Fashion History · Vintage · WWII

WWII Cloth and Clothing Rations in the United States and Europe

I was recently introduced to the podcast series “Stuff You Missed in History Class” when a classmate (Thanks Jennifer!),  suggested I listen to “April Calahan’s on France’s Fashionable Resistance“. After listening to April, I just had to do a little more research. While it is a deep, dark hole, and reading about war pains me, in many ways I found the underground resistance noted in the podcast uplifting. If you are interested in reading more about Haute Couture during that time, I will post additionally on that tomorrow, so make sure to check it out.

So without further ado…

World War II forced many changes above and beyond food rationing around the world. While food was sometimes rationed to extremes that today’s American families might find heartless, material and fabrics were also rationed. Imagine being allotted one pair of shoes to last you through the entirety of the war, or trying to clothe a growing child with only one to two outfits per year! In order to meet the needs of citizens of the United States and Europe, control the distribution of items in short supply, and allow factories to focus on wartime efforts, each country introduced its own rationing system during WWII with varying levels of severity as the war continued. Adherence to the rules of rationing was not only law, it was considered a patriotic duty and hoarding was severely frowned upon.

While the US had fewer cloth and clothing rations than Europe had, availability was still restricted particularly when it came to items needed by the armed forces. This included cloth such as wool (used for uniforms), nylon (needed for parachutes, airplanes, netting, and tents), various metals, leather, and rubber. Silk, which came from Japan, was banned. As a result, fashions everywhere adapted to the use of less fabric. New advertisements encouraged the reuse of fabric proclaiming: “Make do and Mend”, “Sew and Save”, and “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”. (I love this last one)

My grandmother during WWII

Materials like cotton denim, jersey, striped mattress ticking, gingham, and calico became more common and rayon, a synthetic material developed in the 1930s, became a popular substitute material for nylon and silk blends. Women’s and men’s fashions became more simple and slowly began copying the styles of military uniforms. Jackets became shorter and more fitted, skirts took on a more streamlined silhouette with a shorter hemline, and wraparound skirts and dresses saw an increase in popularity due to zippers and buttons being unavailable. For women in the workforce, the emphasis was on practical and functional clothing including jumpsuits, slim line pants, and flat heeled shoes. Silk stockings, and eventually nylon stockings were in short supply. My grandmother worked in a factory making guns during this time (my grandfather was in the Navy) and she spoke about having to tie her hair back and dress in pants at work. After the war it was hard to give up both her factory job and the pants!

The US War Production Board and the British the Board of Trade both created new “austerity guidelines” for clothing aimed to reduce fabric use by prohibiting the following: pleats, cuffs, ruffles, exterior patch pockets, attached hoods or shawls, and width and fullness in sleeves or skirts. Hems and waistbands on skirts and pants could be no wider than two inches and jackets, dresses, and pants could have no more than one pocket. Dresses were limited to one and ¾ yards of fabric. This did not necessarily apply to home-sewn garments although this was followed by commercial sewing patterns of the time anyway. Even men’s fashions took on a more streamlined look. Vests were no longer a necessity and suits turned more towards a single-breasted style. Zippers and elastic were no longer available and suspenders became a popular alternative. As the threat of air raids began to occur, a new item in fashion was introduced—the ’Siren suits’, a garment fashioned for civilians that could quickly be pulled on over pajamas when air raids occurred. Mothers were advised to buy their children’s clothing a size bigger so that their children may grow into them. 

Women also saved money by having their hair cut and professionally styled less often and, since women had been taking on more factory work, it was just as easy and safer to tie hair back. In France, even electricity was rationed, meaning that women took to more creative means when endeavoring to style their hair. Snoods, a knitted style of hair net, became popular as did turbans, headscarves, and simple unadorned hats. Bows, embroidery, and fancy decoration disappeared from clothing, hats and accessories during this time. Makeup and jewelry were not only in short supply, they were more expensive due to import taxes so women often turned to alternatives including beetroot as a replacement for lipstick.

Shoes and leather were also rationed in Europe, making shoe repair difficult. In France, each person was allowed one new pair of shoes every four years, with the ability to have them resoled once a year. Due to the rationing of materials, cobblers turned to alternative materials to resole shoes including wood, cork, old tires, and even layered and glued cardboard. Taller soles were introduced as they increased the lifespan of the sole. In the United states, heel height was fixed at a maximum of one and a half inches, while in Britain heels were allowed to be as high as two inches.

In Europe, cloth and clothing rationing required coupons. For instance, the British government gave every individual one book full of coupons to be used for cloth or clothing. Coupons were colored a3-x-Vintage-WW2-Clothing-Ration-Books-1947-48-_57ccording to specified time periods so that all coupons could not be used at once however, unused coupons could be carried over and used along with the next time period’s color. Each item of clothing was given a points value equaling a predetermined number of coupons. During a purchase the rations book was given to shopkeepers along with the cost of the garment and the shopkeeper would remove the required number coupons and stamp the book accordingly. An important note was that loose coupons were not accepted, and each individual was responsible for their own book of coupons, the exception being mothers of young children. The rations allotted each person one set of new clothes a year, although new mothers, brides and children were allotted a few extra coupons. Coupons did not make clothing cheaper however, and until the utility scheme as introduced, which made clothing of virtually the same quality available to everyone, there was a large discrepancy in clothing quality based on affordability. In Germany citizens were given points cards rather than coupons. However, in Germany and German occupied areas, Jews received no clothing cards and were forbidden to buy even the small amount of thread allotted to Germans for garment repair.

Rationing on average lasted for around 7 years, with the exact dates varying with each country’s involvement in the war efforts. Some forms of British rationing lasting nearly 14 years, finally ending in 1955.

Check back tomorrow for more information on how rationing changed the Haute Couture industry during WWII.

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