In this week's blog, Grace Evans, Keeper of Costume at Chertsey Museum, details the museum's current annual exhibition focusing on fashions of the 1940s.
Chertsey Museum houses the Olive Matthews Collection, a nationally significant fashion collection. Every year we mount a new exhibition showcasing different aspects of the collection, which dates from c.1600 to the present. Our current exhibition is all about the fashions of the 1940s. This is designed to coincide with the 85th anniversary of the start of the Second World War, which falls during 2024. Other local history displays will be mounted at Chertsey Museum to mark this anniversary and complement the exhibition.
The exhibition is introduced with a broad overview of the era, but with particular reference to fashion. The 1940s was a turbulent decade. The Second World War raged for the first five years and cast a long shadow for much of the remaining period. Fashion was of course affected by the conflict. When reading around the subject, I was struck by just how important clothing and personal appearance was to society, and also to Government. This is shown by the extent to which dress was officially incorporated into the war effort, and just how much the State involved itself in its sale and production. The need to ‘keep up appearances’ was seen as a key aspect of maintaining national morale, particularly on the Home Front. New freedoms were permitted, given the conditions, but it was necessary for the population to be well clad, and for there to be a fair system for all. From the start there was an emphasis on thrift, but clothes rationing, which began on the 1st June 1941, was the moment when the issue became official. In the exhibition we explore the way the rationing system functioned. We also look at the additional measures that stemmed from rationing.
The ’Utility Scheme’, with its CC41 label, was created in 1941, but garments were not made available to the general population until 1942. The scheme sought to impose standards on the manufacture of textiles and garments, as well as furniture. It was a way to ensure that when using precious coupons, people could be sure of good value. Clothing conformed to austerity measures which, to avoid wastage, dictated methods of garment creation such as the number of buttons that could be used on a jacket or blouse (5), or the number of pleats in a skirt (6). A quick aside – when looking at 1940s clothing it is worth bearing in mind that the austerity measures did not remain the same throughout the wartime and postwar period. They were modified during subsequent years.
The first exhibition case features a number of examples of Utility wear.
I am particularly fond of a women’s girdle, which bears a CC41 mark.
It is by the firm Twilfit (a play on ‘It Will Fit’). As well as the Utility mark and the codes associated with this, the manufacturers have seen fit to add a disclaimer to the label. It reads: “Made with the best materials and fitted with the best boning supports available during the present national emergency”. It’s likely that the boning is made from plastic rather than the usual metal. The label shows that the market was competitive, and customers were understood to be demanding and discerning, even in wartime. The company had a reputation to uphold. It is interesting to note that elastic was banned from use in everything except women’s knickers and corsetry. Corsets were still seen as required elements of a woman’s wardrobe. They were issued to female members of the armed forces. Many women did not feel properly dressed without them, though for the general population, new corsets were hard to come by.
Another example of a ‘Utility’ garment displayed is a blouse made from satin rayon with a vibrant yellow and white striped pattern.
It conforms to the austerity measures imposed in 1942, but the designer has used the fabric pattern in an imaginative way in order to create visual interest. Fabric tabs have been added to the front, and these have been turned so that the stripes run horizontally rather than vertically. The colour and fabric choice also add a fresh, bright feel. Bright colours are seen throughout the exhibition. This was a cost-effective way of creating variety and interest in fashion. They are a particular feature of 1940s styles and may be partly to do with the need to boost morale. For more on this item, see another one of my blog posts from our ‘Unbreakable Threads’ series (Part 8): Chertsey Museum – Fashion Blog.
‘Make-do and Mend’ was also an important aspect of wartime dress. We have a section of the exhibition devoted to it. It was recognised from early on in the war that the population needed to know how to make the most of their existing garments. Second hand sales and clothing swaps were quickly organised, and classes were offered, but there was a sense that a more official approach was required. Accordingly, a ‘Make-do and Mend’ booklet was produced by the Board of Trade in 1943. This detailed lots of different techniques for making the most of every scrap of fabric. It was popular, selling over 500,000 copies at 3d each in the first year it was published. Reading personal accounts of wartime from different sources, such as the Mass Observation project, it is clear that knitting was also an important activity during wartime. Many women and children knitted ‘comforts’ for those in the armed forces, using patterns provided by companies such as Weldon’s. Knitting was another way to make clothing coupons go further. We asked members of our local ‘Chertsey Woolcraft Guild’ to knit items from original wartime patterns for the exhibition. The work of these talented knitters is on open display for visitors to explore.
The exhibition continues with smart eveningwear from the first half of the 1940s, plus bridalwear.
A traditional trained wedding gown is shown. The rayon textile has been produced with flower designs in satin weave. They are slightly transparent and show the pink lining beneath. This piece was purchased in early 1941, before clothes were rationed. Another wedding gown (1945) is of a simpler design, but traditional white fabric is used. The final ensemble is a lovely survival. It is a smart daywear outfit consisting of a silk dress, coat, hat, shoes and bag. These items were purchased form Derry and Toms department store in Kensington, London in 1940. All the wedding dresses are shown with photographs of the happy couples.
The final section features post-war 1940s garments. A wonderful yellow evening gown dates to 1946.
It was created by a 15-year-old girl and worn to local dances. It is made from ‘parachute silk’ (nylon by this date) and the diagonal seams of the parachute can be seen in the skirt. Conventional silk fabric for dressmaking was rarely available during wartime, but parachute silk might sometimes be acquired. This was seen as a wartime luxury and was much sought after. Faulty parachutes could not be used by soldiers, but those involved in their manufacture were occasionally permitted to take these home for their own use. Some may also have made their way onto the black market. The fine, lightweight nature of the silk lent itself to making underwear and nightwear. Sometimes wedding dresses were made from parachute silk. At the end of the war in 1945 the government made large quantities of parachute silk (usually made from nylon by this date) available to the civilian population. It was off ration and no clothing coupons were needed in order to buy it.
The maker of this gown acquired her parachute by mail order through an advertisement in a magazine. I am particularly fond of this piece because it has so many stories to tell about the thrifty, skilled and innovative approach to dress, so typical of the 1940s. I also love the canary yellow which brightens a dark corner of the display so beautifully. I was lucky enough to meet the wearer and maker, Brenda Harman, when the piece was donated. She told me that she took the sleeves from one pattern, and the bodice and skirt from another. She wore it to a dance at Weymann’s Coachworks in Addlestone in 1946. An image of Brenda wearing the dress, along with a shot of her dance card, can be seen in the exhibition.
When looking at the history of fashion during the 1940s, we could not ignore the emergence of the ‘New Look’ in 1947. Despite the general atmosphere of privation, Parisian fashion houses worked quickly to assert themselves. From 1945 to 1946 an exhibition went on tour, showcasing their work across Europe and America. Called the Théâtre de la Mode, it featured 150 small wire-framed dolls exquisitely dressed in the latest couture clothing. Designs harked back to romantic looks of the late 1930s; extravagant fashions that had continued to develop within the bubble of German-occupied Paris. Then, on the 1st of February 1947, Christian Dior launched his ‘Corolle’ line. Dubbed the ‘New Look’ by Harper’s Bazaar magazine, it developed the romantic theme further, taking the fashion world by storm. Dior used lavish quantities of luxurious fabrics to create softly flowing, feminine styles with wide skirts, soft shoulders and tiny waists. Some elements of the press and political establishment condemned the New Look in the strongest terms. They were horrified by Dior’s profligate use of fabric at a time when rationing was still in place. Others railed against the return to tight-lacing and long, hampering skirts, claiming that they curtailed women’s hard-won freedoms. Nevertheless, the designs captured the imagination of many women, and the New Look swiftly made its way into mainstream fashion.
The piece I have chosen to represent the New Look is a strapless evening gown made from black rayon and synthetic tulle or net with applied black sequin decoration. The gown, which resembles a ballet costume, has a tightly fitted waist and a sweetheart neckline. The wide, billowing skirt is supported by under-layers of stiff net. It is a firm favourite of our regular visitors, having been displayed in our ‘Fashion Statements’ exhibition of 2014-15 and ‘Dressed for Best’ in 2018-19.
The garments I’ve selected are only a few of the beautiful examples displayed alongside film footage, music and replica items which are available to explore in the gallery.
We hope you will have a chance to come to Chertsey to see the display. For more information go to chertseymuseum.org/costume-exhibition. The exhibition is on until the 31st August 2024. We have a guided audio tour that you can follow during your visit on the IZI Travel App. There’s nothing like the real garments, but if you can’t make it to the Museum for any reason, then do scroll down to have a look at our Virtual Tour. Virtual tours of all our exhibitions since the 2020 lockdown are also available on our website. Navigate to ‘Online Exhibitions’ and choose ‘Styled Bodies’, ‘Blooming Marvellous’, ‘The Roaring Twenties’ or ‘Folded and Moulded’.
Chertsey Museum, 33 Windsor Street, Chertsey, Surrey KT16 8AT. Open Tuesday to Friday 12.30 to 4.30, Saturdays 11 to 4. Admission is Free. Visit www.chertseymuseum.org for details on how to find us.
For enquiries about the Olive Matthews Collection at Chertsey Museum, please email:
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