Where have all the patterns gone?
Having lurked for several years in the online world of vintage sewing, I’ve noticed something missing. Lots of us enjoy wearing and sewing the fashions of World War 2, but nearly all the vintage patterns circulating for sale on the internet are American, even though British wartime fashion is arguably more interesting to the geek seamstress due to the challenges posed by rationing, material shortages and the sheer number of design restrictions. I adore US fashion from the 1940s, but wouldn’t it be interesting to see how British pattern companies, and the British arms of international companies like Vogue and Butterick, rose to the challenge of designing for the austerity years?
UK Board of Trade restrictions during the war dictated in dizzying detail exactly what design features commercial garments could and couldn’t have. For instance, according to the civilian clothing regulations of 1941 (CC 41), a woman’s suit was allowed no more than two pockets, six skirt seams and four meters of stitching in order to prevent labor and materials from being diverted from the war effort into the civilian clothing industry. That sounds unbelievably drab, but just look at this chic little dress by Victor Stiebel:
The restrictions applied to tailor-made clothes as well as ready-to-wear. British home sewing patterns of the time come marked with a warning:
“Professional Dressmakers are reminded that they must comply with the Making of Civilian Clothing (Restriction) Orders.”
However, home dressmakers in the UK would not have been bound by CC41 design constraints, although they had other challenges to contend with, including super-tight fabric rationing and shortages of trimmings, haberdashery, needles, thread and practically everything else. Assuming they could get hold of what they needed to make a dress in the first place, you would think they would have tried to make it as un-austere as they could. On the other hand, I have read that along with official austerity regulations came a patriotic trend towards greater simplicity in dress and ornament. It would be interesting to have a more comprehensive view of home sewing patterns to see how much they reflect the austerity aesthetic and how much room they left for departure from it.
From combing through the VADS image library, I’ve discovered that in addition to the Big Four (Butterick, Vogue, Simplicity and McCall’s) and Du Barry, plenty of other UK-based companies supplied the British public with patterns during the war years. Mike Brown’s book The 1940s Look reproduces magazine advertisements for mail-order patterns from, among others, Woman, Modern Woman and Home Notes. And there’s more. Ever heard of Weldons? Maudella? Practical Patterns? Odhams? Blackmore? How about Bestway, who made this charming little frock pattern I found at Vintage British Style?
Nearly everybody must have done at least a little sewing in those days. Making your own clothes cost fewer coupons than buying the same garments ready-made, and local schools, colleges and women’s groups all over the country taught basic dressmaking and make-and-mend classes for those whose skills weren’t up to scratch.
So what happened to all those patterns? Wartime publishing restrictions were tight, and paper was so scarce that newspapers in the UK shrank to four pages, books and other paper products were pulped and re-pulped (50 million prewar books were pulped in 1943!) and toilet paper didn’t bear thinking about. Were the print runs too small for spares to have survived? Did they all get used and re-used to death? Did the women who bought them ditch them later as they abandoned austerity and flocked to the New Look? Or am I just looking in the wrong places?
If you have any experience buying, selling or working with WW2-era patterns from the companies I’ve mentioned, do please drop me a line and tell me where they can be found!