Wartime Fashion
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Wartime Fashion

From Haute Couture to Homemade, 1939-1945

Geraldine Howell

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eBook - ePub

Wartime Fashion

From Haute Couture to Homemade, 1939-1945

Geraldine Howell

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About This Book

A comprehensive analysis of Second World War dress practice and appearance, this study places dress at the forefront of a complex series of cultural chain reactions. As lives were changed by the conditions of war, dress continued to reflect important visual narratives regarding class, gender and taste that would impact significantly on public consciousness of equality, fairness and morale. Using new archival and primary source evidence, Wartime Fashion clarifies how and why clothing was rationed, and repositions style and design during the war in relation to past expectations and ideas about clothes and fabrics. The book explores the impact of war on the dress and appearance of civilian women of all classes in the context of changing social and economic infrastructures created by the national emergency. The varied research elements combined in this book form a rounded and definitive account of the dress history of British women during the Second World War. This is essential reading for anyone with an active interest in the field, whether personal or professional.

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Information

Year
2013
ISBN
9780857854292
Edition
1
Topic
Design
Subtopic
Modedesign
–1–
Buying into Fashion: The Social Background
During the 1930s, the desire to possess beautiful clothes had, arguably, never been stronger for two reasons. The first was the expanding variety of retail outlets now providing greater choice in fashionable clothing and the second the arrival on the high street of cheaper clothing ranges catering for more modest incomes. The rich continued to patronize the couture or high-end dressmakers and along with the wealthier middle classes chose quality ready-made1 clothes from the more exclusive department stores or independent women’s fashion shops. Chain stores like Marks and Spencer and variety multiple shops such as Dorothy Perkins created ready-made fashion lines for the budget shopper and flourished on the high street by providing mass-produced versions of Paris fashions or cinema screen styles. For the very poor, the shopping experience was limited to clothing clubs or second-hand options, both of which could prove uneconomical and exploitative. There existed, therefore, a wide disparity between the richest and poorest in terms of clothing, a fact that was rendered less visible than it might otherwise have been by the growing consumerism on the high street. This chapter considers in brief, therefore, those class divisions endemic to 1930s society which created the parameters for commercial production of clothing at whatever level. It introduces some of the key lifestyle indicators that helped construct class identities at that time and which would be affected to a greater or lesser extent by the onset of war. A key concept here is the capacity to spend and to reflect class culture through dress and adornment practices.
The rich set the pace, establishing a dress practice and a way of life that the cinemas and popular magazines of the day promoted, and in this way those lower down the social scale participated, vicariously, in what was to many an otherwise closed world. Dress clearly bespoke class and was a powerful reflection of status. At the same time, ready-made dress increasingly began to operate as a mechanism that might to some degree facilitate the emulation of the upper classes by the lower.
The still-buoyant and influential lifestyle of the rich continued to be responsible for upholding many traditional attitudes to life that had become indelibly associated with being British. The country house milieu with its various sporting pursuits, the London season and presentations at court, Henley, Ascot or the Varsity balls, all espoused a way of life essentially wealthy but also quintessentially British, and one central to the establishment not merely of fashion but of what could be construed as the fashionable. This lifestyle revealed itself through dress protocols that, while no longer embracing the five or six changes of outfit a day as in Edwardian times, still retained a rigorous devotion to the art of dressing correctly for every occasion. The minutia of this day-to-day application of an often-unwritten code of dress practice unobtrusively maintained class divisions and social hierarchies, even as it underpinned the notion of nationality, heritage and, to an extent, patriotism.
In Britain during the 1930s, the Prince of Wales and his set represented the most exclusive tier of society. Piers Brendon suggests that Edward had ‘spent his whole life in the hectic pursuit of pleasure’ and that ‘his private universe . . . consisted of smart nightspots, louch weekends, high jinks, horseplay, jazz and jigsaw puzzles. It was embellished with gold lighters and jewelled cigarette cases, Art Deco cuff-links and Faberge boxes. Edward sympathised with the poor but associated with the rich.’2 Images of opulence and wealth were also highly visible during the ‘esoteric social ritual known as the Season’. Described as the ‘few brief summer weeks when all Society threw itself into a frenzy of carefully organized gaiety’,3 this part of the fashionable year for the wealthy upper classes focused on the debutantes—young seventeen- and eighteen-year-old girls—being presented at court for the first time in a social rite of passage that signified a coming of age and entry into adulthood. It also very much established readiness for the social networking leading to a suitable marriage, an institution still desired by most women.4 During the Season, the calendar of entertainments organized to follow court presentation brought out lavish displays of wealth through extravagant dress practice, encompassing adornment at the highest level short of state occasions.5 As De Courcy expressed it, ‘snobbery was not so much a common fault as a wholesale acceptance of the idea that society was divided into classes, which might meet, mingle, respect, like and even love each other, but never blend.’6 Norman Hartnell, describing the early 1930s, affirmed that ‘everything revolved around the Courts in summer’. Historical continuity was maintained through the ‘presiding deities’ of these events, who were the ‘dowagers’ with ‘vivid memories of how things were done in the opulent, colourful reign of Edward the Seventh, but tinged with memories of the dignity and manners associated with his august mother’.7 The power of the past—in terms of the established traditions of fashionable display, its purposes and protocols—is clear.
The wealthy elite’s strict cognizance of wardrobe etiquette and interest in and attention to the fine details of personal appearance promoted a rhetoric of fashion connoisseurship that accompanied the images of clothing and accessories in the glossy magazines. Examples of this type of language describing the exclusive products of the couture and high-end designer houses are readily found in British Vogue. In spring 1934, Elsa Schiaparelli designed a short-waisted jacket with small peplum in a highly ruched black taffeta to be worn over a directoire-style dress in ‘treebark crepe’ with accessorizing ‘cellophane scarf’.8 This description connotes a number of things. The reader had to be familiar with historic lines of dress—in this case the directoire line, long skirted and with a high waist, low décolleté and often puffed sleeves—and have an in-depth knowledge of quality fabrics, here some of the newest fabrics on the market. While most people would probably have heard of taffeta, even if they had never owned anything in it, the concepts of tree bark crepe9 and cellophane10 might well have been novel. In similar vein, in 1936 Vogue carried an image of another Schiaparelli ensemble created in black bengaline with ‘gold and coloured paillettes which arabesque down the front of its short fitted jacket, and black, glycerised ostrich feathers on the Mongolian tribesman’s hat’.11 Bengaline, a light fabric of silk and cotton or silk and wool, inferred some association with Indian silk from Bengal, which in turn could carry overtones of Empire, while the use of African ostrich feathers12 maintained an air of the exotic and distant. To what extent even the moneyed shopper would have known the precise features of dress of the Mongolian tribesman, history does not relate. In all, the outfit, in rather exaggerated form, alluded to India, Africa and central Asia. Such could be the hyperbole of fashion.
Readers of Vogue also included the wealthier members of the middle and upper middle classes, who in their own way, and with some subtlety, played out imitations of the still-fashionable and traditional country house parties and seasonal events adhered to by the wealthy and royal sets. The domestic and perhaps more provincial ideal here can be seen in contrast to the relatively distant, if fascinating, world of the titled and really rich whose way of life was essentially cosmopolitan. Through seasonal travel to the stylish resorts of Europe and farther afield, fashion for the wealthy became more of a global phenomenon, wherein the secret of success lay in the perfect synthesis of the international and, specifically, French, with a certain bespoke Britishness. But for those tethered by working commitments, however professional, to a less leisured way of living, fashion reflected a more consistently British lifestyle, recognizable by and nearer to those lower down the social hierarchy. Here, also, the imagery was attractive and desirable, creating possibilities for emulation by those less well off. The social seasons of the rich and cultured were just as capable of being played out, if less grandly, among the wealthier middle classes from professional, well-educated backgrounds. Economic success predetermined a specific way of life that included a range of sophisticated social and sporting events also requiring knowledge of the dress codes and protocols associated with them.
This lifestyle is well illustrated in Jan Struther’s book of short tales entitled Mrs Miniver,13 published in late 1939. The fictional character of Caroline Miniver represented an upper-middle-class woman14 whose exploits were designed to ‘brighten up the Court Pages of The Times’ with stories about ‘an ordinary sort of woman who leads an ordinary sort of life’.15 Struther’s readership still comprised the more affluent classes, but the stories were instructive paradigms for codes and patterns of behaviour that identified what it was to be ‘ordinary’ middle class as opposed to wealthy at that time. The everyday life, cares and concerns of this wife and mother established the priorities as well as the privileges of this lifestyle, indirectly revealing the good taste and style of what E. M. Forster had called the ‘top drawer but one’.16
The short, meditative stories spanned a period of just over a year from October 1938 to December 1939, placing the tensions of approaching hostilities alongside the changing seasons and seasonal interests of Mrs. Miniver and her family. The titles are a good indication of the social preoccupations of this class and range from ‘The New Car’ and ‘The Eve of the Shoot’ through ‘The New Engagement Book’ and ‘In Search of a Charwoman’ to ‘The Twelfth of August’ and ‘The Autumn Flit’. Each skilfully delineated particular events that represented a status and class, sustained through particular patterns of consumption and leisure. The stories did not directly set out to highlight issues of fashion. Rather, they revealed benchmarks for a middle-class way of life with its own daily and seasonal rituals such as the correct moment to store summer clothes, the uplifting qualities of fresh-cut flowers, the right type of stationery or the morale-boosting effects of a new dressing gown. Near enough to the lower middle classes to be recognized as representing a secure set of lifestyle values that were often considered attractive if not always possible to emulate, and at the margins of the class above from whom the way of life had originally been derived, what emerges from Struther’s work is a sense of a privileged middle-class identity as it was understood from within its own ranks at the time.
The issue of class was, and remains, complex. Stevenson describes it as ‘an elusive concept’ where ‘the boundaries . . . are at best blurred and usually quite difficult to establish definitively’.17 Any reading of class and the social culture it reflected tended to rely to some degree on ‘clothes and speech . . . the obvious badges . . . difficult to gauge accurately at the margins, but clear enough for the great majority of people to be able to assign themselves to “upper”, “middle” or “working” class’.18 Where the middle middle classes ended and the lower middle classes began was therefore not always easy to determine. Certainly the new homeowners who flocked to purchase modest semi-detached housing on the new suburban developments of the 1930s were less well off than their more affluent middle-class counterparts. Yet the choice to move from renting to buying reflected the rise in wages through the decade that facilitated the repayment of mortgages, especially in tandem with tax relief incentives.19 While there is some evidence to suggest that the new purchasers often lived rather straightened lives—Wilson and Taylor refer to women ‘struggling to create a genteel lifestyle’20—for those who chose not to spend the additional money in this way, life did become financially more secure. The high street was the beneficiary and responded by producing a much larger range of middle- and lower-priced goods commensurate with the pockets of this more secure upper-working-class and lower-middle-class tier of consumers. The following chapter on the development and rise of volume production clothing will look in more detail at the way in which the needs of these lower-income groups were addressed by particular types of shops and stores and with what success.
With the advent of evacuation in September 1939, the government and public at large would be forced to confront a quite different element of class consciousness and a level of social inequality that had received no constructive acknowledgement for too long. While the wage-earning working class and lower middle classes had a limited degree of economic stability,21 and might now have access to the better lifestyle represented by cheaper mass-produced goods on the high street, for those on the lowest tier of the social ladder, a world away from the well-appointed lives of the middle and upper classes and without any financial security, life was hard indeed. Lack of decent housing, food and clothing—whether through long-term unemployment, oversized families or sickness—would become, in the early months of war, cause for serious political concern. John Hilton, in his series of Sir Halley Stewart lectures given in 1938, had guessed the existence of four million people ‘either just square with nothing in hand or . . . in debt for a larger or smaller amount’22 and had surveyed three hundred families ‘in poverty and distress’ who had sought help from charitable organizations and who ‘at any given time do not know how to make ends meet and who are, for long spells or for the time being, on the brink or in the abyss of under-nourishment and penury and debt’.23 While a level of public social assistance was in place, Hilton had called into question whether it was adequa...

Table of contents