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Exhibition Review: Fashion and Fighting

One First World War poster proclaimed that it was unpatriotic to dress extravagantly during wartime. This was mainly, if not exclusively, aimed at women, of course. Now an exhibition ‘Fashion and Freedom’ at Manchester Art Gallery looks at some of the ways that the war affected women’s clothes and other aspects of their lives.

As one and a half million women joined the industrial workforce, the need for looser clothing became clear, even though there had been plenty of women workers previously. The tight corsets of previous decades were hardly practical, though some changes along such lines were already taking place (and women cotton spinners had worn shifts at work anyway, because of the heat); the war accelerated these changes, rather than initiating them. By the 1920s more women were wearing make-up and sporting simpler dresses with hemlines up to the knee, as well as smoking cigarettes and being able to vote.

The exhibition consists of four sections. Examples of clothes from the first part of the last century are displayed, though one question not raised is whether most of these were the reserve of richer women. Some well-known modern women designers show pieces inspired by working women from the war period. A couple of these make use of the colour yellow, with reference to the way that working with chemicals such as TNT turned women’s skin yellow (the disease was known as toxic jaundice, and could be fatal). Also, some fashion students have produced designs of their own, and some short films reflect on changes brought about by the war.

A few miles away at Salford Quays, the Imperial War Museum North is staging a larger exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration’, looking at the impact the Second World War had on fashion, primarily but not exclusively that for women. Many people on the home front, perhaps as many as ten million, wore uniforms, for instance for the Auxiliary Fire Service. In some cases these were the first set of new clothes they had ever had. The uniforms of sailors in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (the ‘Wrens’) were apparently seen as particularly smart, though it must be debatable whether this really served to attract more recruits, as is suggested.

To avoid price rises and the poor being unable to afford them, clothes were rationed from June 1941. ‘Make-Do and Mend’, with clothes being repeatedly repaired and re-used, became official policy in 1942, but had been in fact practised for a couple of years before. ‘Utility’ clothing was produced the same year, with leading designers employed to make these standardised garments rather more stylish. Clothes had to be largely unadorned, with men’s jackets limited to three pockets and three buttons, and no turn-ups on trousers. Elastic was in short supply, but could be used in women’s knickers, and silk stockings were particularly missed. No coupons were needed, though, for the clogs often worn by munitions workers.

Cosmetics continued to be produced, though in smaller quantities, as a way of keeping up morale. Manufacturers and retailers managed to cash in on new kinds of demand such as handbags with room to keep a gas mask, and white hats and shawls to make the wearer visible in the blackout. As in the First World War, clothing became more relaxed and informal, a trend continued after the war with the ‘New Look’ from Paris, though clothes rationing continued till 1949 and the Utility scheme till 1952. Both exhibitions make it clear that even in times of extreme austerity, people will do their best to maintain some self-expression and individuality.

Alongside her design at the Manchester Art Gallery display, Vivienne Westwood writes, ‘Our rotten financial system creates poverty for the many, riches for the few. We have a war economy. … We now know that this system – and the arms trade – helps create climate change – we are facing mass extinction. Fight the system and replace it with a green economy.’ Westwood’s politics might be politely described as confused, but this at least shows some attempt to see through the standard view.   

PB