I was standing on the path watching a plane crash in flames, wearing the latest fashion for little kids, my ‘siren’ suit. I was three years old and it was England in 1942. The siren suit was a practical way for children to be dressed quickly in the middle of the night and taken to the air raid shelter. It was a woollen button through suit all in one, the forerunner of a ‘babygro’.
Like all wartime fashions clothes had to be practical and sturdy, they had to have dual purpose. Materials were on rations, so gone were the yards of swishing silk, and the ball gowns of the early movies, women had to ‘knuckle down. Even the dress patterns were frugal. The stipulation was five buttons, and only two pockets allowed, Norman Hartnell a famous designer, did a collection of simple dresses keeping to that strict rule. He designed dresses using very little extra material, no pleats, no extravagances. The only variety was in the design and the material.
I do remember everyone knitted. As knitting was a cheap way to make more clothes. Little kids wore full knitted suits and trousers, and knitted bathers. Imagine those with the sand and water in!!
Patterns were swapped and saved and the latest trends copied in varieties of wool. Fair Isle became the trend, an intricate knitting style requiring more expertise than I had. The beautiful designs have remained fashionable coming back several times, notably during the seventies.
Women became clever at altering their ‘frocks’, a collar or a scarf added changing the look of a plain black dress. A dance dress could be made into a day dress by cutting the skirt off at the calf length, then making sleeves and a bodice from the extra material. I know my mother cut down her last year’s coat to make a beautiful coat for me. Sewing silks and all the items used became poorer quality as the country made more effort to win the war. The ‘utility’ mark was found on them, a mark showing the reduced quality.
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Turbans were worn, cleverly twisted to look like an elegant hat, most women owned a silk scarf then, so it was used to cover hair that badly needed a perm…a luxury out of the question. Hair styles became clever at disguising lack of style, the scarf used to ‘roll’ the hair round and make it look like a bob. Hair needed to be kept away from the face so styles changed, and the new shorter styles fitted under military hats. They also afforded safety for women working in factories.
Austerity in everything abounded. I would have hated not being able to get my favourite lipstick, or shampoo, as it was, all I really cared about was not having chocolate, and seeing images of cakes on billboards, so tantalizing! Because rations meant there were none in the shops. When the rations came off they had to swiftly put it back on, as every shop was stripped of sweets in a day, this is true, hard to believe but true.
Jewelry was simple; mostly pearls, and the odd diamante brooch, and I remember intricate embroidered brooches, or some made of tiny threaded beads, I used to play with them in the button box when war was over. There was a brief fashion for ‘dog collars’ made of pendants sewn to velvet ribbons. Women are inventive when they need to be. Like the dark line drawn up the back of the leg to create pretend seams. Nylons were very hard to get unless you got ‘up close and personal’ with an American soldier.
I wore an angora dress knitted by my mother for my first ‘formal’ portrait. Mum wore her last vestige of elegance, her beautiful fox fur collar, I used to be fascinated by the teeth that made up the clasp. It looked a little frightening with the tail in its mouth and the head intact. I worried she was being attacked.
In some ways wartime brought out the inventive and creative streak in some, women learned how to manage on very little, but oh the wild surge of joy when ‘The New Look’ came in, I was about ten, and after the skimpy materials used in dresses before suddenly we had skirts that took three yards or more of material!! It swung around our legs extravagant and beautiful. I had a mother who indulged my early love of fashion, she had a skirt and bolero made for me in fine wool, the skirt was long and full the little waistcoat fitted my waist perfectly. Although I was so young it gave me taste of things to come. War was over life began.