The 1940′s Look – book review

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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.

Make Do and Mend was the order of the day, and clothing became precious. As Brown reprints a list of clothing allowed by coupon for women, the inadequacies become only too clear. 1 pair of shoes, 6 pairs of stockings, 8oz wool or 2 yds of fabric, 1 silk dress, 2/3 pairs of knickers, 2/3 brassieres or girdles, and 6 hankies, were all that was deemed necessary for the second year of rationing.
While surviving with only three pairs of knickers now, is enough to send a shiver down the spine of any modern woman (and, indeed, man) , for the wartime woman, who would only be able to bathe in four inches of tepid water every 10 days or so, today’s standards of hygiene were very difficult to maintain. Yet it’s these details which make the book so interesting. The simple fact is, they just didn’t change their underwear so often – and still survived. Yet despite spending so little time in the bathroom, the need to look good and maintain morale soon surpassed the exhortations of the Ministry to pay no heed to fashion. Although Brown reminds us of the very real difficulties of sourcing clothing and fabric, ingenuity was the mother of invention.

If you were lucky (or rather, unlucky) enough to stumble upon a German land mine, the parachute silk used to drop them could be made into a wedding dress. Flour sacks could be boiled and pressed and made into clothes, while even dishrag yarn, which was unrationed, could be knitted into jumpers. Men, who no longer required suits because they were at war, often returned home to find their best suit had been made into a skirt and jacket – hence the masculine styles of women’s two piece suits and shirt collars. Yet all of this required considerably sophisticated sewing skills; a sobering thought when nowadays most of us don’t even possess a needle and thread. Many hundreds of sewing classes were set up, and by 1944, the Board of Trade developed a cartoon character, imaginatively named “Mrs Sew and Sew’ to dispense sewing tips on the cover of leaflets.
Similarly, beauty was a constant challenge. If, like me, you would rather have your limbs torn off than leave the house without make-up, spare a thought for the wartime girl. Even lipstick was in short supply. The gas-mask curl was a hair style designed to withstand the gas mask strap, and the kitchen was the most likely source of beauty products. Egg white and lemon juice could be utilised as a face pack, beetroot juice sealed with Vaseline used as lipstick, and “complexion drinks’ such as a mixture of prunes, orange and lemon juice were recommended for beauty from the inside out. A world without lipstick and face packs may seem a triviality, but the lengths women would go to in maintaining appearances, seems to be a fair reflection of the determination to sustain some sense of normality whilst Europe was in the grip of such horror.
For those interested in home front re-enactment , The 1940′s Look is an indispensable guide to creating the correct image. Interestingly, Brown notes that one of the greatest mistakes a re-enactor can make is to look too polished, reminding us that patched and damaged clothes are far more authentic. For those simply interested in vintage clothing, the 1940′s is enjoying a resurgence of interest, making the book a valuable reference point for creating the look. While genuine 1940′s clothes are now rare, there’s a great deal of fun to be had from simply reading this and scouring the charity shops for suitable fabric to attempt the styles yourself. While I would hesitate to recommend knitting your own suspenders, it’s worth remembering that the wartime girls actually did. They were probably just extremely thankful there weren’t many men around to see them.

Review by Mia Davis

Sabrestorm Publishing 2007
ISBN 978-0-9552723-1-8
£16.99

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Rating: 7.6/10 (39 votes cast)
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The 1940s Look - book review, 7.6 out of 10 based on 39 ratings