How did the Second World War influence the British Fashion?

A closer examination of the years 1945 to 1960

Seminar Paper, 2015

11 Pages, Grade: 2,7



1. Introduction

2. Clothes Rationing

3. Situation in the immediate post-war years
3.1 “Make-Do and Mend”-Campaign
3.2 Paris’ New Look and the Royal Clothing

4. The ‘fifties: Get back to the grindstone
4.1 American influence and mass market
4.2 School of Fashion London

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Dominated by the Second World War, Britain was rather fortunate. It was neither experiencing significant combats on their own land nor occupied by enemy forces. But during the years between 1939 and 1945, the British civilian life was heavily influenced. Besides the general civilian life, also instances like fashion were affected. Britain had a traditional concept of fashion for a long time. After the year of 1940 there was little time for fashion, the clothes became less formal and more functional (Shrimpton 8). The British government controlled the textile and garment production and decided what should and what could be worn and this “attempted the nation’s whole perception of fashion, not only during the war but in the years of shortages and inflation that followed” (Shrimpton 7). The military uniform was widely adapted in women’s fashion, so the tailored silhouette of the female dress of the 1930s developed into a disciplined style that seemed clean-cut (Shrimpton 14). Also the appearance of women in a uniform was clearly visible throughout Britain. Most of the men were at war, so women had to take over their jobs. The range of uniforms from nurses to mechanics was incredible. Those uniforms identified the women and formed the basis of their wardrobe. The Second World War female factory worker became iconic. Their work was physically demanding and they had to learn complex skills in a short time (Shrimpton 22). Glamour was like an alien concept, they wore shapeless overalls and hairnets or headscarves (Shrimpton 22). As opposed to the working uniforms also the civilian dress transformed widely in women’s fashion. Casual trousers, which were already worn for outdoor activities such as gardening, were more and more worn in everyday life. Trousers were not widely accepted for women, in rural areas they were regarded as the dress for immoral girls and many traditional working class men disliked them (Shrimpton 16). Also most men at this time had few occasions to adopt new fashion because they were in the services (Shrimpton 11).The wartime fashion was therefore not as rich in variety as the years before. But why does fashion even matter? “Over thousands of years of clothing has absorbed into itself so much of the spirit of man that we might grasp all the problems of human culture if we understood completely and directly the spirit of clothing.” (Kraus 241) That was written by Karl Kraus in 1906. So fashion is an aspect of life that is much more important than one might have thought at first sight. British people themselves had since ever the freedom of choice and could express their personal taste in their fashion. It is a human desire. Everything the people in Great Britain were longing for after the end of the war was a little luxury. This paper will focus on the development of fashion after the Second World War and which influences the wartime itself had on it.

2. Clothes Rationing

In June 1941 the clothes rationing was launched. By that time the offer and the civilian clothing in general “were already experiencing a downward turn” (Shrimpton 28). Many factories were claimed by the government, the garment factories, too. As a result much of the clothing industry’s labour needed to be closed for essential war work (Shrimpton 28). The combination of raw materials and the inflation forced up the price of clothes, and ended up in the purchase tax of 1941. Most garments and footwear rose at sixteen per cent, luxury items like fur, hats and belts rose at thirty per cent (Shrimpton 28). The rationing provided affordable dress materials by requiring cash and coupons to purchase dress items. There were still items left, which did not require any coupons like children clothes for children aged under four, work boiler suits, wooden clogs, sanitary towels, hats, braids, sewing and mending thread, boot and shoe laces, and second hand clothes (Shrimpton 28), the heavily taxed dress items were considered inessential. The majority of new clothes were rationed in Britain between June 1941 and March 1949 which is the reason why the clothes rationing is still important in the immediate post-war-years (Shrimpton 29). Every British adult had sixty-six coupons on hand per year, expecting women had a few additional coupons (Shrimpton 31). To gain an insight, a ordinary woman’s jacket was at eleven coupons, a ordinary man’s suit at twenty-four coupons (Shrimpton 32). The fashion press supported the rationing system and was campaigning for an end of the extravagance in dress, like the fashion magazine Vogue, which pronounced in October 1942: “Rationing is fair. Nothing counts in comparison with victory. We may not grin, but we can bear it. It is fair to coax two dresses out of one length.” (qtd. in Shrimpton 31) Due to the many supporters also the public reaction to the rationing system was relatively positive. Additionally to the Rationing, a concept was introduced in the 1940s, which was called Utility Clothing. It was introduced by the Board of Trade, by reducing the number of clothing factories and focussing on valuable and sustainable textiles (Shrimpton 34). Part of the Utility Clothing were the Austerity restrictions, which forbid any ornamental stitching on textiles, unnecessary buttons and use of pleats, restricted the width of belts, seams, sleeves and collars, and the length of hemlines was also limited (Shrimpton 37). There was no production of any items consisting rubber, silk or leather, except for shoes (Shrimpton 47), but the production of synthetic materials, like nylon, developed (Handley 31). The government actually involved leading London couturiers in the design of the Utility Clothing for the mass production so that people would still feel fashionable (Shrimpton 40). The best utility garments combined “simplicity, comfort and durability with sophisticated elegance” (Shrimpton 41). Positive influences of the Utility Clothing were visible early in 1945: the clothes had better quality and more costly materials were used (Shrimpton 43). Although the war had ended, the production of the Utility Clothing continued until March 1952 and influenced the development of fashion widely. Maybe the public will always associate the Utility Clothing with the austerity of the war, but the improved quality of fabrication affected the consumers concerning their purchasing behaviour with focus on the sustainability (Shrimpton 43).

3. Situation in the immediate post-war years

Although the war had ended, the shortages continued. London was contested for an international name, battling against Paris, but due to the delay of peacetime production of civilian goods and the re-establishment of skilled textile workers, Paris won the battle (Shrimpton 82). Despite the fact that the government sponsored an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London called “Britain Can Make It”, which should revive the post-war design industry, the authorities did not understand the complexity of international couture (Shrimpton 82). That there was no sign of export fashion of the United Kingdom only highlighted the austerity of Britain in the post-war years (Shrimpton 82). As the war had ended, women and men had to dress the best they could to find an employment outside of home, where they needed a sophisticated working wardrobe. That was nearly impossible due to the rationing. While the new trends from Paris were an inspiration for adults and the Royal Family, younger males and females took their own interest in fashion and adopted various styles, for example from the Edwardian era (Shrimpton 83). This kind of styling was called Dandyism which continued until the 1970s.

3.1 “Make-Do and Mend”-Campaign

Due to the raw material, the government forced the consumer to reduce his or her demand for new clothes (Shrimpton 52) and in the summer of 1942 the Board of Trade launched the “Make-Do and Mend” campaign, which should encourage the people to “utilise every old garment before considering anything new.” (qtd. in Shrimpton 53) This was not new to the poorer families of Britain, but the upper-middle and the upper classes were not used to make their own clothes (Shrimpton 53). Therefore up-market fashion magazines such as Vogue supported again the government by addressing the ladies with basic domestic tasks and numerous “How-To”-booklets were published (Shrimpton 54). Magazines like Daily Mail and Daily Express provided various steps of home dress making (Shrimpton 55). Also, the Women’s Voluntary Service and the Women’s Institute ran “Make-Do and Mend” evening classes, which taught the women how to renew old clothes, fix them and how to use other garments, like blankets and old curtains, to make new clothes (Shrimpton 55). In the post-war years it was routine that women renewed and created the clothes for their family. According to the rare materials the utility garments the clothing opportunities were simple but civilians had still the desire of feeling fashionable. Especially females experimented with their hairstyling and make-up. “[A] clear complexion, bright lips and accentuated eyes, along with a feminine hairstyle and jewellery, could almost compensate for old uninspiring clothes and down-at-heel shoes.” (Shrimpton 65) But when there was no make-up to buy the women needed to improvise: all ends of lipsticks were collected and melted down together to re-solidify, eyes were outlined with soot or charcoal, lids shined with Vaseline and an infusion of rose petals were a perfect coloured liquid for cheeks (Shrimpton 67). As hats were not included in the rationing system, many women felt that this was one of the few ways to feel attractive and to express their personal style (Shrimpton 61). They had tall, feathered bonnets, military-style caps and mannish hats. When the taxes rose also for luxury items the women made their own headwear, like the turbans, which were introduced by the British female factory worker as oriental and practical accessories, pixie hoods or even stylish snoods (Shrimpton 61).

3.2 Paris’ New Look and the Royal Clothing

Paris is known as the fashion métropole of the last centuries. Not surprising that a new trend after the Second World War was launched by a Parisian designer called Christian Dior (Shrimpton 85). The so called New Look was first introduced in February 1947, in autumn 1947 the collection was showcased in London and privately to the Royal Family (Shrimpton 87). The style had “a powerful sense of romantic nostalgia” (Shrimpton 85), as the long skirt, the cinched waist, the rounded shoulders and the bosom in the spotlight are very similar to the mid-nineteenth century fashion (Shrimpton 85). The British civilians had a mixed opinion of this ostentatious new trend, while the government feared an economic disaster of this luxurious styling, and asked the British Guild of Creative Designers to continuing the promotion of the shorter hemlines (Shrimpton 85). The Picture Post magazine proclaimed:

“Paris forgets this is 1947. The styles are launched upon a world which has not that money to buy, the leisure to enjoy, nor in some designers the strength to support these masses of elaborate material [...] there can be no question about the entire unsuitability of these new fashions, for our present life and time.” (qtd. in Shrimpton 86)

On the other hand some British designers like Hardy Amies also favoured the emphasizing of women’s best attributes in fashion: “curved shoulders, high busts, small waists, full hips and a good carriage” (qtd. in Shrimpton 87), because that would “lead to better relations between men and women in the difficult period of acclimatisation following the war.” (Shrimpton 87), which is overtly anti-feminist.


Excerpt out of 11 pages


How did the Second World War influence the British Fashion?
A closer examination of the years 1945 to 1960
Dresden Technical University  (Großbritannienstudien)
“You’ve never had it so good” Post-War-Britain: Prosperity, Consensus and Relative Decline
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
502 KB
fashion, post-war britain, prosperity, relative decline, britain, great britain, cultural studies
Quote paper
Verena Odrig (Author), 2015, How did the Second World War influence the British Fashion?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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