Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style, IWM London

To mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, this exhibition will explore how fashion survived and even flourished during wartime. In 300 exhibits including clothing, accessories, photographs and film, official documents and publications, artworks, wartime letters, interviews and ephemera, this display will reveal how men and women found new ways to dress as austerity measures and the rationing of clothes took hold. The pieces on show will demonstrate the amazing adaptability and ingenuity of the war-time public, who adopted more casual styles by renovating, recycling and creating their own clothes.

In six sections, Fashion on the Ration focuses on what British people wore between 1939 and 1945 and how they maintained a sense of identity and coped with the deprivations of wartime restrictions. The first section, ‘Into Uniform’ looks at how Second World War Britain became a nation in uniform, including key pieces that show the pride and even jealousies felt by those stepping into uniform. Following this, ‘Functional Fashion’ explores how wartime life changed the way that civilians dressed at work and at home, inspiring retailers to sell innovative and stylish products, such as gas-mask handbags, blackout buttons and siren suits.

‘Rationing’ and ‘Make do and Mend’ explain why clothes rationing was introduced in 1941, how the scheme worked and how people were encouraged to be creative and make clothes last longer by mending, altering, knitting and creating new pieces out of old material. Items on display include a bridesmaid’s dress made from parachute material, a bracelet made from aircraft components, a child’s coat made from a blanket and on display for the first time a bra and knickers set made from RAF silk maps for Countess Mountbatten.

‘Utility Clothing’, made from a limited range of quality controlled fabrics, was introduced in 1941 to tackle unfairness in the rationing scheme; this section will feature a catwalk of pieces, including clothing restricted by ‘Austerity Regulations’ such as shoes with a maximum two inch heel. Finally, ‘Beauty as Duty’ examines the lengths to which many women went to maintain their personal appearance, and ‘Peace and a new look?’ looks at how the end of the war impacted fashion, with a ‘VE’ print dress worn by the comedienne Jenny Hayes to celebrate the end of the war, and an example of the ubiquitous demob-suit, issued to men leaving the military services.

The exhibition ends with an installation capturing the thoughts of leading fashion commentators, such as Great British Sewing Bee’s Patrick Grant and fashion historian Amber Butchart discussing the legacy of the Second World War upon fashion.

Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style, 5 March – 31 August, IWM London, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ. For more information visit

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1. Jacqmar scarf, ‘Salvage Your Rubber’ (1940-1945) © IWM EPH 3195.