The 1940’s Look – book review
The 1940’s Look; Recreating the Fashions, Hairstyles and Make-Up of the Second World War by Mike Brown.
As a girl, my history classes at school were considerably enlivened by the addition of a fabulous 1960’s technicolour history text book by R.J Unstead. As R.J carefully guided us through the history of Britain, each era was illustrated with garish illustrations of how the people looked, which for me, was the most interesting aspect of history. Even today, R.J’s illustrations costumes are still etched on my mind. Mention medieval and I’m instantly reminded of an illustration of a Diana Dors lookalike in a wimple.
R.J’s publishers then, were wise indeed. A foray into fashion shines a light onto history. Clothes define an era, in a way that no other historical artefact can. From velvet cloaks and sable muffs to linen smocks and cotton bonnets, the clothes on our backs reflect the materials, class systems and cultural ideologies of the age. The Victorians were uptight, pulled in and covered up, terrified of the temptations of the flesh. The roaring twenties reflected modern ideas about women’s emancipation – clothes became loose and mannish, while the thirties saw a return to a more feminine form inspired by new bias cutting techniques. By the early 1940’s however, the war had impacted every area of life, and fashion responded accordingly. Textiles became precious, clothing coupons were introduced, and the frivolities of fashion were denounced, while the few clothes available to buy achieved the functionality of all other aspects of war time life. While we’ve all heard the story that stockings were so rare women had to paint their legs with gravy browning, The 1940’s Look takes an in depth look at the problems and solutions of dressing well throughout the war years. As a fascinating account of how fashion adapted to the shortages imposed by the government, it’s both a reminder of just how much we take cheap throwaway clothing for granted, and an insight into the very real difficulties of clothing oneself.