Hand holding needle and thread.

Fashion on the Ration: tips for today

Sue Baughan, Team Co-ordinator at WRAP, finds inspiration in the 1940s Street Style exhibition at the Imperial War Museum.

The Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style exhibition at the Imperial War Museum looks at fashion during 1940s Britain and shows how people found new ways to dress as the rationing of clothes took hold.  I was inspired by the exhibition to think about the lessons that can be applied to how we buy, wear and look after clothes today.

Clothes rationing

Clothes rationing began in 1941 and lasted until 1949.  Shoppers were constantly reminded that they needed to plan their clothes purchases carefully.

Our tip:

  • To save on clothes purchases, try to buy clothes you can mix and match and that you will be able to wear on many occasions and seasons.

Shopping for clothes

Each type of clothing item had the same points value, regardless of price or quality. Wealthier shoppers could afford to buy clothes which would last, while others had to use the same number of coupons for cheaper clothes that might wear out in half the time.

Our tip: Think before you buy a garment:

  • Is this really a good buy?
  • Will it still fit/be in fashion in a few years’ time?
  • Is it well made?
  • Will I get a lot of wear from it?
  • Can I use it in future seasons/years?
  • Will it wash well?
  • Can it be re-made into something else at the end of its life?

Utility clothing

Woman wearing Utility clothing.

The government introduced Utility clothing, based on efficient production and less wastage. This created clothes that were affordable and of guaranteed quality.

Our tips:

  • Look at how well a garment is made before you decide to buy it.
  • Buy the best quality you can afford.
  • Buy classic styles as they should be in fashion longer.

Clothing exchanges

Women could take the clothes that their children had outgrown and were given points which could be “spent” on other clothes at the exchange. Mothers were also encouraged to buy children's clothing in bigger sizes so they could first be taken in and then let out gradually as the child grew.

Our tips:

  • Try to pass clothes on to others to use when your children have outgrown them, through groups such as your local NCT or school uniform exchanges.
  • Allow for growth when buying children’s clothes.  Put elastic in waists and let it out as required.
  • Hem trousers so they can easily be let down as your child grows.

Make do and mend

People were encouraged to make their clothes last longer, with classes around the country teaching the relevant skills. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes.

"Make do and mend" book cover.

Our tips:

  • Get creative!  Don’t throw garments away – re-make or re-use if possible.
  • Mend clothes as soon as you see a tear, hole or missed button. This should prolong their life and save you money.

Keeping up appearances

It became unfashionable to be seen in clothes that were too showy, but women were expected to show morale by taking care of their personal appearance. Make-up and hair styles became more important, and many women created innovative home-made accessories.

Our tips:

  • Think of creative ways of making more of the clothes you already have, for example by accessorising them.
  • Borrow/swap accessories with friends and family to ring the changes.

Fashion on the ration: 1940s Street Style is on at the Imperial War Museum until 31 August 2015.