theatrical costumes; copious clothes for me; curtains; cushions and is also a dab hand at upholstery too. Definitely the right woman for the job.

When my mother was first married, my father worked in Southern Ireland at Raidió Teilifis Eireann in the latter part of the 1960s. Married women were not allowed to work for money in Southern Ireland at that time. However, my mum did not want to get stuck at home so managed to secure voluntary work at Ardmore Film Studios in the Wardrobe Department. She helped out with ironing, pressing and doing minor sewing alterations on a number of film productions including Sinful Davey (1969), directed by John Huston and starring John Hurt and Pamela Franklin.

View D, McCalls pattern no. 9028.

Anyway, those are my mother’s credentials and here is her advice on working with vintage patterns. She made view D from McCall’s 1952 pattern no. 9028:

First of all the pattern markings are a lot clearer to work with than modern patterns. However, the instructions are not easy to follow. There is a lot of reading and assembling to do before you begin and you really do need some prior needlework experience before working with a vintage pattern. I found it difficult to attach the collar and the tie was not as easy as it looks to make. A complete beginner would struggle with the pattern. In the fifties, sewing machines did not have automatic buttonhole options. But if you are using a modern sewing machine then this part of the construction would definitely be easier now. Interfacing is also important. Interfacing in the fifties was not sticky; it was a separate item, a separate piece of fabric. Make sure you choose the correct weight of interfacing for the fabric you are using. Ask in the fabric shop when you are buying supplies. The seam allowances are surprisingly generous. Although be aware that sizing is different today. A size 12 pattern, as this was, is about a size 8-10 today. Although, the generous seam allowances do help when adjusting a vintage pattern to fit a modern body shape. The bottom of the shirt appears to offer a generous fitting but remember that this was so that you could wear it over your full skirt.  Also check that the pattern you are buying is complete, luckily this one was but you may find some bits are missing. I used a modern sewing machine and just made sure I had the right needle for the fabric I was using but other than that I did not have to make any other adjustments on my machine.

Close-up view of neck detail on finished blouse.

The lovely blouse that my mother made went to a good home. Unfortunately, I have inherited my grandmother’s ‘French figure’, so the garment was no good for my body shape. However, my dear friend and retro goddess Carolyn Hair now has it in her large collection of vintage fashions.

Front view of finished blouse.
Back view of finished blouse.

1950s fashion is enjoying a huge revival at the moment. Original garments can be sourced from one of the many vintage fairs popping-up all over the country or for the more resourceful among you, why not try one making your own 50s clothing. Pattern companies such as Butterick, Simplicity and Vogue all have 50s inspired patterns or re-issues of originals from their own archives.

Butterick pattern from their ‘Retro’ range. Pattern No. B556, 1957. From my own collection of retro patterns.

If recreating your vintage look from an original pattern or wearing second-hand clothes is not your thing, then don’t panic.  If you want to dress to impress the vintage way, then high street fashion stores are currently full of garments that have a retro feel to them.  I recently visited Westfield shopping centre in White City, London to see the pop-up fashion display ‘Future Fashion’ (27th March-1stApril).  In all of the fashion trends on display I could identify trends from the 1930s right through to the 1980s.

Alongside each of the themed displays there were five digital 103” LCD touch-screens housed in Styling Cubes. The idea being that you chose the fashion items that had caught your eye, then you dragged and drop them into a personalised mood board to create your perfect wardrobe of outfits.  Once you had chosen your favourite items you simply entered your e-mail address and the images were sent directly to you.  There were also options to link to your Facebook page or share your finds on Twitter. Here are a couple of my favourite items from this event. A sixties-inspired dress and a fifties-inspired swimming costume.

Dandelion lace prom dress by Monsoon. £75.
River Island peach flower one piece swimsuit.

For information on 1940s and 1950s hair and make-up, please my article from September 2011.

Image from 1957 magazine showing eye-liner detail.
1950s HMV hairdryer. St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire.


I have listed below a few books and resources that should help to inspire your top-to-toe 1950’s look:

  • Victoria and Albert Museum, London – Ballgowns – British Glamour Since 1950 (19th May- 6th January 2013);
  • Victoria and Albert Museum, London – ‘Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age’ (31st March – 12th August 2012);
  • Royal Mail Mint Stamps – Great British Fashion: 1945 to 2010. I rushed out and purchased my pack at the local Post Office on the first day of issue. I brought the presentation pack priced £6.50. The presentation pack contains a stylish and well-written booklet, written by Professor Amy de la Haye, Rootstein Hopkins Chair, London College of Fashion. The booklet charts the history of British fashion from 1945 to the present day.
  • Ketteler, J., (2010) Sew Retro: A Stylish History of The Sewing Revolution published by Voyageur Press;
  • Brennan, E., (2005) Making Vintage Bags: 20 Original Patterns for Vintage Bags and Purses published by Guild of Master Craftsman;
  • Ours Drager, B., (2009) Hat Tactics: Instructions for Creating Early 1950’s Hats published by Bramcast Publications (although this book is a reprint of one produced in 1950);
  • Westmore Beauty Book – A Complete 1950’s Guide to Vintage Make-up, Hairstyling and Beauty Techniques (2009) published by Bramcast Publications. This is a fantastic book and was originally published in 1956;
  • What Katie Did, 26 Portobello Green Arcade, 281 Portobello Road, Londonfor all your vintage shapewear needs. If you are unable to visit their shop, they do have an on-line shopping facility for overseas customers. For the more daring and patriotic among you there is even a Diamond Jubilee inspired corset – the Union Flag Corset;
  • Here are a few fun and fascinating British Pathé fifties fashion clips:
  1. Kitchen Hats (1959);
  2. Italian Knitwear (1958);
  3. Spectacles (1955);
  4. She Walks in Beauty (1950);
  5. She Walks in Beauty (1951);
My family on the beach in Hythe, Kent. Inky the poodle can be seen in the bottom left-hand corner. 1956.

Poodles became the must-have fashion accessory of the 1950s. Friends of my aunt and mother had a poodle called ‘Inky’ who can be seen in the above photograph, on the left. I hasten to add here that Inky was not dressed in any of the fashion outfits worn by high society poodles of that time, neither was he dyed lurid pink, he was just a much-loved family pet.

The craze for poodles had an impact on mainstream fashion too. The ‘poodle skirt’, with its bright colours and breed motif appliquéd on the front, is one of the most memorable fashion trends from this decade. Even TV star Lucille Ball got herself a ‘poodle hair cut’ and who can forget Doris Day with her bevy of rainbow-coloured poodles in a fashion shoot from 1950. The poodle often featured in French fashion and beauty advertisements.  Here are a few examples of the fifties passion for poodles that may amuse you:

  1. Paris Hotel Boutique Journal Blog – Glamour Dogs;
  2. Poodle Fashion Show (1956);
  3. Dog Fashions Beware (1959).