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’.