Drab and ill-fitting or black market gold? How classism infected our perception of the Demob suit.

Demob waistcoat c.1945 (Museum of London 45.29-2d)

Demob waistcoat c.1945 (Museum of London 45.29-2d)

Few post-war garments are more ubiquitous than the British Demob suit. The ambitious brainchild of Major-General W.W. Richards, the War Office’s Director of Clothing and Stores, Demob suits were produced to ensure returning servicemen would begin their peacetime lives well dressed.

This waistcoat from the Museum of London would have formed part of a double-breasted three-piece suit, which was one of two available choices, the other being a single-breasted jacket with flannel trousers. Although Demob clothes do not feature manufacturer’s labels (only a label reading ‘Discharged or Demobbed Soldiers & Airmen’ and stating the size), these suits were commonly made by one of Leeds’ multiple tailoring firms, such as Burtons, although a small number were made by higher-end menswear specialists, including Simpsons. The quality of this waistcoat’s construction is clear in its fine stitching and full lining in heavy stripped cotton, comparing favourably to cheaper wholesale suits from this period that also feature in the Museum of London’s collections.

Waistcoat label detail

Demob waistcoat label detail (Museum of London 45.29-2d)

In contrast to contemporary perceptions about the uniformity of the Demob suit, the bold pink pinstripe running through the navy wool of this waistcoat exemplifies the variety of fabric choices available. Crucially, Demob suits were exempt from wartime austerity restrictions, and as such were among the first high quality men’s clothes made on a large scale since the early years of the war, something reflected in the high volume of subsequent black market Demob suits sales. Unlike earlier Utility waistcoats, this example features an extravagant four pockets rather than two, although it still omits other traditional features such as an extra buttonhole to accommodate a watchstrap. Although the production of Demob suits came at the expense of civilian clothes, the production of which had to be scaled down to save materials for Demob, their design triggered the relaxation of many austerity regulations for civilian menswear.

Government photographs of Demob processing centres reveal the surprising breadth of sartorial choice available to men. From shoes to ties, the range of goods to choose from, so says the narrator of a British Pathe newsreel on the subject, beats that to be found in ‘most civvie stores’. In contrast, there was no female version of the Demob suit. Instead, women were given cash and coupons to procure clothes. A woman discharged from the ATS, WRNS or WAAF received £12 10 shillings in cash, as well 56 clothing coupons from their unit and another 90 from the Board of Trade. Many department stores, such as Selfridges, staged Demob fashion shows for servicewomen, but with no official assistance as to where or how to obtain good quality items during a period of intense shortages, the success of the Demob clothing process for women was largely a matter of luck.

In spite of its instant familiarity, the Demob suit currently suffers from something of an unfair reputation considering its quality. While the majority of those writing critically about the suit in the contemporary press came from privileged backgrounds and were familiar with bespoke tailoring, for many working class servicemen, the Demob suit was a revelation. As such, it is little surprise that J.B. Priestly described the Demobbed man as quite literally ‘a cut above the rest of us’.

 

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Second-hand wedding shoes: the meaning of ‘newness’ at a time of austerity

Second Hand shoes 2010.3:1a, Museum of London

Second-hand shoes (2010.3:1a, Museum of London)

Once the celebratory hangovers had faded and the victory flags were taken down, the grim reality of peace in rubble-strewn London became apparent to London’s fashion retailers. Rather than heralding the return of fashionable consumption, 1945 saw in an era of increasing stock shortages and reduced clothing rations, further compounding the depletion of the city’s wardrobe stock caused by the cumulative effect of ongoing rationing. In response to these difficulties, ever increasing numbers of Londoners turned to the second hand clothing market for their sartorial fixes, since second hand clothes were not liable for coupons.

These snakeskin effect brown and cream leather pumps were purchased second hand on 18 October 1945 by Gladys Sandford. Made by large-scale shoe manufacturer Steplite, they are a fairly unremarkable example of a pair of wartime Utility shoes, featuring a CC41 stamp and typical of the shoe designs of the period in their medium heel and built up soles. Although obtained second hand, these shoes represented an important purchase for the wearer, who bought them specifically to be worn to her own wedding, two days later. It is this emotional attachment that perhaps explains how a pair of practical shoes with two owners has remained in such good condition, with soles and heels exhibiting only minimal signs of wear. These shoes demonstrate that the life cycles of fashionable objects in 1940s London were complex. From the old clothes remade into new outfits to the multiple meanings bestowed on second hand clothes by their various owners, austerity challenged people’s concepts of newness in relation to fashion, and highlighted that one person’s unwanted garment can be prized by another.

These shoes also exemplify the importance of the informal economy in post-war fashion retail. Alongside black market traders, street markets of all kinds provided an important source of fashion, most famously at East Street Market in Walworth and Petticoat Lane, where Henry Grant photographs from this period show a bustling trade in shoes, stockings and bold print dresses set against a bomb damaged background. Street traders provided a mixture of both new and second hand clothes, with Bob Collin’s documentary photographs of second hand clothing piled up in Mile End demonstrating that these markets could often offer a plethora of choice in comparison to the sparsely stocked stores. The second hand clothing market peaked in London between 1945 and 1946. Although street markets in less affluent parts of the city continued to thrive, by 1947 West End dealers reported that demand for second hand clothing and accessories had fallen dramatically, and they offered to pay suppliers a third less for items such as jewelry than in 1945.

Post-war planning: reconstructing the West End as the national centre for fashionable consumption

Fig. 1. Bombing map of the West End, 1945 c. City of Westminster Archive

Fig. 1. Bombing map of the West End, 1945
c. City of Westminster Archive

In the early hours of 18 September 1940, several high explosive and incendiary bombs struck John Lewis’s flagship department store at 278 Oxford Street. Fire ripped through the store’s West House and, aided by wind, spread across Holles Street to the East House. It took thirty fire engines nearly two days to tackle the blaze, by which point the store was little more than a burnt-out shell. As the dust settled on Oxford Street after the Second World War, it became clear that retailers needed to do more than simply plan for the physical reconstruction of consumption infrastructure; they were challenged to re-imagine consumption entirely as they taught Londoners how to consume fashion in a new, modern era. The experiments conducted in the immediate post-war years by retail pioneers radically changed the look of West End shops, and would go on to shape both fashion retail and the city’s image for the rest of the twentieth century. 

The combination of the West End’s heritage as a centre for fashion retail and the level of damage inflicted on the area during the war left it uniquely placed to lead the nation in reimagining fashion retail. While broad swathes of the city were damaged during the Blitz, the detailed bomb maps and ARP reports held in the City of Westminster Archives paint a particularly devastating picture of disrupted consumption across the West End. (Fig. 1) On 24 September 1940, Savile Row, the home of British tailoring, was hit by a high explosive bomb, badly damaging the tailoring firm Sandon and Co; on 17 April 1941, a parachute mine exploded in Jermyn Street, damaging luxury men’s retailers Dunhill’s; the Burlington Arcade, a grand symbol of Regency retail, was badly damaged by a high explosive on 11 September 1940 and during the same raid, another high explosive damaged the windows of Austen Reed’s flagship Regent Street store.[1] From the high-end department stores of Oxford Street, stocked with ready-to-wear clothes, to the areas around Bond Street that were traditionally associated with luxury consumption and bespoke clothing, the bombs that fell on the West End left an extensive trail of broken glass, flattened buildings—and damaged stock.

In spite of this, the shopping streets of the West End seldom feature in the grand story of London’s post-war reconstruction, which is instead dominated by the large-scale (and largely unfulfilled) plans of architect and planner Patrick Abercrombie.[2] Unlike the retail centres of Bristol or Coventry, where the level of bomb damage necessitated almost total rebuilding, enabling a modern reimagining of the shopping space, London’s West End was, for the most part, largely recognizable as the same place in 1945 that it had been in 1939. The backbone of London retail remained in the undamaged street patterns, bending from Oxford Street into the curve of Regent Street before sweeping onto Piccadilly. Although, walking down them, the frontages of these streets would have contained many prominent gaps, the majority of shop buildings still stood, and the continued trading of many of the same retailers on the same sites gave the impression of business as usual in the post-war era. It was the very familiarity of these shopping routes that masked the startlingly modern changes to London retail that occurred behind the white Portland stone facades during the immediate post-war years.

That this retail modernisation remains largely unacknowledged is due, at least in part, to the vested interests of retailers in preserving the heritage status of West End consumption. The West End was already by this time a long-established centre for fashionable consumption,[3] and although the shops of Oxford Street especially could be seen as a mismatch of tired and old-fashioned Victorian relics, retailers and consumers placed a high value on the historic fabric on which the area’s reputation was built.[4] Abercrombie’s ‘County of London Plan’[5] (Fig. 2) may have advocated decentralization and zoning,[6] but the West End’s historic street pattern and mixed land use, where retailers operated cheek-by-jowl with small-scale garment workshops, would remain the bedrock of London fashion consumption in the immediate post-war years and provide a foundation of heritage on which retailers could build their new image.

In spite of continued trading, the broken windows and lost shopping floors disrupted the social practice of pleasurable consumption in the West End.[7] The destruction caused to the fabric of London’s shopping centre provided an opportunity for stores to reinvent the London shopping experience, using interior (re)decoration to change the environment in which customers shopped. For some very badly damaged stores, such as John Lewis, rebuilding would have to wait until the 1950s, but most stores were able to modernise within their existing, albeit damaged, buildings—combining historic legacy with contemporary design. Even shops that had escaped bomb damage were in need of modernisation, having been neglected since the outbreak of war, meaning that London’s retail spaces were poised for mass modernisation on a previously unprecedented scale.

London’s shops redecorated at a rapid pace between 1945 and 1950, exemplifying the pressures felt by fashion retailers to compete for custom at the highest level and arguing against the common portrayal of shops enjoying a sellers’ market during the late 1940s. Facing frustratingly small government quotas on building materials, West End stores adapted promotional ideas and store layouts in creative and imaginative ways, using the limited resources available to them. The sleek, modern aesthetics of many refurbished post-war fashion departments hid a distinctly make-do approach. Perhaps the most successful of these was the creation of the Young Liberty department at Liberty & Co. in 1949, the work of architect and designer Hulme Chadwick, who was later to work extensively on the 1951 Festival of Britain. Chadwick deliberately turned his back on the heritage of the Liberty brand, rendering the interior of the famous Arts and Crafts style department store unrecognizable by completely covering its dark wood paneling with white painted panels and mirrors, lit by stark halogen strip lighting. In doing so, the Young Liberty department was visually separated from the rest of shop, known for the exposed wood beams that overlooked its stacks of richly decorated oriental rugs and intricately printed fabrics. In stating its modern fashionable credentials through this new interior, Liberty’s laid the foundations for the fashionable rebirth of the old Tudor shop and its dress fabrics in the Fifties and Sixties.[8]

While women’s fashion departments were redecorated according to unquestionably modern aesthetics, in line with the Young Liberty approach, many popular menswear retailers were a little more cautious, keen to balance modernism with the brand values of British heritage that had long associated London with high-end luxury retail for men. Menswear specialist Austin Reed, in particular, demonstrated this balance in the redesign of their Regent Street store interior. Rather than opting for a bright and open modern look throughout the store, they incorporated elements of open space and modern industrial design into their ground floor ready-to-wear department, while retaining lush décor and wood paneling on the upper floor, which was the home of their upscale made-to-measure services.[9] The far-reaching influence of London’s consumer heritage on the post-war rebuilding of the West End can be seen in the differences between the design of Austin Reed and Liberty’s retail spaces, highlighting the complex relationship between modernity and the architecture of the area’s fashionable legacy in a space still mourning the cultural losses to the built environment inflicted during the Blitz.

Seventy-five years on from the start of the Blitz, the successful legacy of post-war retail reconstruction can still be traced in the continued importance of the West End’s retail backbone, with Oxford and Regent streets enjoying an international reputation and flourishing as London’s foremost destination for fashionable consumption.

Fig. 2. Map showing proposed zoning for ‘home, work and play’ in Patrick Abercrombie’s ‘County of London Plan’, 1943 Carter, E. J. and Goldfinger, E. (1943) The County of London Plan Explained by E. J. Carter and Erno Goldfinger. London: Penguin. p79.

Fig. 2. Map showing proposed zoning for ‘home, work and play’ in Patrick Abercrombie’s ‘County of London Plan’, 1943
Carter, E. J. and Goldfinger, E. (1943) The County of London Plan Explained by E. J. Carter and Erno Goldfinger. London: Penguin. p79.

[1] ARP Message Form, Savile Row, 24 September 1940. Westminster City Archives.

[2] Self, P. (2002) ‘The Evolution of the Greater London Plan, 1944–1970.’ Progress in Planning vol. 57, no. 3-4: pp145-75.

[3] See Breward, C. (1999) The Hidden Consumer; Masculinities, Fashion and City Life 1860-1914. Manchester: Manchester University Press and

Rappaport, E. (2000) Shopping for Pleasure: Women and the making of London’s West End. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[4] Edwards, B. (2006) ‘Shaping the Fashion City: Master Plans and Pipe Dreams in the Post-War West End of London’ in Breward, C. and Gilbert, D. (eds.) Fashion’s World Cities. London: Berg. p159.

[5] The County of London Plan was a 1943 proposal for the development and reconstruction of London, prepared for the London City Council. See Carter, E. J. and Goldfinger, E. (1943) The County of London Plan Explained by E. J. Carter and Erno Goldfinger. London: Penguin.

[6] It can also be argued that 1940s planners were largely hostile to fashionable consumption due to its associations with feminine frivolity. See Edwards, B. (2006) p164.

[7] Customers were denied the visual pleasure of window displays, with large plate glass windows boarded up, leaving only the occasional peephole, and Selfridges famous roof garden was closed due to bomb damage, never to reopen. See ARP Message Form, Selfridges, September 1940, Westminster City Archives.

[8] Buruma, A. (2008) Liberty & Co. in the Fifties and Sixties: A Taste for Design. London: ACC Editions. p7.

[9] Display (August 1947) p18.

Home sewing as high fashion in post-war London

Fig. 1 Bestway Paper pattern packaging (front and back), showing illustrated garment and pattern layout. 1947-1949 c. Museum of London

Fig. 1
Bestway Paper pattern packaging (front and back), showing illustrated garment and pattern layout. 1947-1949
c. Museum of London

Home sewing is not the first place fashion historians turn when examining the formation of fashion cities. However, while the couturiers of IncSoc focused on the export market rather than the post-war city, and London’s ready-to-wear wholesalers battled to keep up with consumer demands, it was frequently the home sewers of the 1940s who picked up their needles and dressed Londoners out of austerity. Although their creations could be strikingly individual, even statements of post-war social change, many still found inspiration in the fashionable shops of the West End.

The domestic interior, considered the fashionable domain of the home sewer, is commonly separated from retail centres such as the West End, but archival evidence suggests that these seemingly unconnected spaces are intrinsically linked through consumption practices. While the 1940s are often hailed as the heyday of fashionable ingenuity through ‘Make Do and Mend’, evidence suggests that Austerity did not breed creativity out of necessity. In fact, as Mass Observation’s report into “The £.S.d. of home sewing” demonstrates, creative home sewing fell during the war, with most sewing instead limited to mending (MO FR 3085). The report suggests that home sewing is explicitly tied to consumption, and creative dressmaking only begun to bounce back in the later part of the decade, as austerity measures were eased. The report highlights that in these later years, sewing is seen as a creative pursuit as much as an economic necessity, with 44.8% of home sewers making women’s garments only, indicating that they were primarily sewing for themselves and not their families.

The business records of London’s major department stores, such as John Lewis, show that during the latter part of the 1940s, haberdashery and piece goods still formed an important part of their sales, in spite of the advances made by ready-to-wear clothes (John Lewis Gazette 1947). Although the rise in creative home sewing towards the end of the decade can be linked to rising ready-to-wear clothing prices (MO FR 3085), it is also indicative of changing attitudes towards the retail of home sewing sundries. Manufacturers and retailers alike recognised that in marketing fabric and thread they were selling the transformational promise of a new fashionable identity. The exciting possibilities of sewing are explicit in the fashion focus of Singer’s shop-run sewing classes and the “Teen Fashions” sewing manual produced by thread manufacturer’s J. and P. Coats (MO FR 3085).

The high-fashion credentials of home dressmaking can be seen most clearly in the packaging of the growing paper pattern industry. Stocked in West End haberdashery departments, patterns such as Bestway’s ‘Economy Couture’ range promised the tantalising prospect of the latest styles at an affordable price. The packaging of Vogue patterns distinguished them from those found free in magazines such as Women’s Weekly by using pictorial styles copied from couture illustrators such as Francis Marshall, emphaising the fashionable silhouette with its sloped shoulders, narrow waist and full skirts. These illustrations frequently over emphasise these features in comparison with the patterns inside, which show narrower skirts, broader shoulders and less constricted waists (Fig 1). By purchasing these patterns, the consumer could bring West End fashions home with them, transforming the creative potential of the domestic space through connections to London’s symbolic fashion capital. However, as noted by Partington (1992), the home sewer was not simply recreating West End fashions: patterns were adapted to suit personal taste, the dimensions of individual bodies, and the places where the garment was to be worn.

In the West End, the creative promise of home dressmaking translated into both retail sales and an expansion of the imagined possibilities offered by fashion. This dual promise can be seen in the prominence placed on fine textiles by high-end retailers. Both Liberty and Selfridges regularly devoted at least one large window display to fashion fabrics, with display designers creating fantasy gowns from draped material. Retailers used these promotions to fulfill a consumer desire for grander, more elaborate fantasy fashions than were available in their ready-to-wear stock (Display 1950). In return, home sewers were inspired to push creative boundaries, dressing themselves as fashion forward individuals, and so changing the city’s aesthetic through street fashion.

References:

Display. ‘Mainly Mayfair’. December 1950: p12.

Mass Observation FR 3085 ‘The £.S.d. of home sewing’, February 1949: p1-5.

Partington, A. (1992) Popular Fashion and Working-Class Affluence, in Ash, J. and Wilson, E. (eds), Chic Thrills: A Fashion Reader. London: Pandora.

Oxford Street Christmas Lights: A Decade of Darkness

Christmas tree window display for Jaeger, Regent Street, December 1946. Due to material shortages, shop displays had to be imaginative with resources. To create these trees, pre-war flat display figures were cut up and sprayed white. c. Display, January 1947

Christmas tree window display for Jaeger, Regent Street, December 1946. Due to material shortages, shop displays had to be imaginative with resources. To create these trees, pre-war flat display figures were cut up and sprayed white.
c. Display, January 1947

This December, my usual careful attempts to avoid Oxford Street and its marauding hoards of Christmas shoppers happened to coincide with some research into West End shopping during the post-war austerity years. In spite of my best intentions, disorganisation found me emerging from Oxford Street station on Christmas Eve, shopping list in hand. As I stood at Oxford Circus, I found myself unexpectedly dazzled by the Christmas lights leading off in all directions. Anyone who has visited the area recently will know that this is not a reflection on the quality of this year’s display (N.B. Regent Street: there is nothing festive about a film starring dinosaur skeletons). Instead, it was a reaction to a recently learnt fact – that for the decade between 1939 and 1949, West End shoppers would not have seen Christmas lights.

Using the trade magazine Display, Design and Presentation, I have been plotting out the changing appearance of fashionable consumption in post-war London via the window displays and store interiors of the period. This research has thrown up a wealth of fascinating material, and acted as a reminder of exactly how much this area, and in many cases the same shops, have changed in the last seventy years. However, it was perhaps not until that moment, standing at Oxford Circus in preparation to do battle in John Lewis for socks to gift to my brother-in-law, that the stark realities of austerity shopping really hit home.

The strings of fairy lights in trees and radiantly lit shop windows illuminating festive fantasies are one of the few things that salvage Christmas shopping from being one of my least favourite activities. Light is an integral part of the holiday season; the pagan roots of our Christmas celebrations highlight how important light is in transforming our moods at this dark time of year, and without its hopeful promise, the greeting card image of the festive toyshop window starts to look rather bleak indeed.

It was the wartime blackout that initially curtailed Oxford Street’s festive glow, but the assumption that peacetime would herald the return of Christmas lights was dealt continual blows by government austerity policies, caused primarily by ongoing fuel shortages. Even when shops were finally allowed to bring electric lights back to their window displays in 1949, there were still restrictions in place during afternoon hours.

There is evidence from many shop owners and display managers that this was a serious source of frustration, and impacted upon sales during the festive season (Display, November 1948), highlighting the importance of capturing the consumer imagination in order to make a sale. This small detail points to a wider truth about austerity shopping that is emerging from my research – while it is common to discuss the seller’s market of the austerity years in terms of desperate consumer demand for whatever goods they could get their hands on, London’s retailers recognised that, even in a time of shortages, it was still necessary to sell the transformational fantasy of fashionable goods in order to shift merchandise. London’s shoppers may have had a limited selection, but they still wanted to shop for the promise of a newer, better way of life, and at Christmas time especially, a bit of magic.

Suddenly, I find myself much better disposed to the crowds of shoppers filling the pavements outside Selfridges and Hamleys, reminded of how it must have felt to see a lit Christmas window after a long and difficult decade; a small promise that the 1950s would be a little brighter.

Christmas hat display by Christy & Co., Ltd., December 1949. The tree decoration is created using string and cardboard.  c. Display, December 1949

Christmas hat display by Christy & Co., Ltd., December 1949. The tree decoration is created using string and cardboard.
c. Display, December 1949

Make Do And Mend: Rethinking the Relationship Between Austerity and Creativity

Ministry of Information 'Make Do And Mend' booklet, 1943.  c. British Library

Ministry of Information ‘Make Do And Mend’ booklet, 1943.
c. British Library

Austerity breeds creativity out of necessity. Since the British coalition government began its programme of austerity policies in 2010, this notion has formed the central premise of many discussions about home sewing, and is frequently linked to the phrase ‘Make Do And Mend’, a reference to a government issued sewing manual from 1943. Today, ‘Make Do And Mend’ describes inspirational sewing classes, money saving blogs, and has even been used as a television programme title. However, the original wartime campaign actually had limited impact, because it overlooked the vast majority of the population who historically had little choice but to remake and reuse (Slater, 2011). In reality, London’s home sewers had long been proficient in the process of adaptation and recreation, and were well prepared to meet the challenges of official clothing restrictions with a level of ingenuity and flair that outstripped the suggestions offered by this rather utilitarian instruction manual. As such, it is perhaps more useful to think of ‘Make Do And Mend’ in terms of an ongoing, grassroots movement rather than official austerity policy.

‘Make Do And Mend’ is most commonly associated with wartime shortages, but in fact the period of austerity following the war presented Londoners with much greater challenges in terms of obtaining new clothes. In these immediate post-war years consumers contended with limited supplies as the government focused production on the export market, and clothes rationing persisted until 1949. However, after a period of relative stability in fashion design during the war, women’s clothing underwent a series of major changes, and London’s home sewers found themselves at the forefront of a fashion revolution as radical as the social policies of Britain’s new Labour government.

London fashion during this time is typically discussed in relation to trends elsewhere. In particular, the city’s post-war fashion changes are described as an import of Christian Dior’s 1947 Corolle Line (commonly nicknamed the ‘New Look’) from Paris, at the time the self-declared world fashion capital. Characterised by its tightly structured and corseted torsos, and long, voluminous skirts, the New Look was widely criticised as impractical and restrictive to its female wearers (Beckett, 1947). In spite of this, fashion mythology tells us that British women were desperate to emulate this new trend, and attempted to alter their clothes accordingly, with even Princess Margaret adding a strip of fabric to lengthen the hem of an old coat (Behlen, 2012). The resulting outfits are gently mocked as weak imitations, but the clothes of Londoners held in the Museum of London’s collection tell a different story, one that demonstrates how creative amateur adaptations contributed to a new fashion line that belonged to London.

While home sewers in London followed certain aspects of the New Look trend, namely the lower hems, fuller skirts and softer shoulders, they rejected other, more restrictive features. In October 1947, Woman’s Weekly ran instructions to show how a coat could be adapted by letting out the hem, removing the shoulder pads, and reshaping the waist (Woman’s Weekly, 1947). Although adhering to fashionable lines, the resulting garment was still a practical length, with a lack of internal structuring that would restrict the body.

Examples of home dressmaking from the period demonstrate that this looser, shorter trend was not simply due to the restraints of altering an existing garment. Even when starting from scratch, only certain aspects of the Parisian New Look feature, for example, full skirts are created by clever pleating rather than a weighty excess of fabric or cumbersome petticoats, and hem lengths are short enough not to be tripped over when running for a bus. Oral history interviews demonstrate that these altered lines cannot be simply explained away as compromises resulting from austerity restrictions, but were positive choices made by the sewer, who saw their garments as an ideal, improved version of the new fashion.

Such shorter, freer styles were the London’s fashions of choice, and this consumer demand can be seen reflected in the ready-to-wear creations of the period, which also demonstrate these features. Crucially, these developing trends in ready-to-wear and home-made garments were occurring simultaneously, defying the theory that fashion trends ‘trickle down’ from upper to lower classes (Veblen, 1994). The new London Look was not a compromise between Parisian couture and the practicality demanded by austerity conditions, but the result of a process of co-creation between professional dress designers and the home sewers of the city.

Since the 1940s, London’s creative home sewers have largely disappeared–not from a lack of austerity, but due to the changing nature of the clothing retail market. In a world of planned obsolescence and mass manufacture in fashion, where today’s London consumer can pop to Primark and buy an entire new outfit for under £20, there is less financial need to remake and remodel old clothes, and there is certainly no shortage of products in shops. However, there is, more than ever, a need to promote sustainability in clothing consumption, and by looking to the creation of the 1948 London Look, a fashion evolved by home dressmakers to suit London lives, we can perhaps rediscover the creative possibilities offered by a ‘Make Do And Mend’ mentality for the promotion of sustainable fashions.

Bibliography:

Beckett, M. (1947). Paris Forgets This Is 1947. Picture Post, 27 September. pp. 220-224.
Behlen, B. (2012). ‘Does Your Highness feel like a gold person or a silver one?’ Princess Margaret and Dior. Costume, volume 46, issue 1, pp. 55-74.
Woman’s Weekly (1947). Make What You Have Look New!, 23 August. p. 233.
Slater, A. (2011). The Dress of Working Class Women in Bolton and Oldham, Lancashire 1939-1945. Ph.D.. Manchester: Manchester Metropolitan University
Veblen, T. (1994). The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover.

More Than Window Dressing

I recently presented a paper on 1940s window displays at the Glasgow School of Art’s ‘Crafting the Look: Styling as Creative Process’ conference. Here is an extract from that paper, looking at the work of display manager Eric Lucking at Liberty’s: 

Image

At first glance, London’s West End in 1946 does not look like the most promising place for a retail revolution. London’s shops emerged from the Second World War to face a very steep uphill struggle: many had suffered severe cosmetic and structural damage, and others, such as Oxford Street’s John Lewis, had been bombed out completely. On top of this, they faced both a shortage of display props, such as mannequins, and a shortage of merchandise to display. Window displays were subject to a series of government restrictions, including a 10% quota on the amount of windows that shops were able to fit with new glass, very high purchase tax on mannequins, limitations on the amount of lighting that could be used and restrictions on the use of raw materials such as paper and wood for creating displays. 

It was into these challenging circumstances that a newly Demobbed Eric Lucking arrived at Liberty & Co. Lucking’s appointment as Liberty’s first ever display manager speaks for the forward looking nature of Liberty’s then director, Arthur Stewart-Liberty, who had attended courses at the newly launched Reiman school of display design and appreciated the importance of display styling in a way that many of his west end counterparts were yet to catch up with. Lucking’s appointment gave the shop a coherent vision for the first time, as previously individual department had been allocated windows to dress separately, and Arthur Stewart-Liberty later reported that this even inspired buyers to procure better stock, hoping that their items might be selected for use in one of Lucking’s windows.

Window displays were of particular importance in the late 1940s due to the limitations on other marketing techniques; for example, Liberty’s did not release its first post-war catalogue until 1952 due to paper shortages. In order to achieve the necessarily striking visuals, Lucking needed to be extremely resourceful. In late 1945 and early 1946, Display magazine is dominated by distinctly ‘make do and mend’ ideas, including the use of dyed sawdust and autumn leaves to cover damaged floors, creating backdrops of coloured water in glass tumblers, and updating old pre-war mannequins with plaster of paris ‘facials’ and improvised paper wigs. Even the high-end store Simpsons of Piccadilly was using found objects, such as leaves and pebbles, as price labels. 

Perhaps the biggest problems facing display stylists at this time was a lack of mannequins on which to create clothing displays. When Lucking joined Liberty in 1946, Display magazine was carrying numerous adverts for mannequin refurbishment services and even the flagship national design exhibition ‘Britain Can Make It’, held at the Victoria and Albert museum later that year, was dogged by problems trying to procure mannequins. In order to update old-fashioned pre-war models, Lucking created abstract and surrealist displays, removing heads and replacing them with bunches of flowers or suspending hats as if perched on invisible heads.

Lucking took this disassembling further, and in his displays disembodied hands hold up gloves and bags. Often the body is dispensed with entirely, and dresses are draped or hung on hangers as if floating out of wardrobes. By creating these surreal models, Lucking was able to evoke a feeling of animation through abstraction, and clothes in window displays came to life as never before, aided by the imagination of the shopper outside.

One of the more innovative solutions to the mannequin shortages in London was to be found in hand made wire mannequins. Eric Lucking adopted the wire model concept and emphasized their uncanny nature through his surrealist displays, for example in the image below, where the missing head and arms place emphasis on the exquisite wire foot, highlighting the alluring nature of the dresses drape over the leg, while a series of props float around the model as if in orbit to it.

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Another way in which Eric Lucking worked with limited props was to make a feature of empty space, often creating striking scenes that highlighted the merchandise on display to great effect. In order to create a spectacle, Lucking used nylon wires against a plain backdrop from which he suspended garments to give the impression of some ghostly presence, attracting the viewer with this uncanny visual trick. Realizing the visual power of suspension, Lucking worked with artist Lyn Chadwick, displaying his mobiles as props in a way that interacted with the store’s merchandise, as if the mannequins in the window were themselves observers at an art gallery.

Probably Eric Lucking’s biggest contribution to display design is to be found in his use of draping. Lucking is repeatedly praised in the contemporary press for his masterful grasp of fabric draping, and this was noticed by several trade associations, including the British Nylon Spinners Association and the International Wool Secretariat who engaged his services for several major national and international trade fairs. Lucking was deeply interested in the properties of fabric and what could be done with them, as can be seen from his many sketches of falling and draped fabric. His skill can be seen in this draped figure from 1947, complete with one of his trademark floral heads.

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Eric Lucking’s decade at Liberty’s was more successful than even Arthur Stewart-Liberty could have hoped. His view was highly practical, believing that creative display should be used first and foremost to sell merchandise, and there is evidence that he succeeded on this front, with archive letters from department heads congratulating him on window displays that had lead to the featured merchandise swiftly selling out.

For individuals, the window displays they passed represented more than just an advertisement. They became part of the symbolic struggle against austerity regulations, and designer Sally Tuffin recalls how “From a war-torn childhood, where everything seemed grey, my first visit to Regent Street was a pure fantasy of delight”. The surreal, imaginative fantasies produced by Eric Lucking do not conform to our usual grey image of post-war austerity. Instead, they offer a vision into the hopeful and optimistic side of the national mood, indulging in escapism whilst dreaming of a brighter future. The floating and seemingly magical figures in these displays are able to transcend the reality of shortages that plagued many London lives, but their very construction under the shadow of these same shortages proved to onlookers that it was possible to achieve individuality in a world of uniformity.

What’s in a Stitch?

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When using the material object as a historical source, one of the more difficult boundaries to negotiate is the acceptable line between deduction and speculation; how far from the material evidence can our interpretations wander before they become invalid?

This question commonly arises when contemplating damage and repairs to garments, when we often have few clues as to when or how the garment was damaged, or who completed the repairs. However, I often find that contemplating a range of possible alternatives can help broaden my understanding of the material object and its social and cultural role. In order to demonstrate this, let us return to the Museum of London’s item 64.128, the checked wool dress, which has two patched repairs, one at the waistband and one at the hem.

The woolen checked tweed is a heavy fabric, especially given the relative fullness of the skirt, and as such it is unsurprising to find evidence of the weave pulled and stretched thin at the waistband, close to the area that has been patched. It is likely to have been this structural weakness that caused the fabric to tear here, although the specific location, at the front left hand side towards the seam, implies that the immediate cause may well have been a vigorous stretching movement. This is not to undermine the quality of the garment, as can be seen from the durability of its stitching and quality components, including the heavy brass zip, but is a clear indication of the heavy wear this dress has seen.

To mend this wear and tear, a patch has been sewn into the underside of the garment by machine. Curiously for a high quality item, very little care has been taken to minimize the appearance of the patch, as can be seen from the long rows of brown stitching that extend above the damaged area on the outside of the garment. These are irregular and densely packed, implying that it was the strength of the mend rather than its appearance afterwards that was of prime concern to the mender. The quality of this patch might be seen as an indication of a lack of skill by the mender. However, while we do not know the level of sewing skills possessed by whoever enacted this repair, it is not entirely unreasonable to assume that they would have been reasonably proficient; they clearly had access to a sewing machine, and it is unlikely that they would have remained untouched by the previous eight years, during which time the sewing skills of the middle classes* had been improved through the efforts of the ‘Make do and Mend’ campaign, government sewing classes, the prioritization of sewing under the 1944 education act, and the necessity to sew, and especially repair, created by wartime shortages.

The lack of care taken in this mend may mean that the repair would not have been visible when worn under the accessorizing belt, although, due to the extent of the repaired area, this seems unlikely. As such, perhaps the more likely explanation lies in the evidence that this repair covered damage caused by heavy wear over time, and as such was inflicted upon a garment that had long since ceased to be seen as ‘best’. This scenario represents the life cycle of a garment during this period, when, for the vast majority of Londoners, even the most fashionable item was purchased to be worn frequently over a long period of time, representing a period when women’s wardrobes were considerably smaller than they are today, and the purchase of a garment was a serious investment.

The damage to the hem reflects the heavy wear seen on the rest of the garment, probably having been torn after getting caught on a static object while the wearer was moving with some speed. This also confirms the activity the dress was subjected to, and the mobile nature of the wearer. The hem is mended with a similarly crude patch; leaving loose threads uncut and the thinness of the worn wool weave exposed in the remaining white warp threads. This would seem to confirm that the mender took little joy in the process of sewing. Many observers of the late 1940s noted that one of the consequences of the preceding years of shortages plugged with ‘Make do and Mend’ was that sewing became more commonly associated with mending and adaptation than creative dressmaking, and as such was more likely to be associated with boredom and drudgery than the fantasy of sartorial transformation.

While some may say that speculating so far from descriptions of the garment cannot be useful, I would argue that, providing we acknowledge that these are just one set of possibilities, such contextualizing helps us understand the broader life of the garment, relating it to its environment. Above all, it helps to remind us that what we actually see in front of us is a dress that does not only represent fashion as conceived, pictured and sold, or as merely a product of government policy, but fashion as worn, displaying the battle scars of a London life in all their messy plurality.

 

* There is evidence to suggest that working class sewers largely found the ‘Make Do And Mend’ campaign at best ineffectual, as they already possessed these skills, and at worst highly patronizing.

 

Utility: Cutting Edge Fashion

MOL 64.128

Once again returning to the theme of perceived uniformity in Utility design, the Museum of London’s collections demonstrate how overlooked the stylistic and fashion forward nature of many Utility designs is. In spite of claims made by the popular press at its inception, the Utility scheme was never intended to create a homogenously dressed populace, quashing individual tastes and preferences based around age and lifestyle. Had it done so, there is no way the scheme could possibly have been successful enough to last a decade, or have impacted upon the wardrobes of such a large cross section of society. Utility regulations may have stipulated certain restrictions, but as is evidenced by the Museum of London collections, the CC41 mark can be seen across a vast range of garments, varying hugely in both style and quality, suiting a range of tastes and budgets, and, perhaps most importantly, adapting to changing trends in order to stay relevant in a demanding ready-to-wear market.

Item 64.128 in the Museum of London’s costume collection is an excellent reminder of Utility’s ability to adapt to changing styles, while still adhering to regulations. 64.128 is absolutely a Utility dress, bearing the CC41 label and clearly conforming to all the relevant regulations; for example, it has no pockets, the hems sit just fractionally shy of the two-inch limit, and the side zip enables the skirt to be constructed using only two seams. However, this garment is a world away from the narrow, boxy styles so proudly paraded by IncSoc at the conception of the Utility scheme. The skirt has volume, created by gathered tucks at the waist, cleverly too small to count as pleats and so be subject to Utility limits. This volume is emphasized by the positioning of the waist, which sits lower than wartime waistbands to a point where it is almost skimming the hips, creating what was familiar in the late 1940s as a fashionably feminine silhouette. Additionally, the garment is longer than those of early Utility, and while we do not know the wearers height exactly, it would certainly have fallen somewhere below the knee. Utility designs needed to keep abreast, and indeed even ahead of current trends in order to ensure the continuing success of the scheme, and there is certainly evidence here of the influential spring 1947 Paris collections, in particular the narrow waists and full skirts of Dior’s Corolle line, later dubbed the ‘New Look’.

As is well documented, the New Look made its way to Britain in late 1947, and supposedly exerted such influence that the spring 1948 collections were nicknamed the ‘British New Look’. As the name implies, this was a story of adaptation rather than adoption, and, as can be seen in this garment, a fuller and longer skirt was accompanied by much broader shoulders than Dior’s vision of femininity. While the shoulders of 64.128 may not be padded to the extent of some extreme 1945-6 Parisian styles, there is a large volume of fabric gathered over arm, resulting from an extremely broad sleeve cap, matching the soft gathering technique seen at the waist. This volume of fabric is not merely a stylistic decision, but casts light on the demands made by the British public in their fashion trends; practicality in the form of hard wearing and wearable garments. These demands sit in opposition to the highest profile design influences of the day—Dior’s spring 1947 collection matched many of the other Parisian houses in its proliferation of physically restrictive styles. The narrow waists demanded shaping undergarments, and the soft, sloped shoulders and narrow sleeves used such little fabric to achieve the desired slimline look that they seriously restricted arm movements. While it is certainly true that French ready-to-wear also avoided the excesses of these restrictions, it is notable that even British couture designers created garments that avoided the most extreme elements of these styles.

While those who came out to decry the New Look are often considered reactionaries, they raised the valid point that these couture styles were simply not practical for the modern woman and the physical demands of her lifestyle. As Marjorie Beckett asked in Picture Post:

Can anyone seriously contemplate hopping onto a bus in a hobble skirt? Try lifting a bale of tweed—and imagine voluntarily adding to the fatigue of standing in the fish queue by having twenty yards of it hanging from ones waist. Think of doing housework, or sitting at a typewriter all day, or working in a factory, tightly corseted
(Beckett, 1947).

In fact, Beckett’s broad overview of the variety of 1947’s newly imported styles raises the question of why it is that we now think of the New Look in terms of full skirts, noting that a significant portion of Parisian collections that season featured the extremely tapered, below knee ‘hobble’ skirt, so called due to the confines it placed upon walking. It seems probable that these garments simply failed to make the transition to the sartorial mainstream because it was too difficult to adapt them for practical, everyday wear, without loosing the elegance of their proportions. 64.128 provides an excellent example of how the British New Look, particularly in ready-to-wear styles, showed practical adaptations, enabling fashionable wear in everyday life. This provides a strong argument against those fashion narratives that speak of the desire for femininity winning out over the resistance to the “caged bird” restrictions of the New Look.

The gathered fabric at the sleeve cap and relatively wide armholes allow for full arm movement above the head, enabling the wearer to participate fully in everything from office based activities to domestic tasks. Similarly, the gathered effect at the waistband serves a duel function. The skirt of this dress follows the fashionable shape of the day; emphasizing the hips by providing a high volume of fabric just below the narrow waistband, and allowing for the aesthetic appearance of a full skirt as the fabric falls, an effect that is especially noticeable when the dress is in motion when worn. However, it achieves these fashionable lines within certain practical confines; the gathering allows for the hips to be emphasized without the need for the excessive padding favoured by Dior, which would be both costly and uncomfortable, and also gives the impression of fullness in the skirt without using an excessive amount of fabric at a time when Utility restrictions still applied to fabric quantities.

Additionally, it is important to acknowledge that this dress carries traces of other international fashion influences, proving that design was not merely subject to a linear export from Paris to London. The puffed sleeves in checked wool are reminiscent of period Hollywood costumes of the era, with exaggerated sleeves first rising to prominence with Vivienne Leigh in Gone With The Wind (1939), before reappearing repeatedly over the next decade, usually in checks and stripes, in films such as Meet Me In Saint Louis (1944) and Fort Apache (1948). Post-war London was also a design hub in itself, and, while the dropped hem was certainly a new style statement for 1948, it is important to remember that in Britain a wider skirt had replaced the slim wartime silhouette in Utility garments from as early as 1946.

As is often the case with high-end Utility garments, great care has been taken with the cut in order to assure the best possible fit for the widest range of body types, all with minimal construction labour. This thoughtful pattern cutting is one of the important legacies the Utility scheme gifted to the British ready-to-wear industry. In the case of 64.128, this is most clearly demonstrated in the bodice front. Unlike the rest of the garment, this piece has been cut on the bias, something often avoided in ready-to-wear construction as it creates more waste fabric than laying out the pattern with the grain. However, cutting on the bias allows the woven fabric to have considerably more stretch, and as such fit more comfortably around the body’s contours with minimal stitched construction. In this dress, the bias cut of the front bodice allows the garment to be constructed without bust darts, saving construction costs and also allowing the garment to fit well over a larger range of chest sizes. Not only this, but the cut tilts the checked pattern of the fabric at a 45° angle, directing the gaze down the body along the lines of the diamond pattern in order to emphasize the narrowing of the torso to the waist, and subsequent widening at the hips, where the checks again run horizontally. This use of pattern is another example of the garment utilizing simple tailoring techniques to create the fashionable hourglass body shape without the need for prohibitive shaping undergarments. As such, the dress conforms to a fashionable ideal without constricting movement, defying the notion that this version of femininity required women to relinquish certain freedoms or represented a move away from women’s ability to fulfill roles outside of a conventional domestic sphere (a notion in itself made nonsensical by the physical demands of housework).

While one garment can never encapsulate all fashion design from a period, analysis of this ready-to-wear dress demonstrates how one garment can often betray multiple narratives of not only the owner and wearer, but the entire complex web of the fashion industry. In doing so, this dress reminds us that ready-to-wear, so often overlooked in favour of couture study, has the capacity to be equally innovative and fashion forward.