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A wardrobe full of friends

January 25, 2010

I feel pumped for a year of Fashion on the Ration. So pumped that despite my total inability to budget sensibly for any period longer than a week, the words “How hard can it be?” spring ominously to mind. In fact, I’ve set the bar fairly low for myself. At 66 coupons, the ration for 1941 was relatively generous — much tougher times were ahead as the war dragged on and shortages grew more severe. By 1943, when the ration was slashed to 40 coupons and people’s prewar clothes had begun to show their age, shabbiness and austerity were taking a toll on morale. By 1944, according to Juliet Gardiner, “people were finding it ‘increasingly difficult to keep themselves even respectable’.”

Clothes rationing was orchestrated in secret and introduced suddenly in June 1941 to prevent a run on the shops.  It took retailers as well as customers by surprise — I don’t envy the staff who must have been drafted in to work over the long weekend in the scramble to reorganize — but almost immediately it became apparent that the coupon system, by limiting the quantity of clothes people purchased, would increase consumer demand for quality. Rationing was announced on a Sunday, Monday was a bank holiday and by Tuesday Debenhams had rallied sufficiently to insert this ad in the Times:

It was a thriftier age than ours to begin with, but clothes rationing must have concentrated the mind wonderfully on the concept of value even among people who’d never had to worry much about money. If you had to fork out 18 of your precious coupons for a coat in addition to the purchase price, with no prospect of getting another coupon-free until the war was over, you would make damn sure you bought the best coat you could afford, and would probably even readjust your idea of what you could afford upwards.

(Burberry now manufactures nearly all of its clothing overseas)

Once you’d shelled out good money and scarce coupons for a quality garment, there was no way you were going to throw it out if it started to show a little wear or you just got tired of it. Remaking and renovating were the order of the day — coats into dresses, dresses into jumpers, jackets into jerkins. Chic clothing stores offered wardrobe revamp services so you could still spend money there even if you were unwilling to part with coupons:

Marshall & Snelgrove describe their clothes like I describe English boyfriends:

All Marshall & Snelgrove productions look good the moment they are put on. It is not, however, until many months later that you know just how good they really are.

They have a point. Good clothes offer enduring romance; fast fashion offers a one-night stand. Both have their place in the grand scheme of things, but can you imagine wearing an H&M dress in heavy rotation for five years, even in several different guises? Even if it survived being unpicked and restitched, which I doubt, you’d be sick of the sight of it.

Mending is another concept that seems to have gone the way of the dodo. I know almost nobody my age who even gets around to basic fixes like sewing on buttons; clothes are so cheap and time is so limited that it mostly seems pointless, so everyone goes around with buttons missing and trouser hems dragging. Besides, so many of the clothes we wear nowadays won’t take mending. What do you do with the pinholes that appear after a few washings in the gossamer-thin cotton jersey everything seems to be made of nowadays? How do you fix a run in pantyhose? Why re-dye black clothes when buying new ones is so much less hassle? Why make the effort anyway for clothes you don’t love?

Buying better-quality clothes, mostly vintage and thrifted, has definitely made me more aware of the importance of clothing care. I take much better care of garments I like, especially if they’re one of a kind. I use skirt hangers with felt-padded clips to save my tailored skirts, stash sachets in my wardrobe to keep moths at bay and wipe every smudge and splatter off my deadstock 1940s oxfords. I’ve even taught myself to darn to save my merino tights from the trash. I do this not because I’m paranoid and fastidious. I care for these clothes because I care for these clothes — I’ve developed an emotional bond with them. Folding a Scottish cashmere sweater and laying it on a cedar-scented shelf at night is like putting a bunny to bed. You cannot get that from a cotton-polyamide top. Good clothes aren’t just good craft and good value; they’re good friends.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 3, 2010 11:14 pm

    I didn’t say anything about peace not being good :) I said:

    why did things go so terribly after the war *in terms of consumerism*

    I’m speaking of post-war consumer culture, plastics, the decimation of natural places and the environment. With the breaking down of the class system, it seemed like people couldn’t wait to become what they formerly resented. The culture of making do and mending went right out the window – and it makes me sad, and I wish we had more of that in our society. If I had to pick one word to describe Western Culture after the wars it would be “disposable” – which is why I see your project as being really interesting.

    If you don’t want to engage in a dialog about it – that’s ok – I’ll refrain from commenting on your blog.

    • Susannah permalink*
      February 4, 2010 12:19 am

      Hmm. If I had to answer that question in a single phrase, I’d have to say “human nature”. I’m not sure human nature has changed much in all of recorded history, but I have this feeling that the technological developments of the past 100 years, like mega-mass production and instant communications, have allowed human nature to unfold on a grander scale and at higher speed than ever before. So we’re seeing changes over decades or even years that would formerly have transpired over the lifetime of an entire civilization. How many people in the history of mankind have been rich enough to throw clothing away after a few uses? It’s thrilling to watch, in an appalling kind of way.

      One big reason why I think consumerism has failed to live up to the dream, like any deal with the devil, is that what is for sale is now an experience rather than an actual thing. Somewhere along the line, somebody realized that if you made the experience good enough, the thing didn’t have to be of particularly good quality at all. In fact, it was better if it was poor quality, because then people would have to buy a new one more often. So the grace period before planned obsolescence got shorter and shorter until we’re now buying what is basically already garbage, but with heroin icing on top.

      In the case of clothes, the heroin is the shopping experience. Mass-produced clothes are no longer made to be worn; they’re made to be bought. The moment of consummation for a Topshop dress — the moment towards which its entire existence is geared — comes when the cashier rings it through at the till. The whole life of the dress after that is practically an afterthought. When I analyze my relationship with disposable fashion carefully, even the stuff I like, I notice that my interest in these garments lies entirely in their newness and fades completely even while they’ve still got plenty of life in them.

      The same applies to food, especially American food. In the immortal words of my friend Matthew, “KFC is delicious for the first twenty minutes. Then it’s like the last two years of Amy Winehouse’s life.”

  2. February 3, 2010 3:32 pm

    I just wanted to let you know how fascinating and important I am finding your project, Fashion on the Ration. I look forward to following it throughout the year! I couldn’t agree more with your comments about fast fashion, mending, making things yourself, quality, etc.

    I’m a student of the period and the question that always haunts me is why did things go so terribly after the war in terms of consumerism. I have my theories (wartime factories converted post-war to plastics, chemicals and consumer goods, people feeling sick of austerity, and the breakdown of the the class system post war (which could and should have been a great thing, but seemed to produce a society of bourgeoisie clamoring for televisions and refrigerators!). I was wondering if you had any thoughts about it since you’ve read so widely about the period! (also – thanks for writing about the book How we lived then: a history of everyday life during the Second World War – I just put it on hold at my University library (how hopeful that it’s checked out :)

    • Susannah permalink*
      February 3, 2010 7:09 pm

      It’s interesting that you should say things went so terribly after the war, because at the time I’m sure peace and prosperity looked GREAT after 50 years of a modern world convulsed by war and want. It still looks pretty great by comparison with what went before. If you read about life in Britain before cheap clothes (i.e., up until about 50 years ago), you will read again and again of kids running around barefoot and ragged in winter. There were no cheap clothes: you paid for quality, or bought rich people’s castoffs, or went without. The same goes for books — they weren’t within the reach of most people until very recently. In that respect I’m a fan of affordable consumer goods.

      Consumerism is a BIG question. What do you mean by things going terribly?

  3. January 31, 2010 10:18 am

    I agree that we should “care” for our clothes – though in NZ even cheap clothes are not that cheap, so I doubt many of us would throw clothes away easily.

    Since I started sewing my own clothes again I have become more caring of them, simply because I appreciate how much of my spare time and effort has gone into making them.

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