Fashion on the Ration

Yesterday I finally managed to catch Fashion on the Ration! It’s at the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth, and both mum and I were keen to see it before it closes at the end of August. As well as being a long-time dressmaker, I have also long held an interest in vintage and historical fashion, and this exhibition combines both of these thimageings.

After an very early start and 2 breakfasts (winning) we arrived at the museum early and sniffed the roses outside of the museum. It was really nice to see so many other people had had the same idea to turn up early as IWM Lambeth is free entry for the main exhibits. We were even the first people into Fashion on the Ration! Would have been lovely to have the whole thing to ourselves whilst we wandered but we were very quickly joined by a few other groups (boo hiss). However this was a freebie for us both as my mum had a deal for tickets from where she works – definitely good compensation for the 5am start!

Fashion on the Ration looks at how people explored new ways of wearing, making and mending clothes when clothing rationing was introduced in 1941. Home stitchers were predominately women butย the exhibition showed how ingenious everyone became when resources were scarce. The introduction of utility clothing and tcapture2he CC41 label, a collection designed to be stylish whilst using as little fabric as possible, meant that you could at least have good quality standardised basics if you had enough coupons to spend. Every piece of clothing you owned already that could be used for something else, really was. My favourite example of this was the snake bangle – it was made out of a crashed German planes windscreenย and had been melted until it could be shaped into something pretty. How clever is that!

The mustard colour coat had some really interesting seamlines

The collection of both utility and hand made clothes was excellent, and really showed how creative people became when they wanted to keep morale up and look stylish at the same time. My mum loved the patchwork housecoat and I agree that it was fabulous – hundreds of small hexagons were used to create a colourful yet practical garment. My own favourite was the dressing gown made from old silk maps – it was so elegant and I just wanted to be lounging around in it with a stiff drink in my hand. I also could have quite happily nabbed the dark red utility ladies coat – still such a classic shape. I might make my own – does anybody know of any good utility clothing references or resources?
Practical and glamorous – an ARP warden touches up her lipstick between calls.

I was however disappointed that photography wasn’t allowed in the exhibition, especially as the souvenir postcards were poor but I did manage to find a few royalty-free ones online to just give you a taster of what can be seen until the end of the month.

Although my mum used to make clothes for myself and my siblings when I was a kid, I have grown up with fast fashion,ย and this exhibition has really made me think about how I buy clothes and how I could reduce my shopping ‘footprint’ and instead use my noggin and make more of what I already have. I have thrown away clothes over the years that probably could have been re-purposed into some great things. I may follow Alex from Sewrendipity‘s example and not buy any RTW clothes next year… I’ll have to think seriously about that though. In the meantime however I plan to just think a bit more about what I am buying, from the cost and quality to how ethically made they are.

I also plan on doing a short series on 1940’s tips and tricks for refashioning! When I was in Dorset in May I picked up a fantastic 1940’s sewing book that is all about making do and mending, and I will be sharing a few pages as well as instructions on fixing all sorts of things, from lingerie to ladies wear. Keep your eyes peeled over the next few weeks for more information!



  1. I also find the war years and the challenges the men and women faced inspirational. The book you found sounds like a great read. As for not buying RTW….good luck. I tried to buy nothing but made in the USA last year. Saved a lot of money because most things are made overseas. I finally gave up when I needed new undies. I can by blue jeans at the local thrift but undies? Got to draw a line somewhere.


  2. I’d love to try and get up to see this exhibition before it closes – I hadn’t realised it was on until I read this post. Thank you. I’ve been thinking a lot this year about RTW, particularly since Me-Made-May, and I’m trying hard to restrict myself by sewing more (including refashioning). Having read this post from We The Sewing last night I’m also thinking about where the fabric I buy comes from!


  3. I love the dark red utility coat too! If you find a pattern for a classic cut like that, I’d love to know as I’ve been looking for one myself. I too, have been looking at my closet, and thinking i should try to do without RTW. But I’ve also realized I sew for pleasure, and I wonder if the pressure of such a ‘fast’ would take the fun out of it for me. I applaud those who do that though. Maybe someday, I’ll jump on the bandwagon!


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