Historic Housewife – Clothes Rationing in World War Two
Posted On September 11, 2020
Clothes rationing was enforced in Britain between 1941 and 1949 in order to allow manufacturers to concentrate on the war. Join us as we discover more through the eyes of Peggy.
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I’ve often been asked about clothes rationing since the end of the war, questions of how did you cope with only being able to buy a certain amount of clothes? Did you have to walk around in clothes that had been repaired once too often? My honest answer is no. While clothes rationing came in from the start of June 1941 and it didn’t end until 1949, 4 years after the end of the war, I never felt that I myself was missing out too much. I was still young at the time and my mother certainly didn’t show signs that she wasn’t able to manage with either food or clothing being rationed.
On June 1st, 1941, clothes rationing was announced by Oliver Lyttleton, President of the Board of Trade and I remember it being a total shock to our whole street, one of our neighbours worked in retail and she told my mother that they imposed it just before the Bank Holiday so that the Board of Trade had time to brief retailers before the shops all reopened. The amount of new garments a person could buy would be reduced, and like with the food rationing which had been in place since the previous year, it ensured fairness.
Both raw materials and labour needed to be directed away from civilian production and into the war effort, so that the demand for military uniforms and other military uses for fabric could be met. Around a quarter of the population was entitled to wear some sort of uniform as part of the armed forces. My sister Ann, was conscripted at the end of 1941 choosing to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force rather than go into the munitions factories. But even with production focused on the military, the forces still found themselves affected by the shortages.
Despite limitations, clothing retailers sought to retain their customer base even during war time and as it does best, the high street adapted to the new conditions and the government eventually intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility Clothing Scheme in 1942.
It had become important for civilian clothes to be practical as well as stylish. Clothing and accessories manufacturers were quick to see commercial potential in some of the war’s greatest dangers. One of the best things I saw was a handbag specially produced which had a compartment for a gas mask. Remember by the outbreak of war in 1939, something like 40 million respirators had been distributed as there was some worry about the threat of gas warfare and we had been advised to carry our masks with us at all times, and I suppose for some the cardboard box they were issued to us in just wasn’t fashionable enough, even if we were at war! The ‘Siren Suit’ was another fashion statement of the time, it was designed to be pulled on quickly over the top of your night clothes should you need to get to an air raid shelter. They were so popular, even Winston Churchill was photographed in his own tailor-made suit.
Now back to the Utility line I mentioned. In 1942, the first Utility clothes went on sale as part of a government scheme. They were made from a limited range of quality controlled fabrics, with the scheme trying to make production of civilian clothes more efficient while providing price-regulated better quality clothing. Until Utility clothing was introduced, the less well-off (of which my mother counted us as) had to use the same number of coupons for cheaper garments that would often wear out in half the time. Utility fabrics gave the public a guarantee of quality and value for their money and coupons.
The Board of Trade introduced the Making-up of Civilian Clothing (Restrictions) Orders to make further savings of labour and materials and minimise manufacturing costs. We called these the ‘austerity regulations’, and they applied to the production of both Utility and non-Utility clothing. Some of the most unpopular austerity regulations were those that applied to men’s clothing- Single-breasted suits replaced double-breasted, lapels had to be within a certain size. The number of pockets was restricted and trouser turn-ups were abolished. The length of men’s shirts was restricted and even double cuffs were banned. Not that any of these bans made the slightest bit of difference to me as a child of 10 years old.
While there was a lot of fuss about the Utility range, it did get some celebrity endorsement and a March 1942 edition of Picture Post featured the actress Deborah Kerr, seen in films such as the 1941’s Major Barbara and Life on the Dole among others before her 1956 role as Mrs Anna in The King and I modelling Utility clothes.
How rationing worked
Now how did we go about using coupons for clothes?
It worked by allocating each type of clothing item a ‘points’ value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. For example, a dress would take 11 coupons, 2 if you wanted a pair of stockings, and 8 coupons for a man’s shirt or a pair of trousers. Women’s shoes were a total of 5 coupons, and men’s footwear was higher at 7 coupons.
Initially all the adults had been given 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war went on. I think at its lowest only 24 coupons were issued and that was between September 1945 and April 1946.
Special provisions were made for manual workers, civilian uniform wearers, diplomats and theatrical performers. New mothers were also given 50 coupons, and shoppers were constantly reminded of the need to plan their clothes purchases carefully and make difficult choices between garments of differing coupon values.
Children’s clothes had lower coupon values in recognition of the fact that they would need new clothes more often as they grew. From 1942, all of us children were allocated an extra 10 coupons. Coupons were also needed for our school uniforms, which could be a particular problem for some as many schools voted against relaxing their rules on uniforms during wartime. An additional help to families were the clothing exchanges set up by the Women’s Voluntary Service to help meet the needs of women struggling to clothe their families. Women could take the clothes that their children had outgrown and were given a number of points for the clothes she handed in. These could be used on other clothes at the exchange. Mothers were also encouraged to buy children’s clothing in bigger sizes so it could initially be taken in and then let out gradually as the child grew. If you’ve ever had to wear a jumper two sizes too big you will understand how most of us older children felt, at least the younger ones had the right sizes!
The now famous ‘Make Do and Mend’ campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Clothes care was a key part of the Make Do and Mend message. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, the ability to repair, renovate and make one’s own clothes became increasingly important. But, by 1945 everyone had grown tired of rationing, restrictions, and the calls to ‘Make Do and Mend’. Advertisements promised new styles but often shops lacked many new offerings. The best-dressed were those leaving the military services. Demobilised men were issued with a full set of clothes, known as the ‘demob suit’. While women leaving the military services were given an allocation of coupons rather than a new outfit. The coupons gave women more freedom to choose what clothes they wanted, but they were still limited by what was available in the shops.
Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people, my mother included, demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages made the imaginative use of materials necessary. My mother even used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were put on ration. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses and I know one or two women who made their wedding dressed out of parachute silk. Looking back at it today, it wasn’t such a hardship, yes for some it was a struggle but during the war we all helped one another and for us children it was an adventure, although now I’m grateful I no longer need to wear my mothers curtains as a skirt!