Sewing today is a starkly contrasting experience to that of the 1940s, where mending and tailoring skills were necessary skills. Whilst WWI called upon women to volunteer for the war effort, sending essentials and comforts to soldiers, the onset of WWII in 1938 led to an age of austerity, where fabric and ready-made outfits were strictly rationed, creating a culture in which women had to use their ingenuity to keep up appearances during this period.
Sarah Magill, a Costume and Performance Design lecturer at the Arts University Bournemouth, has a love of early to mid-twentieth century women’s dress. “For me, this is because it changed so rapidly and reflected the social progress of women, from the rising hemlines of the 1920s through to the subcultures of the 1950s, such as Teddy Girls,” she tells Sew. “I love the nostalgia that 1940s fashion evokes; even through adversity and austerity, women remained smart and elegant, matching handbags with shoes and completing the look with red nails and lipstick.”
With women performing industrial tasks, the need for a practical – yet stylish – wardrobe emerged. “Broad-shouldered, wool jackets could be worn with silky tea dresses, and ‘man-tailored’ slacks paired with frilly, floral blouses,” Sarah continues. “The government restricted clothing manufacture and decoration was prohibited, which meant designers had to instead focus on cut and clever alternatives to achieve a similar effect. Striped blouses often featured collars, pockets and cuffs cut in a different direction, or pieced together on the bias to create a chevron effect.”
The war also had a direct effect on what garments became popular during the 1940s and years following. “While the men were away, women took their place in employment and the services. Many roles were traditionally male-dominated and often required practical clothing,” Sarah explains. Women donned Utility garments such as overalls, whilst turbans and headscarves were essential for safe munitions work. Women had worn trousers prior to the war, but as it became socially acceptable to wear them outside of leisurely contexts, they quickly became a staple.”
Clothes rationing, the Utility scheme and austerity regulations came down heavily on the clothing industry, as Sarah explains. “In 1941, civilians were allocated with 66 coupons, which allowed for a complete outfit – you had to hand over 14 for a coat, seven per skirt and five for each blouse, as well as the money. The Utility scheme was introduced to make the best use of scarce materials, accounting for around 80% of clothing manufacture and the removal of tax was a further incentive for consumers.” Pared back details would later distinguish the clean but classic fashion of the era. “The number of pleats, pockets and buttons were limited,” Sarah elaborates. “Certain style features, such as double-breasted jackets and turn-up trousers, were prohibited completely.” Even home dressmakers weren’t immune, with rations placed on fabric and a 25% tax on paper patterns that did not comply with austerity measures.
“Zips were harder to find, often being replaced on trouser and skirt plackets with buttons,” Sarah reveals. “However, the government wanted the population to have access to good quality, well-fitting garments. As a result, manufacturing methods were specified and standard sizing was developed, which improved the mass-production of clothing. ”
The launch of Make-Do and Mend scheme encouraged the repurpose and repair of existing garments. Pamphlets on upcycling were circulated, and women’s magazines published ideas such as using a man’s suit to make a lady’s outfit. Meanwhile, newbie stitchers could learn from demonstrations and sewing circles – something that has resurfaced again in the present day!
Turn back time
If you fancy taking a page out of your grandmother’s sewing book, many outfits recreate the era’s look. “Think siren suits, tea dresses, swagger coats, and turbans. The shirt dress was popular then and has only evolved since,” says Sarah. “The tailored suit is also a classic and the silhouette has frequently been revived, especially in the shoulder pad crazed 1980s. There is also a huge interest in vintage revival, and period garments are highly sought after.”
To create a truly authentic piece, carefully consider materials. “Fabrics in the 1940s were predominantly made from natural fibres or rayon – modern, synthetic materials just don’t give the same aesthetic,” Sarah advises. “Vintage rayon crepes are perfect for tea dresses and can be sourced through specialist dealers and online, but silk or wool ones work well too.
“Quilting cottons or lawns are an ideal weight for period blouses, whilst linens and wools are suitable for trousers and skirts. The Make Do and Mend scheme encouraged replacing parts of garments with remnants, so contrast panels were common. Vintage buttons and buckles are widely available or you could cover your own. Rouleau loops for fastening buttons were popular on dresses and blouses, whilst lace appliqué was favoured for underwear.”
Amongst the hardship and horrors that were faced, WWII paved way for much change in the years to come. With more than 7 million working for the war effort, women’s employment steadily increased and equal pay debates would later ensue. After years of austerity, working ‘male’ jobs and making do and mending, women certainly weren’t going to take off the trousers that they’d worked so hard to wear.
Find out more about this era, plus patterns to make authentic-looking garments in Sarah Magill’s Making Vintage 1940s Clothes For Women, £25, crowood.com
Sarah’s vintage sewing tips
Tacking is worth every minute, as is pressing a garment at every stage of construction to get the perfect finish of the Make Do and Menders.
Although time-consuming, period details such as hand-worked buttonholes or arrowheads on pleats really add value to a garment.
Make the garment work for you: the typical silhouette of the 1940s may not flatter every body shape. If the shoulders are too exaggerated, reduce the pads or gather in the sleeve head and adapt skirts and dresses to suit your height.
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