Sunday, October 16, 2022

Weekend Review: Fashion on the Ration

Fashion on the Ration / Julie Summers
NY: Profile, c2015.
240 p. 

This was a fantastic read, a history of (mainly) women's wear in Britain during WWII. If you're interested in fashion history, you'll love it. I was able to get my hands on it thanks to the wonders of Interlibrary Loan. 

It's broken up into a series of themes; clothing rationing and coupons, women's uniforms, CC41 and Utility clothing & the involvement of high fashion designers in making utility clothing acceptable, make do and mend, fashion magazines during the war years, and the idea of beauty as a morale booster. That's just a quick overview. There is so much in this book, and the bibliography and notes are extensive to lead you on to more. 

Unfortunately there are just a few photos included; while they are wonderful I'd have loved to see even more examples of what she was talking about. I enjoyed the fashion images but also the advertising posters and packaging. So fascinating! One of the photos features a Utility dress by Norman Hartnell. I had to look twice because it seemed very familiar to me. Then I realized it's because it's basically Butterick 6450 (which I've made) though most likely without elastic since that was also rationed for the war effort. 

It's very well written -- keeps you reading like it's a novel. Summers goes into personal stories to illustrate her topics, including excerpts from letters. There was one woman who wrote such delightful letters to her husband that I quickly checked the bibliography to see if I could get my hands on them -- sadly they were manuscript only at the Imperial War Museum archives that the author used. These personal elements, newly shared, make the book particularly engaging. There are also excerpts from Vogue and the newspapers about the patriotic duty of dress and beauty at this time, which bring a feel of the contemporary realities for people trying to make sense of the complicated and ever changing coupon system (as an aside, the endpapers are printed as coupon sheets and it's really neat!) 

Coupons didn't go too far, but as she points out, clothing was still relatively expensive then, so you wouldn't be out buying five suits a season anyhow. There were workarounds that came and went; at first overalls didn't take coupons as they were work wear, but eventually even those required coupons. Upholstery fabrics didn't need coupons so there were various outfits made from those choices. She shares a story of an unfortunate woman whose new dress matched the sofa when she went to a friend's for tea. And there was lots of reworking of current clothing to create new items to meet the fashions and the need for new clothing. Of course, the rich were at an advantage because they had so much to begin with; it was the middle classes and poorer who really suffered (although she makes a point that when Utility clothing became widely available, it was often of better quality than poorer classes had ever been able to afford, so sometimes their wardrobes actually improved.) 

There are many more intriguing stories and personal bits in this book; I enjoyed the way she melded fashion history with personal stories and the wider social context as well. The huge changes that the war made to the way women dressed came from clothing shortages but also from the many changes in women's daily lives -- they were wearing uniforms in service, or work wear in factories or as Home Girls, and their need and desire for specific types of clothing evolved. 

Of course I was also interested in the make do and mend parts and the discussion of sewing related info. At this time, not only was Vogue a popular magazine, but it also had the Vogue pattern book which provided sewing patterns since home sewing was still very common. Summers quotes the Vogue pattern book early on in the book, and I could relate! 
In the autumn of 1939, the editor of the Vogue pattern book told women not to moan about the long evenings caused by blackouts, but to make the most of them by dressmaking. She encouraged the beginner to start with easy patterns because 'nothing is more demoralising than failing to produce the finished article.'
This is a great read, highly recommended. Solid history, told in a well organized and engaging narrative, with lots of fabulous fashion and sewing stories rolled in. This was so good I'll be looking for a copy of my own to keep. 



  1. Now, this one had me from the book title, but you'red review makes this a must read. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for your enthusiastic review. I don't know how you find such interesting books but I'm glad you do! Ordered my copy today, as the library didn't have it.

    1. So glad you could find a copy somewhere! I always find that bibliographies of some books lead on to others :)

  3. Thank you! My own library had a copy just waiting for me to check out 😉

  4. You might also enjoy Anne L. MacDonald's volume "No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting and Feminine Ingenuity." I read this while I lived in ... either Milledgeville, Georgia or Beloit, Wisconsin; right after it was published (1988). It's probably still on a library bookshelf somewhere in North America.

    1. I've heard of that one -- will have to search it out. It's not on my library shelves ;)


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