Gravy Stockings and TNT Hair Dye: The Fascinating Fashions of WW2
For fashion, even war is no excuse to letstandards slip, as many British women found out during WW2.
As part of doing their part for King and Country,they were strongly encouraged to contribute to the war effort by looking their best atall times.
In fact, one bit of British war propagandawas literally “Beauty is your duty”… As you might imagine, this led to some ratheringenious solutions to solve the inevitable shortages of cosmetics and clothing that aroseas a result of wartime rationing.
On that note, clothing in UK began being rationedin June of 1941, about a year after provisions were put in place to ration food.
Under the rules of rationing, every personin the UK was initially given 66 coupons which they could exchange for clothing.
Different items of clothing carried a differentcoupon weight decided by the time and material that went into making them.
So, for example, you might need to exchangeeleven coupons for a dress, but only two for a pair of stockings.
Each year, the allocation of coupons wouldbe replenished, though the amount steadily decreased over time, with adults only receiving24 between September of 1945 and April of 1946, for instance.
Exceptions to this general rule included children(who were allotted 10 extra coupons to account for rapid growth) and new mothers (who weregiven 50 extra coupons to buy things like baby clothes and blankets).
Again, these amounts changed throughout thewar to reflect the ever growing scarcity of supplies.
It’s important to point out here that mostat this time did not have closets and dressers bursting with clothing as is common todaythanks to a much more industrialized and global clothing industry.
Thus, people generally had far fewer garmentsto begin with, and now even more limited ability to buy replacements.
This all led to the “Make Do and Mend”campaign, which was pushed hard by the British Ministry of Information, demonstrating a varietyof ways in which to make clothes last, such as to buy bigger clothing than needed forchildren so they had room to grow.
They also illustrated techniques aimed towardsmodifying and repairing clothing using various atypical materials.
(More on this in a bit.
) They even setup classes to teach basic seamstressskills, though many women of this era were already quite good at this.
It’s also important to note that the publicstill had to pay for clothes; the coupons were merely exchanged for the right to buythem in the first place.
Because of this, the fashion industry notonly survived the war, but thrived, even high-end manufacturers (an expensive, tailored dressstill generally costing the same number of coupons as a cheap one, since they used aboutthe same amount of material).
While clothing makers may have seen theirvolume of civilian sales decrease with the scarcity of supplies and rationing, they simplyincreased their prices accordingly.
(That’s not to mention that making uniformsand the like was extremely lucrative business.
) Unfortunately for those who couldn’t affordthe more expensive clothing, this meant either sticking with clothes that were already well-worn,or using precious coupons on clothing or materials that were low quality, and thus didn’t last.
This all created a major problem that neededsolved pronto if women were to continue looking their best- something deemed important forthe country’s morale.
To solve the issue, the government actuallydid something somewhat innovative for once, which would ultimately have repercussionson fashion and clothing in the UK long after the war- they created what was dubbed “Utilityclothing” in 1942.
Essentially, Utility clothing was mass-manufacturedclothing produced in a limited range of styles, fashions and colors to minimize productioncosts over how clothing up until that point was commonly made in the UK.
Importantly, beyond driving the costs down,a second goal of this fashion line was to make the clothing extremely durable.
With clothing lasting longer for everyone,this also ensured more materials, factories, and workers in future would be available forthe war effort instead of making clothes for civilians.
But making it cheap and durable wasn’t enough.
After all, the overarching goal was, for womenparticularly, to look good.
Thus, the government managed a trifecta byenlisting the aid of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers to provide thenation’s best in the field to oversee the designs for both men and women’s Utilityclothing.
As a result of this foresight, Utility clothingactually became something of a hit with the public and many of the designs would probablystill be considered fashionable today, because things like conservative dark suits, tapereddresses and black plimsolls never really go out of style.
In fact, they even made a relatively fashionableair raid outfit known as a “siren suit”; so if a woman needed to jump out of bed andflee to a bomb shelter, while possibly literally having bombs raining down on her, she’dlook damn good while running for her life.
This all brings us to makeup.
Unlike most everything else during WW2, makeupand cosmetics were never rationed during the war, instead being subjected to a massiveluxury tax which was levied upon all items deemed “non-essential” by the government.
Of course, as that same government was verypublicly pushing women to “look your best” at all times, many of the fairer sex didn’tconsider these items “non-essential”.
Big cosmetic companies weren’t helping either,going as far as to pay for large ads in papers and magazines informing women that “No lipstick– ours or anyone else’s – will win the war.
But it symbolises one of the reasons why weare fighting…” On this note, amusingly, many cosmetic brandscontinued to put out adverts despite the fact that the stock of the very things they wereadvertising for were low to non-existent.
So why’d they do it? In essence, it’s generally thought theywere afraid if women got used to not wearing makeup, when the war was over, some mightjust not go back to it.
So the companies did everything in their powerto push women to continue to find ways to wear some form of makeup.
Paradoxically, this meant they continued toadvertise a product that it was impossible for many women to obtain, right next to fullpage ads telling them if they didn’t wear it, they were letting Hitler win.
That’s not hyperbole by the way; it waswell known at the time that Adolf had a particular distaste for makeup and cosmetics, with thefuhrer even known to chastise women for wearing perfume or using hair dye.
On top of this, he also saw to it that wearingfurs was out.
(He, ironically, abhorred the killing of animals.
) In fact, when Hitler came to power, he establisheda German Fashion Board (Deutsches Modeamt) to help push his brand of fashion, emphasizing,among other things, no make-up, natural hair, and curves, rather than the “boyish bodies”that Parisian fashion promoted.
Important to the discussion at hand was thatthe end goal, according to Hitler, was that “Berlin women must become the best dressedin Europe”.
So what was a patriotic, Nazi hating Britishwoman about town to do when she wanted to stick it to Hitler, but didn’t have thecoupons (or money) to afford a new dress, and nobody in town had cosmetics available? In short, she improvised.
Women would make new clothing out of everythingfrom curtains or furniture upholstery to old parachutes, and would raid their wardrobesto reuse, mend and alter their existing outfits to make them more stylish.
The lack of materials also allowed women tobe a little more risque in their clothing choices and the hemlines of dresses becamenoticeably shorter during the war as a result.
This, however, caused a problem of anothersort- exposed bare skin, with no good way to partially cover it thanks to a shortageof stockings and the relatively newly invented nylon being unavailable owing to almost exclusivelybeing used by the military.
To get around the problem, women began stainingtheir legs with various things, including gravy browning, to make it look as thoughthey were wearing something, even drawing a seam down the back of their legs to completethe effect.
With the government seeing to it that, “everygovernment poster recruiting a land girl, image of a Wren or member of the Women’sRoyal Voluntary Service showed her with bright red lipstick and a flash of black mascara”,the clothing problem wasn’t the only thing that needed solved.
To get around their lack of lipstick, womenwould dye their lips with beetroot and, somewhat questionably from an eye-health standpoint,use boot polish as makeshift mascara.
They would also shove flowers and other herbsinto their pockets to get around the lack of perfume.
Some girls working in certain factories alsonotably used the powder meant to protect their face from heat as rouge, and would sometimesspeckle their hair in TNT powder to dye it blonde.
(Note: When it was first made in the mid-19thcentury, TNT was actually originally used, not as an explosive, but as a yellow dye.
) On that note, some women couldn’t help butgo yellow, specifically those working in munitions factories.
They eventually got the nickname “canarygirls” because the powdered explosive, whether they wanted it to or not, would dye theirskin and hair bright yellow.
The color eventually faded, but the powdercaused horrible skin rashes and breathing problems.
Oh, and we should probably mention that prolongedexposure to TNT can cause liver, blood, spleen, and immune system problems, among others… But hey, when “beauty is your duty”, youdo what you have to do.
Can’t let those German women look betterthan you; then Hitler would win….