Review: Fashion on the Ration

Lori, outside the IWM, wearing an Akhu Designs turbanA couple of weeks ago, I visited the Fashion on the Ration exhibition at the Imperial War Museum (IWM). Having lived in London for almost a decade, I am somewhat ashamed to say that I hadn’t visited IWM before, despite having paid frequent visits to IWM North on Salford Quays back when I lived in Manchester. If there was ever a good time for me to pay my first visit, however, it was definitely now.

I have had an interest in 1940s fashion since I first got into reproduction vintage clothing. Although the styles aren’t as immediately eye catching as the 1950s ones, they are so easy to wear that tea dresses, hair scarves and comfy shoes soon became more interesting to me than circle skirts and dainty heels. And let’s not forget the joy of shoulder pads. So, I headed to the exhibition on a bright Saturday morning, wearing an Akhu Designs turban and some comfy shoes, ready to meet my friend Tara for our first bit of shared fashion history since we completed the MA History and Culture of Fashion course at the end of last year.

[NOTE: Sadly photography was not allowed inside the exhibition, so all images I have used here are illustrative and do no necessarily represent the look of the exhibition space itself.]

ARP pocket mirror from IWM shopVisitors to the exhibition are greeted with photographs of people out and about in wartime Britain, with the wall text telling us that ‘few aspects of ordinary life would remain unaffected by the Second World War.’ The displays then move on to paintings and watercolours of people in uniform, before we reach the original uniforms themselves, displayed behind glass on headless mannequins, with the appropriate hats, helmets, shoes, equipment bags and armbands. In addition to the extensive supporting text for each item, there was also assorted ephemera on display alongside the uniforms to help give context, including letters from the people who wore them, and receipts for the uniforms themselves. The first selection of uniforms were from volunteer services – AFS, ARP, WVS, RNVR, WRNS, ATS, WAAF and WLA – and were accompanied by audio clips from people describing how they felt in uniform during wartime. Selected quotes from the interviews adorned the walls and a display of photos showed a cross section of Britain’s uniformed population who played a part in the war effort, while stylish and persuasive recruitment posters were displayed behind the uniforms.

1940s siren suit from IWM collectionsThe next section was on functional fashion, illustrating how civilian clothing needed to be fit for purpose. Women’s cotton overalls for factory work were displayed alongside handbags that glowed in the dark or had space for a gas mask, plus a cozy siren suit for wearing during air raids that its owner said was ‘the maddest, most amusing thing that a sedate matron of fifty-one ever possessed!’ Audio clips of how people felt about their clothes and photos of them wearing similar items to those on display really help visitors connect with their purpose and the difficult times people faced in the 40s. These are not just novelty items, they were practical and, in the majority of cases, necessary. This section followed on nicely to the area on clothing rationing – introduced on 1st June 1941 – which displayed ration books, posters, coins and letters alongside magazines, women’s clothing and items for babies. This section also contained displays relating to ‘make do and mend.’

Underwear made from silk escape maps, IWM collectionsAs with previous displays, the clothing here was presented alongside related ephemera – such as booklets, posters, knitting patterns and magazine articles – but it was the garments which stole the show here. A vibrant patchwork housecoat appeared to be designed that way for the aesthetics rather than out of necessity, and a man’s pinstripe suit that had been altered into a fashionable woman’s style were both striking examples of home dressmakers’ output during the ‘make do and mend’ campaign. A ‘make do and mend’ propaganda film in this area gleefully encouraged women to make something fashionable for themselves out of their husband’s clothing while he was away (presumably risking his life for his country), which was rather unsettling to watch. However, it was the stunning dressing gown and underwear set made from silk escape maps that really caught my attention here. Clever piping on the dressing gown drew the eye away from the joins in the map and so, once again, at first glance it appeared that the garment had not been designed that way merely because of the unavailability of silk fabric. However, I was disappointed that the underwear was displayed folded in a box rather than in a manner which would show the shape and style of the garments. I spent a while talking to a group of visitors about this choice, so I know that others felt similarly frustrated to not get a closer look at this beautiful handmade Kestos style bra.

Silk scarf celebrating PM Winston Churchill, from the IWM collectionsAfter a small display of accessories and a cabinet devoted to 1940s weddings – including photos, a Vogue article and dresses made from parachute silk and pre-war silk intended for petticoats – the next section was on utility fashions. There was space dedicated to the fabric conserving designs of Incsoc, a cabinet of men’s utility clothing and accessories, plus plenty of fascinating women’s and children’s garments displayed alongside press notes on CC41, magazine articles, shoes and text that informed visitors that embellishments such as zips, elastic waistbands, embroidery and lace were forbidden. The exhibition continued with samples of fabric that could be touched, sections on ‘beauty as duty’, propaganda fabrics, and post-war clothing such as the demob suit, VE-day dresses and the controversial New Look. As I was looking at these displays, I recognised the voices of fashion historian Amber Butchart and Great British Sewing Bee judge Patrick Grant coming from a video in the final part of the space. This specially commissioned film features insights on 1940s clothing from fashion academics, archivists and designers and offers a thought provoking summary of the themes covered within the exhibition. I spoke to another visitor while we watched this – she had spotted me taking notes and wondered if I was a fashion student – and we discussed Amber’s colourful playsuit which was handmade by her grandmother in the 40s.

I really enjoyed Fashion on the Ration and my only complaint is that I hadn’t left enough time to fully digest all the information in the displays, so I will have to return with a few hours to spare in order to take it all in. Walking through the museum to get to the ticket desk for the exhibition, I had gazed up at the aircraft suspended inside the vast interior and instantly vowed to make a return visit soon. On leaving the building with Tara to go for lunch and discuss what we’d seen, I noted that IWM appears to have dedicated as much care and attention to its permanent displays as it did to the temporary exhibition, so I will definitely set aside more time when I return to Fashion on the Ration so that I can explore the rest of the museum too. Before leaving, we spent a bit of time in the gift shop and if you are looking at purchasing a book after visiting the exhibition, or as a taster before going, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Style Me Vintage: 1940s as it covers every topic perfectly and features some truly delightful photographs. There are plenty of other books in the exhibition shop, but I think Liz Tregenza’s book will appeal to everyone because of its combination of style and substance.

Fashion on the Ration is on at the Imperial War Museum (Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ) until 31st August 2015. First two images by lipsticklori; all other images IWM via BBC.

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