Historian Laura Clouting, curator for Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style at the Imperial War Museum.
Using five words how would you describe Fashion on the Ration?
Austerity fashion with a twist.
What interests you about this era in fashion?
It is so revealing to see how people coped when resources available became severely restricted, and to see how that sparked creativity in the most unexpected ways. You can see this most clearly with the ‘Make Do and Mend’ approach to clothing, thanks to rationing limiting the amount of new clothing people could buy. But you also see a surprising commercial opportunism during the war – with everything from luminous blackout buttons to gas mask-carrying handbags being sold.
What was your role in the exhibition?
I sourced collections content for showcases, wrote exhibition text, put together audiovisual elements and, closer to opening, represented IWM in press and marketing coverage.
Where did you find everything?
IWM has an amazingly rich collection and it's incredibly vast. We have stores in London and at IWM Duxford where we keep uniforms, civilian clothing, equipment, vehicles, aircraft, firearms, works of art, posters, books, magazines, letters, diaries, photographs and films – and much more. The content for Fashion on the Ration was mostly chosen from this incredible resource, with a few compelling objects loaned from institutions like the V&A and private lenders.
Do you have a favourite item from the exhibition?
The hand-made clothing in the ‘Make Do and Mend’ area is endlessly interesting. Although we have some amazingly intricate examples, I’m always drawn to the example of a child’s cloak made by an old blanket. This really sums up that need to make the absolute most of every bit of material to hand in the face of wartime shortages – but also reveals a level of home sewing skill that was so much more commonplace than today.
What were the key trends in the 1940s?
The whole approach to clothing was one of pared-down simplicity, and practicality. This was both a requirement care of austerity regulations limiting the numbers of buttons, plaits, and pockets – and, for men, material for cuffs and turn-ups. But there is also a dependable smartness to 1940s clothing that is quite surprising in our own hugely varied and, arguably, ‘casualised’ era today.
Can you describe the impact 1940s fashion had on the 1950s?
I’m always drawn to seeing the impact even more broadly and how the legacy of 1940s is with us still today seven decades later – either through debates about the mass manufacture of cheap clothing, or through a revival of interest in making and renovating our own clothes, or buying clothes from the 1940s to wear today.
What did you learn from Fashion on the Ration?
How immense the IWM collection is. The number of objects we had that could have told the same overall story was clear to see during the research phase. The research phase also instilled a greater understanding of just to what extent everyday life was affected by the war for British people on the home front.
Have you got any tips on how to create the 1940s look?
It’s more of an approach than a look but striving for smartness and an enduring simplicity seem to be the key ingredients – as well as giving the same garment several new leases of life and getting creative in finding ways to do so.
Finish this sentence, I love my job because...
Of the opportunity it brings to understand history through objects, and finding ways to present the impact of war in a compelling way in a brilliant museum.
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