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.

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