BBC News

How did WW2 change the way people dressed?

Related Topics
  • World War Two

Despite air raids and austerity, style was not in short supply in World War Two. An exhibition at the Imperial War Museum looks at how conflict abroad meant fashion at home had to change.

Clothing coupons limited what most people could buy and government rules directly impacted on the styles available. But amid the cutbacks, there was still colour.

Click to see what coupons would buy - and then scroll to find out how creativity flourished further.

Video narration by the IWM's Laura Clouting, a curator at the Fashion on the Ration exhibition.

The Make-do and Mend credo - given official support by the Board of Trade in 1942 - tried to make people think differently about where they got clothes from.

With coupons limiting what could be bought in the shops, old garments at the back of wardrobes were adapted and given new life.

This woman's matching jacket and skirt may originally have started life as a man's pin stripe suit.

This child's cloak looks a a bit more rough and ready - it is made from an old blanket.

With the threat of night air raids across much of the UK, a new fashion item emerged.

This "siren suit" below is, arguably, an early form of onesie. Very fashionable in the war years, they were long sleeved trouser suits which could easily be pulled on in the rush to get to an air raid shelter.

Many people made their own - while more tailored styles were available in shops with coupons.

And to accompany the siren suit, women could carry their gas masks with them in the bottom of specially-designed handbags.

Publicity posters and pamphlets for the make-do and mend scheme featured a cartoon character called Mrs Sew and Sew.

Dress-making classes were set up - this image is from London in 1943.


Because jewellery was also on the ration, innovative ways were found to create bespoke items.

This plastic bracelet was reputedly made from the windscreen of a crashed German aircraft.

The design is embellished with a snake's head where the plastic was fused together.

This American-made compact case has a distinctive wartime twist.

Products like these made popular gifts for servicewomen, and the wives and girlfriends of servicemen.

In the blackout

Night-time blackout restrictions also led to innovative new products to help people be seen in the dark.

Selfridges in London pioneered a range of luminous accessories, as the photo below from 1940 shows.

Products like fake flowers...

...and buttons for coats.

And far from urging people to don dark coloured clothes in the blackout, the government actively encouraged the wearing of white clothes.

It wanted to halt a rise in the number of car accidents involving pedestrians.

Patriotic fashion

You could also show your support for Allied forces by the way you dressed - with patriotic patterns and prints.

This underwear set was made by a dressmaker for Patricia Mountbatten - the elder daughter of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten.

It was made using a silk map given to her by a boyfriend in the RAF.

Textile and fashion company Jacqmar created scarves featuring popular wartime motifs and patriotic messages.

Produced in silk, rayon or wool, they were sold both at home and abroad.

They were not cheap though - and, when bought in Britain, each one also required two clothing coupons.

Finally, this design by Filmyra Fabrics celebrates Winston Churchill's leadership as prime minister.

It includes extracts from some of his most famous and inspirational speeches.

Fashion on the Ration is at the Imperial War Museum, London, until 31 August 2015.

Photo film music courtesy EMI Production Music.

Related Topics