31 December 2011

Utility Clothing - Style in War-era Britain

 Left Rayon dress, 1945.
Center Wool, design by Norman Hartnell, 1943.
Right  Linen, design by Moygashel, 1945

For my last post of the year, my husband and I visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, to experience an exhibit: Beauty as Duty, Textiles and the Home Front in WWII Britain. This small display, on view through May 28, 2012, fills one room with apparel and accessories - particularly scarves - manufactured to serve the goals of utility, propaganda and fashion.  Food rationing is widely depicted in period books and cinema, and the smuggling of black market foodstuffs is a popular plot device - one of my favorite movies is A Private Affair, with Maggie Smith as a British housewife who goads her husband, played by Michael Palin, into kidnapping a plump contraband pig. 

Less well known, though, is that many types of clothing were also rationed, as well as regulated, beginning in 1941; the name of this restricted apparel is Utility Fashion. The German blockade meant that imported fibers, such as cotton, were in short supply; in addition, silk was needed for parachutes. Hence the rising popularity of synthetics such as rayon and acetate.

While manufacturers switched to new fibers, fashion designers, such as Norman Hartnell, confronted limits on the amount of fabric that could be used in a garment, as well as rules about apparel components such as buttons and trims. The dresses on the left and right in the first image above, however, show that cheery and colorful prints were popular, sending a message that the women of Britain maintained a positive outlook no matter the hardships.  Some of the prints are quite literal in their patriotism, as shown in the dress below, with its print of flags of the Allies.

Rayon dress, 1945. 
Victory fabric designed by Arnold Lever.

The dress in the image above was worn by a 20-year-old woman, who worked at the Ministry of Food, to a V-E day party. She purchased the fabric using six coupons, of her annual allotment of thirty-six coupons, so this was clearly a special dress.  Featured in the print are the flags of the Allies, including Britain, France, the USA, and, this being before the Cold War, the USSR and China.

The designer of the Victory fabric, Arnold Lever, also designed most of the scarves on display. Some of these feature motifs that, even for propaganda purposes, seem to be a bit of a stretch for adaptation to textiles. Winston Churchill's image would not seem to lend itself to feminine headgear, yet here he is in all his cigar-chomping glory.  Did someone actually wear this on her head? More than once?

 Scarf, manufactured by Filmyra Fabrics about 1943, rayon.

Some of the scarves on display were so colorful as to be almost gaudy to modern eyes, and, in spite of the persuasive tone of the curators, it's clear that the multiple goals of propaganda, utility and fashion did not always mesh so comfortably.  The exhibit states that many of the scarves were marketed to GI's as souvenirs, so these objects may have been displayed in homes state-side, rather than actually worn. 

Detail, The American Forces in London
Jacqmar, 1943, design by Arnold Lever.

 Wall of scarves.

Most of the scarves were designed by Arnold Lever and manufactured by the luxury accessories company Jacqmar, founded by Joseph (Jack) and Mary Lyons in 1932.

Les Lauriers de la Victoire
Jacqmar, designed by Arnold Lever.

Some of the designs are delightful, such as the victory bouquet above, with floral shapes adapted from Allied flags.  The historical importance of the flag as symbol is underscored by the exhibit.

London Wall, wool scarf, 
Jacqmar designed by Arnold Lever about 1942.

Do click on the above image, London Wall, to enlarge the image and read all the "posted bills". This design was also available by the yard, and was featured in British Vogue, April 1942, with Vivien Leigh modeling clothing in propaganda prints.

More scarves.

Details, Time Gentlemen, Please, Jacqmar, about 1943, 
Arnold Lever design.

The scarf above features vignettes of pub activity, with US and British servicemen hobnobbing genially with local regulars. Names of London pubs border the scarf.

Battle of Britain, commemorative lace panel, and details.
Dobsons & M. Brown & Co., Ltd. 1942 - 1946

During the war Britain's fabled lace industry was limited to making mosquito and camouflage netting.  Rather than let the skills of their craftsmen and designers become rusty, one Nottingham manufacturer designed and made thirty-eight of the 15' by 5' 6" lace panels pictured above. This masterpiece of machine-made lace was woven on a modified Jacquard-type loom, with thousands of sequenced, punched cards controlling the loom. The designer of the panel, Harry Cross, was seventy-three when he began his work on this object.  Almost all the lace manufacturing has gone overseas, but there exists at least one British manufacturer, Cluny Lace, http://www.clunylace.com/index.htm

It's a bit difficult to see the images woven in the lace - a brighter colored background would have been better, perhaps -  but the center image is a fighter pilot, and the image on the right depicts the Old Bailey, with debris from bombing.

 Queen Elizabeth and King George VI, September, 1940. 
Getty Images.

Buckingham Palace was bombed and the photo above, an iconic image featured in a large blow-up at the exhibit, shows Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) and the King climbing over rubble.

The exhibit also included contemporary brochures, including "Make Do and Mend," a tipsheet of darning hints, and even one girdle,  but I wish that there had been more period photographs or drawings, showing actual civilians wearing their patriotic attire.  Even with a digital archive, such documentation can be time-consuming and costly to locate, but the absence of that material made the exhibit feel more like an uncritical episode in the history of  propaganda rather than an authentic record of ordinary Londoners at an extraordinary time.

Queen Elizabeth favors colorful scarves. Photo source;

If only we could find a historic photo, along the lines of the image above, of a plucky Londoner wearing that Churchill scarf! 

Further reading: The book Wearing Propaganda: Textiles on the Home Front in Japan, Britain and the United States 1931-1945, includes two chapters on British propaganda prints, both written by Pat Kirkham.  ISBN 9780300109252