Monday, 30 March 2015


I searched ... for the little black dresses, with bustles, the waisted girdles, the gold jewellery, the hats with back drapery that everybody was buying in New York. The London shops are only showing uniforms of every kind and  'siren wear' - for a hasty descent into the air raid shelter. (Journalist, 1939)

All those plucky housewives making do and mending, turning fishtail evening gowns into dinner dresses and granny's flannel drawers into a snazzy siren suit ...

What I want to know is what happened to women like me when fashion was rationed? It took me 20 minutes yesterday to thread a needle to mend a pair of trousers. If I'd ever been faced with making a bra  from a RAF silk escape map - Trieste on one cup, Milan on the other - well, the bra-less look would have arrived 30 years early. And now I think of it, Trieste/Milan doesn't bode well if you're more than a B-cup, does it? More buxom ladies - those of us whose cups runneth over and beyond the Alps  - would need a silken world atlas. As for matching knickers ...

One of the best fashion exhibitions I've ever seen was the wonderful New Look exhibition at the Imperial War museum, getting on for 20 years ago. Their new exhibition Fashion on the Ration doesn't even come close. It made a pleasant Sunday afternoon outing but I did feel that I'd seen it all before, been there, read the diaries, bought the Jacqmar scarf ...



As I've thrown out bagfuls of old clothes in the past few weeks, I wondered what a 1940s Mrs Sew-and-Sew would have made from the garments I've let go. One woman, writing in 1943, described how she spotted a top hat on a corporation salvage truck and wondered had it ever been to Ascot? 'Or maybe it had just an ordinary sort of life, going to the City each day and returning at night to a home set in a quiet garden and a maid in a frilly cap and apron to hang it on a mahogany hat stand. Now in the year 1943 it was going to end its life in a noble way or ignoble perhaps...'

A Welsh housewife names Gladys complained: 'I'm afraid our slogan "Make do and mend" is almost worn out itself by now, most of our garments won't "make do" or "mend" any more.'

Fashion on the Ration felt a bit ... rationed. As if there weren't quite enough exhibits to go round. (There weren't very many visitors, either.) But it all ties in rather well with the new ITV series Home Fires, based on Julie Summers' book Jambusters about the WI in its finest hour. (Why on earth did they change that wonderful title!) Julie Summers also wrote the accompanying book to Fashion on the Ration. I've only seen the first episode of the TV series but it looks promising. Anyone for dried egg Victoria sandwich, carrot jam and mock cream?

6 comments:

Sue said...

Yes why did they? Jambusters is an absolutely brilliant title. Thanks for this Mary, sounds right up my street. I once put my family on wartime rations for a couple of weeks. They didn't notice. Not sure what that says about my cooking.

mary said...

You could get away with Lord Woolton's pie, Sue ... but sharkmeat and snoek?
Can't imagine why they changed Jambusters to Home Fires. It sounds so insipid.

kristina said...

I really enjoyed the exhibition--and it was packed when I went--but I probably would have enjoyed a New Look exhibition even more! And how ridiculous changing the title from Jambusters to Home Fires--obviously don't know a good title when they hear one. x

mary said...

I think I've maybe reached saturation point, Kristina - I enjoyed it but there comes a point when you've seen it all before.

Katharine A said...

I enjoyed the exhibition, but I get your point. It did skim the surface, but could it have done anything else? I got to hear a talk by the curator which added another layer to the exhibition for me. Off now to find out when Home Fires is on. Did you ever see jam & Jerusalem? It was brilliant.

mary said...

I've still only seen one episode,Katharine. Date TBC as far as I know. And I don't think I ever saw Jam and Jerusalem.