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.

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