Clothes rationing - Then and Now

words Evie Smith | illustration Sophie Filomena

 illustration Sophie Filomena

 illustration Sophie Filomena

There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort.

Fashion, whether you’d like to think it or not, is part of our everyday lives. From the colour of our shirts to the fabric that they are made with, everything has trickled down through the runways and high-end designers, to the high streets and supermarkets. It always has and always will be, important to us. Even Mark Zuckerberg who chooses to pick a grey t-shirt every day picked the grey shirt with thought.

Fashion takes many of its inspirations from yesteryear and tends to follow a pattern. Last year saw the return of the 50’s, this year it is the 90’s and I'm praying that the early noughties don't make a reappearance too soon. I'm not sure my hair can handle the Atomic Kitten highlights or the combat trousers that many a boy band donned.

It's hard to think that just over 60 years ago, there was even such a thing as ration coupons, to go neatly alongside a ration book which explained how the new rationing system of clothing was going to work.

The clothing ration came into play on 1st June 1941 and ended on 15th March 1949 and was announced by Oliver Lyttleton, President of the Board of Trade. During this time, it was very difficult to get the materials needed from overseas as the materials that were already in the United Kingdom needed to be used for items such as parachutes, tarpaulin and military clothing.

Clothing was rationed on a points based system which came to a little while after the food rationing coupons in 1940. As no clothing coupons had been issued at this time, the public was allowed to use any unused margarine coupons in exchange for clothing. To begin with, the allowance was for one new outfit a year but as time progressed and the war continued, the ration system became tighter and if you needed to buy a new coat, it took almost a years supply of clothing coupons.

When the clothing rations began, the allowance were 66 points for clothing per year and more for women with newborn babies. In 1942, it was cut to 48, in 1943 it was 36 and in 1945, the allowance was just 24 per year. Children aged 14 - 16 are given 20 more coupons to allow for growth but families with younger children were advised to by larger sized clothing to allow the child to grow into them.

To give a rough guide, dresses and coats were around 25 coupons each, shoes were 20, shirts and jumpers were 18 and handkerchiefs were 1 coupon each. No coupons were required for second-hand clothes and the public was encouraged to ‘make do and mend’. Meaning that fixing holes in clothing was more or less a necessity rather than buying a new item.

From March to May 1942 austerity measures were put in place and there was a restriction on the amount of pleats, buttons and pockets on clothes.

Rules included:

  • Jackets and coats, no more than 3 pockets

  • Dresses, only 2 pockets

  • No metal or leather buttons

  • Boys under 13 were not allowed to wear long trousers

  • No tail coats

  • No lace or embroidery

  • No cuffed trousers

During the war, however, Britons were still encouraged to take care of their appearance and be as tailored as possible. The government was concerned that a lack of enthusiasm towards the day to day outfit would be a sign of low morale and so were given ideas on how to uphold the British standard of tailoring, such as learning to sew and ensure that suits and trousers were still perfectly fitted.

Though it may not seem it, this still had a knock on effect on the clothing that we wear day to day now. The trends changed to fall in line with the rationing of many years before. Once the war had been won, British fashion became influential around the world, especially men's fashion. The era of the ‘Swing Kids’ began shortly after the war. German men began wearing fashion deemed ‘unacceptable’ by German officials that were inspired by the men of Britain, in particular, Winston Churchill.

German men began carrying umbrellas around with them, regardless of the weather, and they wore their hair long to mimic the British Jazz artists.

The women coloured their hair blonde and wore bright red lipstick to mimic Hollywood stars and wore vibrant pink skirts and socks with tight fitting jumpers.

During the war, a need for new materials became apparent and a few of these new fabrics are still being used today in household products and clothing. The most popular are the synthetic fabrics which are a blend of two or more materials and is still used in many items of clothing today.

The war forced a change in the fashion world and aided in a change in the way materials are used and changed it for the better, unifying designers around the world, most notably in Paris. Designers researched new materials such as nylon, plastic, hemp and cotton and created new fibres such as lycra and Teflon. It also forced the world to become more creative inside the government set boundaries and set the fashion industry on a totally new path of independence and creativity.