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Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style

One of IWM’s recently-acquired garments, displayed for the first time in Fashion on the Ration. This mustard wool Utility coat made by Alexon is an example of wartime design at its best, featuring simple lines and minimal trimmings. © IWM UNI 14387.

IWM London’s headline exhibition for the spring and summer, Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style, explores how the war impacted upon an intensely personal aspect of life on the home front during the Second World War.  What did people wear and how did this shape their sense of identity? How was fashion constrained by war? How did men, women and children cope with the demands and deprivations of shortages and austerity?

Making your own clothes would usually still be cheaper and needed fewer coupons than buying ready-made garments. This two piece suit in a fabric printed with images of knitting needles and wool was made by a skilled home sewer. © IWM UNI 14393 and UNI 14394.

The exhibition is the result of curatorial and exhibition research teams delving through IWM’s vast collection of uniform and civilian clothing. Only a small selection is on display across our branches at any one time, and this was an excellent opportunity to surprise visitors with the quantity and richness of what we care for.  The clothing and uniform collection continues to evolve.  Fashion on the Ration displays the highlights of a notable donation of wartime civilian clothing never before seen on public display.

The Women’s Royal Naval Service officer’s uniform was a source of envy and considered more attractive than those of the other auxiliary services like the Auxiliary Territorial Service, which was branded ‘hideous’ by the novelist Barbara Cartland. © IWM UNI 12755 and UNI 12756.

Clothing is a special type of collection to use in an exhibition.  Not only does it have a visual and sensory richness, its familiarity of purpose forges a resonant connection with visitors.  While these selections are the showstopper, Fashion on the Ration also draws upon the full span of our other collections. Letters, photographs, oral history interview recordings, films, together with an array of library-held fashion magazines, and our Art Section’s paintings and posters all provide vibrant context for the narrative.

Ruby Loftus Screwing A Breech Ring by Laura Knight. This 1943 oil painting from IWM’s art collection depicts ‘outstanding factory worker’ Ruby Loftus at her lathe. It presents an idealised version of the female factory worker, neatly attired in regulation overalls with her hair safely covered and pulled back. © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 2850.

Fashion on the Ration opens with the immediate transformation of Britain’s visual landscape, as people took on roles within the military, auxiliary and civilian voluntary services.  For those not in uniform, a trend for functional fashion led to increasing numbers of women wearing trousers and turbans. Government intervention to commandeer resources for the war effort and to protect the supply of civilian essentials spurred the imposition of clothes rationing from 1 June 1941. A ‘Make Do and Mend’ campaign encouraged people to make existing supplies of clothes last longer. When people did go to the shops, from 1942 they were presented with a range of efficiently produced, quality and price-controlled clothing known as ‘Utility’ fashions. By 1945, British people had grown tired of austerity, but clothes rationing continued until 1949.

Fashion on the Ration shows how wartime clothing can tell us so much about what it was like to live through one of the most challenging and trying times in British history.

Men released from military service at the end of the war were entitled to a new set of coupon-free clothes as part of the demobilisation process.This is a typical example of a man’s ‘demob’ suit. © IWM UNI 2964, UNI 2965 and UNI 2966.


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