1940s Fashion - Rationing and Making do

detail from clothing ration book

Rationing wasn't just for food. Many commodities, including clothes, petrol and household goods were rationed to ensure fair distribution of valuable and scarce resources. As with many items, cloth and raw materials couldn't be imported, so the amount of clothes people could buy had to be controlled by a rationing system, introduced in 1941.

Each person was allowed 66 coupons per year (later reduced to 48), which added up to a complete outfit. However some essential items didn't require coupons, such as boiler suits, workers overalls and baby's clothes under four months old, and the sale of second hand clothes was permitted. Sewing thread and mending wool were also un-rationed, and women were urged to take their old clothes or recently bought second hand ones, and alter them to fashion new ones. Clothes rationing continued until well after the war had ended in 1952.

"Make do and mend"


Mrs Sew and Sew, a handy seamstress character created by the government, encouraged women to "Make do and mend" the items they already owned. Everything needed to be made to last as long as possible, and there was no excuse for being wasteful.

It also encouraged women to be creative with their dressmaking for the family. Old bedspreads could be made into coats, two worn dresses could be pieced together to make a new one, and men's old suits and trousers could be made into a woman or child's outfit. Some women were very creative, and used unconventional materials such as making hats from newspapers. Others, who were fortunate enough to get their hands on the remains of a silk parachute, could make underwear, nightwear and even wedding dresses from the material.

Handy leaflets gave advice on how to take care of woollens, how to get the best wear from your shoes and how to cover unsightly holes with decorative patches. The principle of minimising waste was a campaign that was extended into other areas of government campaigns as well. With everything in shortage, it was important to ensure everything was used to its full potential in support of the population's morale and collective war effort.