Flashes of 15 Denier
- Forties Fashion and the New Look by Colin McDowell
Bloomsbury, 192 pp, £20.00, February 1997, ISBN 0 7475 3032 7
The sumptuary laws of Plantagenet times were designed to curb exuberances of attire, among which were sleeves cut so full that they trailed in the dung and shoes with such long points that a cartwheel could pass over them without crushing flesh. Every day, said Holinshed, ‘there was devising of new fashions to the great hindrance and decay of the commonwealth.’ In the matter of clothing, the sumptuary laws of the Second World War were directed at less dandiacal, but still state-threatening, indulgences: double-breasted jackets, double cuffs, turn-ups of all kinds, patch pockets, bellows pockets, belts, yokes, pleats, shirrs, flaps, tabs and all unnecessary adornment (one historian tells us that a West End dressmaker was taken to court for embroidering roses and butterflies on camiknickers). Here was the unusual, and some thought alarming, spectacle of a British government insisting on short skirts for its womenfolk, but it was a government which knew where to stop, and that was at the knee. Vast savings in labour and material could no doubt have been made if Captain Edward Molyneux or Captain Hardy Amies had come up with the mini-skirt, but there was trouble enough on the Home Front without pandering to what Hazlitt, contemplating Regency fashions, called ‘the greedy eye and rash hand of licentiousness’.
The Germans had their own clothing restrictions, which did not extend to those covetable long greatcoats, with opulent revers, worn by military officers. Even the Americans woke up one day to find that the length of their shirt-tails had been regulated by law. Washington’s restrictive edicts lay behind the ‘zoot suit riots’ of 1943, when the United States Marines had to be pulled out of Los Angeles after engaging in ‘slugfests’ with bands of young Mexicans and others whose insolence of attire upset the disciplined mind.
Colin McDowell does not mention the ‘zoot suit riots’ in his survey of Forties fashion, which deals almost exclusively with women’s wear. He does not even shed a passing tear over those uninspiring demob suits which did so little for the morale of returning servicemen. He has ransacked to good effect the files of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Women’s Wear Daily, but has ignored that often trenchant organ, the Tailor and Cutter. Nevertheless, he has come up with a piquant and enlightening social history as seen through the quizzing-glass of fashion. Surprises abound. We learn, for instance, how fortunate in time of war was the slim wife with a fat husband. She could raid his wardrobe for suits and dressing-gowns which could be reshaped to make clothes for herself (she would already have used the bedspread and even the living-room curtains rendered superfluous by blackout boards). There were advertisers who offered to help her in such mischiefs as turning flannel trousers into a women’s suit. Can this be one of the hitherto unsuspected reasons why so many wartime marriages foundered?
When war broke out the Tailor and Cutter had prophesied there would be none of the turning of suits which had been such a melancholy feature of the Kaiser’s war. One who had little to fear in that direction was the Tory Member of Parliament ‘Chips’ Channon who, when clothing coupons were introduced in 1941, noted in his diary that ‘luckily’ he had forty suits or more – enough, one would have thought, to sit out a new Thirty Years’ War. Alert to ‘social imbalance’, McDowell informs us that many young women called up into the Services were able for the first time to wear their own shoes, instead of those handed down by their sisters, and that many a Land Army girl could boast her first decent wardrobe, courtesy of the state.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.