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.