A wardrobe full of friends
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.
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.