The Make Do and Mend campaign which encouraged people to reuse their old clothes did not mean the end of style and fashion, on the contrary – it made people become more creative.
Given the circumstances, production of non-military Clothes in the beginning of the 1940s was minimal. British government came up with a plan in order to ensure fair distribution of clothing and cope with material shortage and insufficient workforce. On June 1, 1941 Oliver Lyttelton, President of the Board of Trade, announced imposition of clothes rationing.
With food already rationed, the news about clothes rationing came as a complete shock to most people. Soon after the announcement, British Ministry of Information launched a public information campaign called Make Do and Mend which encouraged people to reuse old clothes or make new ones at home. A homonymous pamphlet provided practical advice on how to make stylish three-piece lingerie set out of parachute panels, recycle yarn from old sweaters and make shoes last longer by painting their soles with varnish.
Make Do and Mend became “the mantra of an entire generation of women” as Tamsin Blanchard calls it in her book ‘Green is the New Black’. Even some American 1940s Fashion Magazines whose readers preferred to buy rather than sew their garments and were all into the Hollywood costumes, offered patterns for remodeling worn out clothes.
In 1942 the Utility Clothing Scheme was introduced to ensure low to medium quality consumer goods. The Board of Trade commissioned some of the leading fashion designers to develop utility clothing designs in accordance with tight specifications regarding the amount of material and time allowed to be used in their production. This limited the number of pockets and buttons, the length of men’s socks, size of pleats and forbid unnecessary decorations. The fashion designers had to create sufficient models of utility clothing to demonstrate that it did not mean the end of style and fashion.
When the war was officially over and British people longed for the end of all these rationing restrictions. They wanted to make unconstrained purchases of clothes like before and choose wear the same only a few times. But none of this was possible any soon. Make Do and Mend kept playing a crucial role in their daily lives and became a deep-rooted-habit.
In 1947, circumstances in Britain sharply contrasted with the ones in Paris, for example. While the leading fashion houses had made a determined comeback and Dior with his New Look had changed the fashion world beyond all recognition, the style in Britain had not experienced any significant change since the previous decade and clothing was still under rationing. Linda Grant explains in her article for the Guardian that the “New Look’s tiny waist and wide hips could be achieved only by foundation garments”, which was criticized for squandering of the material. “The government response to the New Look was to try to deny it existed”, she writes. “The need for income from exports restricted the textiles available for home consumption and the ministry feared that the New Look would create impossible demands for additional fabric.” Nevertheless, the New Look became extremely popularity, particularly after Princess Margaret approved it, attracted by its femininity and youth. Britain was finally free from rationing and Make Do and Mend in 1949.
Unlike in the 1940s, fashion advice today focuses on shopping for new clothes and forgetting about the old ones. However, the concept of Make Do and Mend is enjoying a revival in the recent years. Knitting and sewing are creative activities, just as they were in the 1940s.
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