I live with my eighty-three year old grandmother, who has worked as a fashion artist, book illustrator and painter for most of her life. Today she told me about growing up during the Second World War, and how clothes rationing impacted her attitude towards fashion. By Jessica Edney
So, I am going to ask you questions about…
Speak up. I can’t hear so well
Sorry. I’m going to ask you questions about the rationing of clothes during the war. So, first of all, how old were you during the war years?
Well the war broke out one day before my seventh birthday, and it finished when I was twelve and a half.
And how well can you remember that period of time?
Oh I have vivid memories. I’ve still got my identity card that I was issued. Everybody, from baby upwards, had an identity card and a rations book with an allowance of points. You had the freedom to spend your points in any way you liked on clothing, so that for instance, suppose you were allotted twenty a year, and you wanted a coat. A coat was five points, so then you’d only have fifteen left for the whole year. You would have to space out your clothes shopping to last you. But my mother was very good at sewing and knitting so she made a lot of our clothes.
Yes, I was going to ask you about the ‘Make Do and Mend’ campaign.
Well my mother used to cut up old clothes and sew them together, she would make skirts out of old coats, or later on, when I was tall enough, I would have her cast-offs, and I was very glad to have them because I was suddenly wearing grown-up clothes!
You were obviously very young when the war broke out, but could you remember things being different pre-rationing?
Not really, I was too young to know anything about shopping or the availability or cost of clothes. We didn’t really have many clothes actually. We had a best dress that we wore on Sunday, or for parties. We had just two of everything, and it was washed once a week. You had clean clothes on a Sunday morning. It was very organised! In fact, we used to wear our knickers for a week. We probably had two pairs of shoes at a time – sandals for the summer, lace ups for the winter. We just looked after everything. I really hate to throw things away now, even giving old clothes to the charity shop. It became a way of life for many people my age. You know why I really love chocolate, don’t you? We hardly saw it during the war! It’s the same with clothes.
I suppose, since you couldn’t easily replace your clothing, or at least you couldn’t replace clothes very often, washing them less meant that they wouldn’t wear out as quickly?
I think in those days, clothes did last longer anyway, because they were mostly made from wool or cotton. I was the eldest of three children so I always got the new clothes. My sister Jean had them next year, and my sister Wendy had to wait and then get them third hand! So they were handed down. I remember having to put cardboard in my shoes because they had a hole in them, and we couldn’t afford to buy new shoes, or we didn’t have enough coupons.
Did clothes seem more precious to you, because of rationing?
Oh yes, we really looked after them. I was always running about and getting holes in my stockings, but we didn’t just throw them away – we would darn them. In fact, my grandmother used to spend a lot of time darning socks. She’d sit in front of the fire, listening to the radio and she’d say, “has anyone got any socks to darn?” We never threw anything away. Sometimes my mother would unpick one of her old jumpers and use the wool to make smaller ones for us. Things just got cut up and used again.
Do you think that dressmaking is an important skill nowadays?
Unfortunately, the global fashion market is based upon people buying and we’re almost brainwashed into believing that we’re not going to be happy or be beautiful unless we’ve got the latest things. A lot of pressure is put on young people.
Clothes rationing finished in 1949, when you would have been sixteen. How conscious of fashion were you at that age?
Actually I was pretty conscious – I used to draw fashions and design outfits. I also used to see a lot of American films, and all the American actresses dressed beautifully in things that we never saw in real life. Like Shirley Temple…Dianna Durban – they all had pretty frocks with puffed sleeves. Of course, we didn’t have those! But I did have some dressing up dolls from America and I could dress them in the sort of clothes we couldn’t have. I would play make believe!
You could say that today’s teenage girls face a lot of pressure, especially from magazines and social media, over their appearance. I was wondering what it was like for you back then – did you have to be creative to stand out, despite the restrictions of rationing?
No, I don’t think I went out of my way to be different. I mean, I used to look forward to Sundays, when I could dress up in my best frock. But there wasn’t really a teenage fashion in those days. You went straight from child to adult, once you’d finished school. Of course, there were other girls at school that dressed better than we did, but we weren’t very well off. It wasn’t just the coupons, it was also because we didn’t have a lot of money.
So do you think it was money rather than rationing that had the bigger influence on your attitude towards clothes?
I think it was both.
What was it like when rationing stopped?
Oh, it was much better! Although, the shops weren’t that full then either. But, I did have a confirmation just after the war and my mother made me a white dress for it out of parachute silk. ‘Course, at the end of the war there were all of these silk parachutes left over, and the material was coupon free! So, some people dyed it, a lot of people made their wedding dresses out of it – out of old parachutes! Mine was a lovely dress, and I had white sandals and white ankle socks and I felt great.
What do you think people nowadays could learn from this ‘make do and mend’ attitude?
I don’t think they can learn anything. We’re surrounded by so much! There are so many cheap clothes imported from China nowadays, and they don’t last very long so people just throw them away so easily. Everything is made in China.
On that happy note, we decided to make some coffee and the conversation moved onto other subjects (such as how crowded London is these days and why are Tube fares so expensive?…) I am hugely grateful to my grandmother for sharing her memories with me. Her name is Mari I’Anson, and you can check out her artwork and fashion illustrations here: http://mari-artist.co.uk/