A Review of Julie Summers’ ‘Fashion on the Ration’
Julie Summers is fast establishing herself as the voice of World War Two’s ‘Home Front’. Fashion on the Ration builds on the success of Summers’ Jambusters, which tells the story of the Women’s Institute during World War Two. She explores the wear and tear of the war years in Britain with a characteristic lightness and deserved dignity, paying tribute to the brave and thrifty women who sustained their families, themselves and their wardrobes through the most turbulent years of our island history.
71 years after the end of the war and 67 after clothes rationing ceased, Summers, together with the Imperial War Museum, brings us a personal account of British fashion during the war years. The book is an appropriate accompaniment to the IWM’s exhibition of the same name, in which many of the artefacts it describes are lovingly displayed. Using the letters and diaries of ordinary men and women, as well as extracts from popular fashion magazines and government pamphlets, she pieces together this surprisingly fascinating story. It is a story of division and equality, of change and continuity, of poverty and wealth and, above all, of style under pressure.
This is a book about fashion. It is also about history, society and culture, about how these were shaped in turbulent times through changes in what people wore. The book is interspersed with anecdotes from ordinary people whose lives were changed forever by the events of 1939-45. These are illustrated through their shifting wardrobes, which, in turn, shifted the way they related to one another. One such story is that of Zelma Katin, a forty year-old housewife, who became a tram conductress. In uniform, she found herself something of a local heroine, fussed over by shop assistants and respected by passengers. So too with nurses, she observed: entitled to free transportation, much like the soldiers, they were generally greeted with warmth and respect. The impact of uniformed Britain (15 million approx.) on the rest of the population is described charmingly in extracts from Katin’s autobiography, written with her husband Louis. ‘The Englishman’s inhibitions vanish before the sight of uniform’, she noted. Zelma the conductress was an entirely different person from Zelma the housewife. She had an important social role. She was part of a larger whole.
Uniforms, of course, are the most enduring icons of wartime Britain. However, the most enduring shift in style brought about by the war was perhaps the popularisation of ‘slacks’ for women, a subject to which Summers dedicates an entire chapter. There, Summers describes the impact of Vogue, under the editorship of Audrey Withers, surely the book’s hero, in promoting trousers for women. The class-conscious clothing culture of the 1930s, which saw Paris fashion look-alikes become high street staples, was profoundly and permanently disrupted by the war. Fashion houses, theatres and cinemas shut down; formalwear proved increasingly hard to come by, as did opportunities to don it. Regardless of one’s social status, one had to adapt one’s wardrobe in preparation for uncertain futures.
Summers’ subjects come from across the social spectrum. They include middle-class women like Gladys Mason and Eileen Gurney who, from the early days of the war, purchased their own materials with which to make clothes, as well as inner city evacuees without winter shoes. The famous slogan ‘Make Do and Mend’, which, Summers’ notes, still resonates with us today, was familiar to all of them. Even the very wealthy were greatly affected by the decrease in clothing available to Britons, though controversially, British high fashion continued to sell well abroad. Government pamphlets and notices in Vogue and Picture Post informed a resolute (mainly female) public of how they might make their wardrobes last. Women took up this advice with great enthusiasm and, in many cases, unleashed some incredible creativity. One example Summers gives us, which is to be displayed in the exhibition accompanying the book, is Patricia Mountbatten’s underwear set made out of a silk RAF map of Northern Italy, donated by a generous boyfriend. Patricia’s ingenuity meant freeing up her precious ration coupons, which would otherwise have been spent on lingerie.
For many in wartime Britain, however, lingerie could not be further from their minds. Mothers worried about clothing their children. Shoes in particular were a problem for large families, as the footwear industry declined dramatically over the course of the war. Second-hand soon became the norm for most. Stockings, too, once considered essentials, quickly proved hard to come by, leading to one of the more amusing inventions of the war years, Cyclax stockingless cream, becoming a fashionable must-have.
Some luxuries were retained on the ration, though often in new forms. The corset is one such example. Freely available to all servicewomen, concealed pockets included, Berlei corsets, designed especially to be worn under slacks, became another icon of uniformed Britain. Civilians, however, suffered from an undersupply of underwear. Given that the materials needed for the production of corsets, steel, cotton and rubber were all in short supply, women were advised on how to best preserve these all-important undergarments. When such methods failed, they could turn to the growing corset repair industry, or indeed go without. Most youngsters seemed to opt for the latter, despite the protestations of fashion magazines, especially Wither’s Vogue, which encouraged women to petition the Board of Trade in a bid to ‘get [their corsets] back’. Where mending failed, one was forced to make do, and make do they did.
Summers’ account delights, amuses and informs, but above all, it lends a certain heroism to the women of wartime Britain: those on the home front who kept the fires burning and the socks darned, the suits patched up, and the corsets clean. She ends her final chapter (‘Beauty as Duty’) with a touching description of the reunion between Edna Roper and her husband Stan, who had been a prisoner of war in the Far East. ‘You look well’, she said to him. ‘You are well dressed’, he said to her, impressed by her borrowed coat and hat, and the skirt she wore, which, unbeknownst to him, was at least six years old and turned back to front and covered with a cardigan to disguise where it had sagged. It is a picture of two different worlds reconnecting, neither one knowing of the other’s experiences. Though Edna’s world may have been less typically dramatic than that of her husband, it is no less deserving of attention, and is given a long-awaited exploration in this charming book and accompanying exhibition.