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.
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.