Clothing Rationing in Britain During WWII

At a Scottish Engineering works, Shop hands his extra clothing coupons to machine operator, Britain, UK, 1944 (from the left); Clothing coupon books as issued to British civilians during the World War II. A photograph of two clothing coupon books, one showing the front page, with the date 1943-44 and the other showing one of the pages of coupons (from the right) Source: Wikipedia

The necessity for food rationing during WW2 was accepted by the people of Britain, and while they found it difficult, they met the challenge head on. The surprise rationing of clothing, announced on 1st June 1941, was yet another war burden which had to be faced.

Rationing of clothing became necessary as many manufacturing concerns had been taken over for war work. There was a huge demand for war-related materials such as wool, (for the manufacture of uniforms), and silk (for making parachutes, maps, and gunpowder bags), and raw materials were in short supply.

Each person received a ration book of 66 coupons which had to last for a year. Every item of clothing had a coupon- value attached to it. Considering that coats needed 16 coupons, a jacket 13, trousers eight, a shirt five,  shoes seven and underwear eight coupons, it became a nightmare to keep a family properly and warmly dressed.

The first noticeable change in clothing fashion was probably when the military uniform became the norm in dress mode. Civilian clothing slowly began copying the styles of military uniforms. Furthermore, as women began replacing men in the factories, trousers became more acceptable for them to wear. Women began wearing masculine-looking jackets, as clothing was adjusted to make life in the factory easier and safer for them. What was known as ‘Siren suits’ were fashioned for civilians, soon becoming an important item of clothing, as they could quickly be pulled on over pyjamas when air raids occurred.

Shortages became worse, with each person issued only 48 coupons, and from September 1945, shoppers effectively received only 3 coupons per month. Provisions were however made for those with extra needs, as for example, new mothers who were allotted 50 extra coupons.  To try to improve the situation, parents were asked to buy ‘bigger’ clothing for children so items would last  longer, children’s clothing was rated at lower coupon prices and clothing exchanges were set up where customers were given points for clothes handed in and were allowed to ‘spend’ these points on other recycled clothing.

The restrictions with regard to material availability resulted in a number of changes in clothing design. Women began to concentrate on the versatility rather than the quantity of their wardrobes, so practical, functional clothing became the norm. Manufacturers began to utilise the newly discovered, less expensive, man-made fibres such as nylon, rayon and viscose for civilian clothing.

As shortages became more severe, and in the interest of utilising scarce resources to the best possible extent, material limits for each item of clothing were set. All extras were strictly forbidden. Double-breasted jackets, pleats, darts, extra pockets, pocket flaps, extra buttons and turn-ups were thus no longer allowed. Wasteful cutting, extra or wide seams in a skirt or shirt, were stopped. Waistcoats were dispensed with, so men’s suits became two-piece in place of three. Silhouettes became slimmer, particularly in women’s clothing where skirts became close-fitting, blouses unadorned and hats smaller, fitting snugly on the head.

As the war continued, many people were unable to afford new clothing, so the ability to repair, renovate or even make clothes became increasingly important. The  ‘Make-do and Mend’ campaign throughout the country, helped to teach people how to cut and to sew, shared ideas and tips regarding the re-use of all possible materials.

Women became very inventive. Stockings were expensive, so tanned legs with a painted seam down the back of them made an appearance. It was surprising how creative, and adaptable people could be, and the constant shortages encouraged the imaginative use of available materials when recycling and renovating old clothes. Parachute silk became a sought after material and was used for underwear, nightclothes or even for wedding dresses.

Although it was ‘unfashionable’ to wear showy clothing, women were encouraged to keep up their ‘standards’ for it was felt that a lack of interest in their appearance showed low morale, which would impact detrimentally on the war effort. Cosmetics continued to be manufactured although in smaller quantities.  More attention was paid to hairstyles by both men and women, for that was a fairly easy and less expensive way of being ‘fashionable.’ Many women went to great lengths to be fashionably dressed, even when wearing refurbished, home-made clothing from the previous year which was embellished by clever use of home-made accessories.

Both the expense and the shortages brought on by WWII impacted heavily on people’s lifestyles and so too on clothing fashions. As new textiles were developed and more women joined the workforce, clothing styles became more informal, simpler and more practical – as seen by the wearing of trousers by women. Once rationing ended (March 1949) and Britain slowly improved its economic situation. Women returned to the home, retired their masculine work clothes and once more embraced a more feminine style of dress.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE