Posted on February 06 2019
War time Fashion
The second world war started in 1939 and didn't end until 1945. During this time rationing of almost everything was in place and continued even after the war had ended until supplies started to become available again.
It was in 1941 that the government introduced rationing which greatly influenced clothing and how it was worn. Strict guidelines governed how many buttons were allowable and how many seams were acceptable and so on.
Don't think for one minute that fashion was dull though, far from it. The designs were high quality and the famous CC41 utility label was also a sign of excellent value for money and you knew it was made to last. The CC41 designs were devised by a panel of top designers including Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell no less.
A combination of paying for your clothes with money and coupons meant that the class divide had no impact on what you wore - everyone was entitled to exactly the same.
These are the exact details of what a utility dress should consist of;-
"Examples of details of restriction orders when making Utility dress: it could have no more than two pockets, five buttons, six seams in the skirt, two inverted or box pleats or four knife pleats, and one hundred and sixty inches (four metres) of stitching. No superfluous decoration was allowed. It should be simple, practical, agreeable-looking, inexpensive and made of good material"
It should also be noted that one quarter of the population, women included ,were now in uniform of some sort and with women being ordered to maintain glamour at all times, these uniforms were also beautifully tailored. The most coveted being the Wren's uniform - worn with red lipstick and curled hair of course.
Coty produced lipstick and face powder which was not rationed, as well as producing such things as foot powder for use by the military.
It should be noted that selling these utility garments were a great source of income to the government.
This booklet was produced in the early 40s as supplies were becoming more and more scarce. The wool and cotton fabric, and dark coloured dyes were needed by the military for uniforms and for blackout curtains .
We were not receiving imports of cotton and silk because of the high cost of shipping goods from abroad - China for one, and by that I mean the cost in lives as well as in monetary terms.
We must remember too that factories were used for war work and instead of producing the glamorous clothes of the 1930s ,were now making uniforms, bandages, blackout fabric and ammunition.
The only fabrics left to be turned into clothing was mainly fabrics such as rayon which was made from all sorts of fibres mixed together. There could be some polyester in there as well as wool, cotton, wood pulp and so on. This fabric was easy to take care of, was breathable and dyed easily. Perfect!
When this booklet was produced the war had been going on for a long time and everything was in short supply. We were told to be inventive and not to waste anything - not even ends of thread.
New garments were made out of various part worn garments and knitwear unravelled to be knit into something else. Fair Isle patterns were used, as oddments of different colours were used to make the design.
It was necessary for women to be able to sew and if you couldn't, Sewing Bee's were set up around the country to help you. The Queen Mother held one at Buckingham Palace.
Tailoring was still exquisite because frankly clothes HAD to last for years. With the men gone to war women were told to alter their husbands and sons suits to make garments for themselves and their children. Men's trousers were wide cut and a skirt or two could easily have been made from a pair.
This is a typical pattern of the era. Softly feminine, knee length and demure. We were told to use "cheerful coloured fabrics with a small print so that no pattern matching was required"
We were also told to be inventive and fashion a new blouse out of a man's shirt or a jacket out of curtains - and we did!
This pattern is available from Jaycotts click on the link to go straight to their web site. Simplicity 8686
I will be making this dress in my next blog post if you want to be getting your supplies ready
This is from 1943 but it is an American design and does not conform to British utility standards because it has a lot of pleats, which we were discouraged from having.
It is a nice pattern though and if you want to make it you can order it from Jaycotts on this link McCalls 7433
America was subject to rationing but it was not as strict as here which is why they had silk stockings to give away to British women and chocolate to our children. We had rayon stockings but they were unpopular so women resorted to gravy browning and a pencil line drawn with an eyebrow pencil, or if not ankle socks. Rayon stockings really must have been awful!
With women working on the land and in factories it became normal for them to be worn in everyday life. This pattern is very typical with its high waisted wide leg trousers. Plaids were very popular, so too was anything military looking as it was seen as being patriotic, so shoulder pads appeared in almost everything. If you have garments in your wardrobe left over from the 80's they wouldn't look out of place during the blitz years.
I have made this pattern already and links to my blog posts can be found on the following links .
The pattern is from Jaycotts again, Simplicity 8243
I have made the trousers and the blouse and the links to the tutorials are
Trousers . Simplicity 1940s style blouse
Notice anything wrong with the top? That's right. I used more than the regulation five buttons!
The SewOverIt 1940s Tea dress pattern review and tutorial.
This is a lovely pattern, but be warned it is very short, I needed to lengthen the skirt by four inches.
It is very close to being a utility dress in style, however the neckline would have been higher - look glamorous at all times ladies but heaven forbid you look anything less than modest too!
The other detail is that the sleeve cuff folds over and double cuffs were banned. Why? Because by banning double cuffs under the utility scheme Britain is estimated to have saved 5 million square metres of fabric per year. This includes men's and children's wear, night clothes, coats etc. You can now see why the utility scheme makes perfect sense.
Before you start, decide what size you are and be honest with your measuring! The pattern gives the finished measurements too. If in doubt cut the size which corresponds with your bust measurement ( wearing the correct underwear) as this is the hardest area to fit. It is quite acceptable to cut out the skirt for example in a different size and merge the two together.
I know you are not going to make a toile,so I will tell you what I do. I always cut the seam allowance just on the side seams at 1" instead of 5/8" to give a bit of extra play. And I never ever cut into notches - it weakens the fabric for one - and you may just need that extra bit of seam allowance. It's very bad practice so please don't do it!
I measured and cut the skirt length by 4" on each piece. You may want to alter the pattern itself first instead.
Rayon is very much available, it is a fabulous fabric to work with and there is plenty of choice at MinervaCrafts. It is inexpensive too. Gingham was a popular choice back then.
You could also in the spirit of "make do and mend" add a contrast top if you wanted to.
First tack the dress together to check the fit, don't skip this step, you will regret it if you do. To make it easy to fit tack straight up the back and leave an opening on one side instead.
Once you are happy and have made any adjustments put the bodice together and add the facings. Press every seam as you go.
The pattern doesn't mention this but the sleeves look better and are more authentic gathered at the top instead of being eased in. To do this measure 2" both sides of the shoulder and run two rows of gathering stitches inside the seam allowance. Gather to fit.
The pattern instructions are fabulous so I don't need to go over every step with you, just follow them and I will add hints and tips to complement them
The dress needs shoulder pads. You need the small size Shoulder pads for set in sleeves
If they are still too wide for the dress then simply trim the top curved edges a little. And they look nicer covered so all I did was to fold some of my dress fabric over them and whizz round with the overlocker. Simple . Whatever you do though don't let a single pin anywhere near your overlocker when you are sewing, you can cause serious damage to your machine or to yourself!
This is the inside of my dress after the seams have been pressed and neatened. How is it that I never have exactly the correct shade of zipper? And thread for that matter. It doesn't matter that much because it will not be seen once it is sewn in place.
Zippers of all varieties ( I used a regular zip) are available from Jaycotts
All types of zips this is the link to the fascinating complete selection. You want a regular dress zip for this project.
Measure the zip along the fabric and sew the centre back seam up to the bottom of the zipper teeth. Tack the rest of the seam, where the zip will go
Press the seam allowance for the entire back open .
Many people are scared of zips but don't be. Over many years of sewing I have discovered my own foolproof method.
Firstly lay the zip face down over the seam with the teeth exactly in the centre of the back opening and pin it in place.
This is the important bit - take some double sided tape - Prym wonder tape is brilliant, get it from Jaycotts Prym wonder tape
Use it to stick the zip to any part where a seam crosses another - at the waist for example. You will have noticed that quite often when inserting a zip and it crosses a seam it is difficult to keep the seams matching. This is because of how the machine works, the feed dogs work differently to the top tension causing the fabric to slide around a bit as you are sewing two entirely different fabrics together. Using double sided basting tape holds everything firmly in its place.
It's fabulous, try it!
The next magic step is to baste the zip to the seam allowance only at this stage. These stitches are permanent so use a matching thread. I used a contrast for demonstration purposes
And finally baste (tack) again through all layers, 1/4" from the edge of the zipper tape these will be removed later so use a contrast thread and do it either by hand or on the machine
This .method is so foolproof and it works!
The trick with inserting any zip is to anchor it firmly in place before going anywhere near it with your sewing machines. I guarantee that your zips will be a thing of beauty from now on.
Of course if you are still not convinced then move the zip from the centre back to a side seam where it will not be as noticeable. There is no rule which states zips have to be in the back seam, I often move mine to the side and sometimes to the front if I want to make a feature with an exposed zip.
This is a zip to be proud of and yours will be too.
All I need do now is to slip stitch the facing down at the top. You can put your shoulder pads in at the same time, extending them just beyond the shoulder seam to the edge of the seam allowance. Stitch them in place loosley.
Then do the hem in your preferred way.
About sewing machines
Although we are entering into the spirit of the era I am not going to go to the expense of buying vintage fabric or machinery. The whole point is to use what you already have and try not to buy anything new. For that reason I used fabric from my stash. I know that we think it is fun to see who has the biggest and best stash of fabric, but I have been questioning what the point is and I am not buying any more fabric unless I need something specific. it's wasting money buying something you like and never using it.
I don't expect you to sew on a machine with a treadle or a hand crank, I learned on a treadle and boy do I love modern day machines!
This is mine, the Brother Innov-is 1300 Brother Innov-is 1300 and I love it! It does everything you could possibly want a machine to do and more.
But meanwhile grab a cup of tea and browse all the wonderful machines on offer , you will be full of inspiration .. Sewing machines at Jaycotts. And again, please don't feel that you will be talked into buying a machine which is beyond your needs or your purse. Jaycotts sell great machines at all levels and at all prices and are famous for their customer service.
Utility dresses made at home were likely to have pinked seems or at best hand overcast seams. Pinking does not stand up to wear and tear or even much washing as the fabric will still fray and the seam will eventually split. Who wants to hand overcast every seam???
If you do not have an overlocker the best option is to use a zigzag stitch on your seams or better still your machine will most likely have come with an overlock foot
Overlock foot .I use mine a lot when I don't want to have to change the threads in my overlocker , and besides it gives great results. Again, give Jaycotts a ring if you are not sure which is best for your machine
And, if you do fancy an overlocker, they are fabulous and I use mine a lot, take s look at these - they are all good! Overlockers at Jaycotts
Adding unnecessary buttons to a dress which were not functional was not allowed, but I think that they look pretty. Choose a flower or a heart shape or anything which looks great with your Rayon fabric
I am really delighted with my dress, it will be great to wear in the summer. I accessorised it with pearls and block heeled shoes. I promise to talk about shoes and accessories in my next post.
Cardigans were popular because you needed to be able to wear your dress all year round. The Ministry of information encouraged us to wear something white because we kept bumping into each other in the dark! So a white cardigan is perfect.
Hair was usually fastened away from the face in a "victory roll" I'm afraid that my victory roll wouldn't stay in place - I don't think they washed their hair as often as we do now.
Turbans and headscarves were also very popular
This dress will suit most figures and I am delighted with the fit and how flattering it is.
If you ever want to use a genuine vintage pattern there are some points to think about.
Depending on how old the pattern is there may be no seam allowances or darts marked in the way we are used to seeing them. There may be no instructions.
Our figures were very different and the underwear of the day was very different to what we wear now, waists were slimmer, bodies were longer and sizing was different. So you really cannot get away without making a toile first.
The sleeves look good folded over even though, as we know, it was not allowed. Writing this post has made me think about my own sewing and collecting habits and I am already making changes.
I hope that you have enjoyed this post. Please contact Jaycotts for any machine or product enquiries and me for any sewing queries. I would love to see your photographs old or new.