How did the fashionable woman of the Second World War and post war era manage to remain chic in a climate of rationing? Using sources from The National Archives this talk will consider the fashion industry of the time, and reveal how designers Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies not only contributed to the war effort, but made a lasting impact on British style.
Fashion or ration: Hartnell, Amies and dressing for the Blitz
In early 1920s London, Hartnell continued looking for theatrical work. He even approached department store magnate Gordon Selfridge for design work. Selfridge told him to ‘go away and learn to draw’. Undeterred, he set up on his own with capital of £300 (about £13k in today’s money).
It is important to remember that in the aftermath of the Great War British people, like those in other countries, were seeking new horizons and ideas. For the first time, the US came to be viewed as a vibrant cultural alternative to staid and class-ridden Britain. Hollywood, and Silent Screen divas such as Gloria Swanson, Barbara LaMarr and the nascent Greta Garbo, with their lavish clothes and lifestyles, offered not only escapism to British women, but objects for imitation. Department stores would begin to carry knock-offs of sporty American style clothes in the 20’s whose direct influence was the Hollywood film. It was in this climate that Hartnell’s theatricality and fantasy made his clothes an immediate success.
Society ladies such as future steamy romance novelist Barbara Cartland, Mrs Bryan Guiness, more famous today as Lady Moseley, the hon. Diana Mitford, and Hollywood filmstar Merle Oberon were among his clients. His designs matched perfectly the post-war mood of frivolity, theatricality and fantasy, and though he ended up having to move to Paris in order for his designs (and business) to be taken seriously, by 1930 he was on top of his game.
Hartnell’s greatest pre-World War II achievement was helping to create a unique style for Queen Elizabeth, mother of the present Queen. On becoming Queen, she and King George wanted very much for her clothes to enmbody classic ideas of royalty, womanhood and dignity for her people. Queen Elizabeth eschewed the severe Paris chic of her sister-in-law the Duchess of Windsor in favour of a softer, more ladylike line. Hartnell researched the royal collection of paintings, especially those of Winterhalter, and created silhouettes that made her appear regal but somehow accessible.
The hats Hartnell used frame and reveal the Queen’s face. Even when reviewing the women’s auxiliary, his square shouldered designs and arching hats would give her a military aspect while retaining her signature motherly accessibility.
In 1909, almost a full decade after Hartnell, Hardy Amies was born in Maida Vale to a civil servant father and a saleswoman mother who worked for a clothier to the Royal Courts. He was educated at Brentwood School, Essex, leaving in 1927. His father wanted to see him go up to Cambridge, but instead he made for Antibes, where he taught English. He travelled thoughout Europe, spending three years in France and then Bendorf, Germany learning the languages.
On return to England in 1930, Amies secured a trainee position with weighing machine manufacturer Avery Ltd. in Birmingham. It was, however, in 1934, at the age of 25, without any formal training, that he became managing designer for the fashion house Lachasse of London.
Through raw talent, drive and expert timing, Amies made Lachasse one of the most sought-after names for any smart shop on both sides of the Atlantic, and by 1940 he himself was considered one of London’s finest couturiers. His designs managed miraculously to marry English restraint with Gallic verve, something notably lacking in his contemporaries. Like Hartnell in the 20s, he had his finger on the pulse of fashion, and knew instinctively what his clientele were looking for. Unlike his contemporary Chanel or futuristic 60’s designer Courreges, his talent was not for invention, but innovation.
Amies knew that the epitomy of British fashion was the tailored suit, especially in tweed. Hardy Amies said: “London clothes had to be at home in the country, and to balance this, country clothes had to look happy in London”. In this way, the tailored suit was an essential part of the smart woman’s wardrobe. The designers like Amies who would make the greatest successes in British fashion, as opposed to French, understood this implicitly.
After the First World War, Britain had been ready to take on France and the US in the fashion market. This was facilitated for the first time by a burgeoning middle class, who had the money to spend on clothes, though not the means to shop abroad or visit couturiers. By the 1930’s even the working class woman wanted to look good and dress well, and for the first time was able to emulate their more solvent peers by means of a growing mass-market fashion industry.
In 1935, Amies and some of the industry’s other young Turks formed the Fashion Group of Great Britain. The group knew they couldn’t compete with Paris but endeavoured to convince Americans that London had a separate identity and could produce clothes to the highest standard in the world, especially in tailoring. In this they succeeded to a degree.
The group made a great PR coup by broadcasting the 1938 London fashion shows from Radiolympia, and by producing a magazine, the Quarterly, to keep British fashion’s name alive in the face of new competition from American designers exploiting the low tariffs on American imports.
The British fashion industry finally seemed to be coming into its own. But it wasn’t to last. Britain entered the war in 1939, throwing everything into chaos.
At the start of the war, certain commodities began to be rationed, but it was until June 1941, a full year after food rationing had begun, that clothing, cloth and footwear began to be rationed. It came as a shock, and wasn’t well received. Few expected it to last long. It’s effects were swift and far-reaching, and changed, at least for the duration of the war, the way women dressed.
Clothing was rationed on a points system, in the form of coupons. Clothing rationing points could be used for wool, cotton and household textiles. People had extra points for work clothes, such as overalls for factory work. No points were required for second-hand clothing or fur coats, but their prices were fixed.
To help with the general confusion, the ‘Clothing Coupon Quiz’ was produced. Filled with schoolmasterly advice such as “There is enough if we all share and share alike”, and “Rationing is the way to get fair shares”, it detailed how the scheme would work and how many coupons were required for each item. In the first year, each adult person was allotted 66 coupons. 5 coupons could be used toward a blouse, 5 for a pair of boots, 7 for a dress, and 14 for a coat. These four items would make up half of an entire years allowance of coupons for one person. Coupons did not guarantee availability, nor could they be used as payment.
Initially the clothing allowance was for approximately one new outfit per year; as the war progressed the points were reduced to an extent that the purchase of a coat constituted almost an entire year’s clothing allowance. In 1941, there were 66 “points” for clothing per year; in 1942 it was cut to 48; in 1943 to 36; and in 1945 to 24.
Non-rationed items included boiler suits, workmen’s overalls, hats and caps, sewing thread, boot and shoe laces, ribbons and other fabrics less than 3 inches in width, elastic, lace, sanitary towels, braces, suspenders, garters, clogs and black out dyed cloth. Headgear, other than that made from scarves or ‘incorporating hankerchiefs’, was also exempt.
The government wanted people to retain and wear their old clothes for as long as possible, and cut back on the demand for new clothes that was crippling the war effort. The Board of Trade therefore prepared a series of ‘Make Do and Mend’ booklets and posters to get women to maintain their existing wardrobes for as long as possible.
Mrs Sew-and-sew was the Make Do mascot, and her image was to be seen on posters and in magazines of the time. ‘How to’ booklets like these began to proliferate, with headings such as:
‘Can you patch?’
‘Wears and tears- to mend a straight tear, a triangular tear, or a thin place at an elbow’
‘Smocking is not difficult’
The severe shortage of leather meant that other thick sole materials such as cork were used. The wedge sole was clumpy, but sturdy and wearers could walk for miles as the wedge stopped the hard road from making feet sore. They also lasted a long time and needed minimal repair.
In terms of accessories, as the supply of stockings dwindled and vanished during the war, the fashionable girl painted her legs with gravy browning or cold cocoa to simulate a stockinged look. Sadly, neither of these were water or stain proof. Make-up substitutes included soot, charcoal, and until it became scarce, boot polish for eye shadow; old lipstick ends were melted down and poured into a container to re-solidify. The average woman is said to have owned two lipsticks for the entire war. When the lipstick ran out, solid rouge was used. Lard was used in small amounts as make-up remover. For hair setting lotion, a sugar water mixture was used as a substitute .
Even with the coupons, some women and families were simply too poor to buy new clothes at all. To some having the coupons made no difference as there was no money to pay for the goods. Inevitably a black market arose in coupons and vast numbers of books, about 700,000 became lost or stolen in the early part of the scheme until the government issued new rules which forbade the detaching of coupons. New rules meant coupons had to be stamped in the book and detached only at the point of sale.
The black market flourished, most prominently due to the rule that second hand items were exempt from rationing, if deemed genuine. This rule was an acknowledgement by the government that working classes bought their staple clothing items at jumble sales and market stalls, but it misfired, as it made the local markets a Mecca for ‘spivs’ and a clearing house for black market goods looted from bombed shops, warehouses and homes.
Another cheat on the scheme were the Clothing Clubs, where clothes were bought on the ‘never never’, meaning the buyer never owned the clothes because they were worn out before they were paid for, ‘rented’ as they were from a tallyman who called at the door collecting two shillings a week.
Innovation was a key note in wartime clothes rationing. Siren suits were the original jumpsuit and were a huge hit, especially at night when sirens called citizens to the air raid shelter for cover. With its quick zippered front, individuals could wear the suit over pyjamas, making it ideal for children. The princesses Elizabeth and Margaret both owned siren suits, as did Winston Churchill. The siren suit was practical and warm in draughty situations. Later in the 1960s it was developed into evening wear in slinky Pucci prints.
Over the siren suit some would have donned a Kangaroo cloak coat so called because of its huge roomy kangaroo pockets. The oversized pockets were ideal to stack with essential items when running to an air raid shelter.
Queen Elizabeth even took the time to have her Lady-in-Waiting thank a certain Mr Parke at the Board of Trade for making a 1000 ration coupons available for Her Majesties Work Parties.
To boost morale, the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (or INSOC), led by Norman Hartnell, Hardy Amies, and other designers created 34 smart Utility Clothing designs.
INCSOC dresses were officially approved by the Board of Trade and a selection was mass-produced. Finally they were finished off with the official and now famous Clothing Control 1941 (or CC41) label.
Utility designs followed the square shouldered and short skirted fashions of the war era whilst sticking to the strict regulations for minimal cloth usage. Buttons were limited to three and turn back cuffs were eliminated. Skirts some 19 inches from the ground were usual.
They were often accessorised with turbans and sunglasses, softening the somewhat severe look of the dresses. Even within the Utility scheme there were couture garments for those who could afford them, but they still used coupons. The wealthy also had their uniforms tailored at the best tailors rather than wear standard issue.
Refused active service because of his age, Hartnell joined the Home Guard and continued to work for the war effort from his couture house at Bruton Street. He was asked by Berkertex, a leading dress manufacturer, if he could design utility dresses for the mass market. Not wanting to compromise his standing with the Queen, he asked her advice. “You have made so many charming things for me,” she told him, “that if you could do likewise for my countrywomen, I think it would be an excellent thing to do.”
Hartnell’s 1942 Utility dresses were produced by the Berkertex factory. Conforming to government restrictions on the amount of fabric used, they still manage to be smart and striking, with clean lines and clever sewing.
Hardy Amies took up his wartime post with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was shipped to the continent. His colonel had this to say about him:”This officer has done very well on the course. He is far tougher physically than his rather precious appearance would suggest. He has displayed great keenness on all subjects and has learnt a good deal. He is always cheerful and ready to take part in any activity. He possesses a keen brain and an abundance of shrewd sense… His only handicap is his precious appearance and manner, and these are tending to decrease.”
Effectively working as head of the SOE in Belgium in 1944, it was alleged in a 2000 BBC documentary that Amies was a proponent of Operation Ratweek, an initiative to murder Nazi collaborators throughout Europe. Amies however had no recollection of it. He also remained active in fashion during the war.
The British government allowed couturiers time off of their duties to continue work in fashion, not just for the Utility scheme but also to create luxury couture to sell abroad for the war effort. In promoting this, Amies did get into hot water with his superiors for sanctioning a Vogue photo shoot under his watch, and (perhaps apochryphally) for naming his military missions after fashion accessories. Anyone for Operation handbag?
Austerity measures were in place at war’s end, and the public became resentful and impatient with the continued rationing on clothes. People were bitter because new clothes were being produced, but were exported in an effort to rebuild the British textile and wool economy. The revived Paris fashion industry began to reinvent itself, most notably with Christian Dior’s New Look of 1947, and America was developing the simple and classic look that continues to be popular today. The ongoing rationing was leaving Britain behind.
On 15 March 1949, clothes rationing in Britain finally came to an end.
Post-war, Norman Hartnell’s career was as successful as ever. As well as his flourishing fashion house in Bruton Street, Hartnell’s two most most memorable commissions were for the bridal gown of Princess Elizabeth, and six years later, the now Queen Elizabeth’s coronation gown. Both dresses offered the escape and fantasy that war-torn Britain was craving.
For the Royal wedding, Hartnell decorated the duchesse satin bridal gown with motifs of star lilies and orange blossoms, creating the perfect silhouette for a fairy-tale princess. The wedding, like the dress, was a signal that wartime dreariness was finally ending.
The coronation gown, while still feminine and up-to-date, had a more important role to fill. After presenting eight designs to the queen, it was the ninth, using her suggestion of motifs from Britain and the Commonweath, that was finally used.
On a cream satin A-line background, using diamante, gold, silver and copper bullion, Hartnell’s workers picked out the English Tudor Rose, the Welsh leek, the Scottish thistle, the Irish shamrock, and many motifs from Commonwealth countries. The dress epitomised the young queen’s stake in her realm. It is not only Hartnell’s greatest achievement, but a centrepiece in the history of costume.
Though Hartnell’s fashion house continued to thrive in the fifties, by the sixties it had fallen on hard times. His beloved country retreat, Lovel Dene had at some point been transferred to the company name, and the bank claimed it as part of its debt. He continued to work, but his existence became peripatetic. In 1979, finally settled in rooms above his fashion house on Bruton Street, the now knighted Sir Norman Hartnell became frail and suffered a fatal heart attack at 78.
Hartnell was a private man, and never married. Though he was nominally homosexual, he had no publicly acknowledged lover or long-term partner. It is likely that due to his stature with the Royal household and the general hostility to actual and perceived homosexuals in Hartnell’s time, he remained quiet on the subject.
Unlike Hartnell, who was to see his apogee in the early fifties, Hardy Amies greatest successes were before him. He founded his own fashion house in 1946 in Savile Row after buying the building at a knock-down price because of bomb damage.
His post-war work continued along the same chic lines as before the war, but like his French counterparts with the most luxurious materials and lavish accessories. And as before, his clothes represent a unique ability to merge Englishness restraint with French chic.
Not to be outdone in the Royal stakes by his rival Hartnell, Amies received the Royal warrant in 1955, and would make Royal tour dresses and suits for the Queen. His own ‘crowning’ achievement would be the Silver Jubilee gown, about which he quipped, ‘it was the gown that launched a thousand bisquit tins’.
He also kept an eye on men’s fashion and style. Having written a regular column for Esquire magazine on men’s fashion for a while, in 1964 Amies published the book ABC of Men’s Fashion. Amies’s strict male dress code – with commandments on everything from socks to the summer wardrobe – made compelling reading:
Don’t make everything match: “To achieve the nonchalance which is absolutely necessary for a man, one article at least must not match. For instance, you can wear a dark blue suit and tie with a pale blue shirt and navy blue socks, but you must then have a patterned silk handkerchief say in dark red or a paisley design of green and brown; or you could stick to a blue handkerchief and have dark red socks.”
Beware the bow-tie wearer: “By day, often in patterned or spotted foulard, it is usually worn by individualists … On less genial characters, it can have an aggressive air and can arouse some kind of resentment at first meeting of a new acquaintance.”
Avoid sandals and shorts: “Always wear a collar and tie in a town, even if it’s by the sea, after six o’clock. Never wear shorts except actually on the beach or on a walking tour. All short sleeve shirts look ghastly. Sandals are hell, except on the beach where you want to take them off: or on a boat. And, worn with socks are super hell.”
Amies was always discrete about his homosexuality, probably like Hartnell very aware of his profile and the adverse effects any revelation might have on his career, but in his old age Amies became more relaxed, and in speaking of his dressmaking rival Hartnell, he commented:
“It’s quite simple. He was a silly old queen and I’m a clever old queen.”
A close friend described Amies thus: “He appreciated the good things in life and was a connoisseur of good food, fine wines and firm male flesh.” Amies and his partner, Ken Fleetwood (who was design director of Hardy Amies Ltd), were together for 43 years until Fleetwood’s death in 1996. Amies died at home in 2003 at the age of 93.
In the years between 1920 and 1945, when impeccable manners, ladylike attitudes (as well as wreckless abandon) had to make way for Rosy the Riveter, ‘Make Do’ and Austerity Measures, Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies always remained true to their own natures, and were egalitarian in their approach to elegance and chic, whether in the designs for a society heiress or a shop assistant. Hartnell is quoted as saying, “I despise simplicity. It is the negation of all that is beautiful”. But in wartime even he rose to the challenge that is the greatest for any designer: to achieve beauty through simplicity.
Towards the end of his life, Hardy Amies bemoaned the designs of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano as ‘unwearable’ and ‘more appropriate to the Folies Bergeres’. Were these the ravings of a bitter old man, a remnant whose influence had long since passed, or was he really in mourning for a by-gone age of elegance and grace? This is indeed a new age, one no longer belonging to Hartnell and Amies. And for better or worse, each age creates the idols it deserves.