‘Make Do and Mend’: Fabric, Fashion and Feminism

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In many ways, war did disrupt the fashion scene in Britain. Resources and raw materials needed for making civilian clothing were limited, prices rose and fashion staples such as silk were no longer available. It therefore became harder for people to express themselves in the way that they had been able to in, say, the glamorous ‘Roaring Twenties’. The government urged people to ‘Make Do and Mend’ in such times, with The Ministry of Information publishing a pamphlet encouraging people to do whatever they could to extend the life of their clothes, from darning socks to washing nylons more carefully. Do-it-yourself home fashions were encouraged and clothing rations were introduced in the UK from 1st June 1941 to also help with the situation. However, fashion did in fact manage to survive and flourish in some ways.

High streets adapted in response to wartime conditions, as it was not necessarily style but more practicality that was on the public’s minds. We can look at the case of the the iconic character ‘Rosie the Riveter’, who is known from the famous World War Two poster that states ‘We Can Do It’ as she flexes her bicep. In the poster, Rosie seems to be in dark blue overalls and her hair is tied up in a red, polka-dot bandana, out of the way of her face. This is a great example of how fashion developed in the wartime period, as women had to take up the factory and munitions jobs left behind by conscripted men, and so needed more practical and comfortable clothing. It was subsequently less of a taboo for women to be wearing trousers instead of a skirt, showing how society’s harsh restrictions and attitudes on the lives of women were gradually changing. Rosie the Riveter was and is still used as a symbol of feminism and women’s economic advantages, as she encapsulates the fact that women could do the work of men and do it just as well. Millions challenged the prejudices and conventions of the time by going into industries such as munitions and transport, often leaving the age-old domestic sphere. This is a great example of how fashion and history are so symbiotic, as the war called for the vital help of women to replace ‘men’s jobs’, and the typical female-fashion of the time developed to fit these demands.

Luxury design was not as prevalent in this period, however there were some revolutionary changes in the fashion world towards the end of the 1940s and in to the 1950s. On February 12, 1947, designer Christian Dior presented his debut haute couture collection in Paris, which was immediately dubbed as the “New Look”. Its most prominent features included rounded shoulders, a cinched waist and a full, A-line skirt, creating a very feminine silhouette that became an instantly recognisable ensemble in the late 40s and early 50s. As a result, post-World War Two, change was yet again upon the horizon in the world of fashion.

Utility clothing was a style the government introduced in a 1942 scheme, synonymous with simple lines and minimal trimmings. Utility clothing could easily be worn today without looking dated, and it has managed to stand the test of time, with such items such as utility-style boiler suits/overalls becoming incredibly popular from high street stores like Urban Outfitters to ASOS online. Today, a boiler suit seems cool and evocative of an urban, street-style look, so it’s interesting to explore the history of such an item, and understand how something that may now be considered a great ‘vintage’ find was once solely designed for practicality and ease-of-wear in times of hardship. This exacerbates how dependent fashion is on context.

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Lifestyle Editor for 2019/20 and second-year History student. A lover of food, fashion, the arts... and karaoke!

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