Fashion on the Ration: An Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum


When I saw this exhibition listed on Braintree’s Bthoughtful blog I jumped at the chance to get along to it. I am so interested in the World Wars and how they influenced culture and ways of life, and I’m a big believer in re-finding the kinds of sustainable, resourceful and creative approaches to fashion that surfaced in that time.

The exhibition was everything I hoped it to be: first hand audio recounts and diary entries about people’s lives during the war, photographs of women making their new work-wear look brilliantly glamourous, and lots of examples of clothing and fabric from the period.

It was an inspiring contrast to the fast fashion culture of today, and presented valuable and relevant lessons for us in modern times.

While the ‘Make Do and Mend’ slogan was certainly worn thin in many people’s eyes by the end of the forties, it has been re-instigated in recent times as somewhat of a trend. I think we need it, as an antidote to fast fashion and its effects on our world.

We need to have a more responsible attitude to where our clothes come from, who made them and how they were treated, as well as the impacts our demand for factory-made trends has on the environment. And in what looks set to be another era of austerity, we need to learn how to choose and maintain clothes that will last.

I often ask Andrew’s mum to mend things for me, and her skills in this have saved me a lot of money! She has fixed cardigans and coats and cleaned up boots so that they look as good as new. Going to this exhibition reminded me of my own lack of skills in this area and has inspired me to learn more about mending and even creating clothes and accessories.

I was also inspired by the amount of glamour that people managed to inject into their wartime attire using very simple and resourceful means, and the exhibition has motivated me to look for my own ways of bringing fun and style into my everyday clothing, without breaking the bank.

Having to ‘make do’ also brought about a level of community spirit we seldom find in today’s culture. There were baby clothes swap events, hand-me-downs for children, and sharing of dresses and the like. We saw a beautiful wedding dress that had been made out of curtain fabric and worn by a dozen or more brides.


Some great ideas for bringing back some of this community spirit and resourceful approach to fashion include:

*Clothes Swap events – These are easy to organise. Everyone brings something they don’t want any more, and then can look around everyone else’s contributions. If you take something you can leave a small donation towards a charity or the cost of running the event. These can be really social affairs, with drinks and nibbles laid on and an opportunity to chat and compare notes on the different items available. You can have a focus, e.g. children’s clothing or women’s clothing, or you can keep it general. They can also be extended to other items such as DVD’s, CD’s and records.

*Shopping in charity shops – If you find the right area, and have time to look around, charity shop shopping can prove very fruitful. I recently found some great items in the charity shops in my Grandma’s town.

*Buying hand made – This means you’re supporting workers and creatives, rather than brands, and you’re likely to be getting great quality items that will last.

*Buying fair trade – This ensures the fair treatment of workers making your clothes and also means you’re likely to be getting good quality, often hand-made items.

*Learning to sew – This is something I’d like to do. Maybe you can ask a friend or family member to teach you, or find a local group. This is another great opportunity for socialising and building community.

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