Gravy Stockings and TNT Hair Dye: The Fascinating Fashions of WW2


For fashion, even war is no excuse to let
standards 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 at
all times. In fact, one bit of British war propaganda
was literally “Beauty is your duty”… As you might imagine, this led to some rather
ingenious solutions to solve the inevitable shortages of cosmetics and clothing that arose
as a result of wartime rationing. On that note, clothing in UK began being rationed
in June of 1941, about a year after provisions were put in place to ration food. Under the rules of rationing, every person
in the UK was initially given 66 coupons which they could exchange for clothing. Different items of clothing carried a different
coupon weight decided by the time and material that went into making them. So, for example, you might need to exchange
eleven coupons for a dress, but only two for a pair of stockings. Each year, the allocation of coupons would
be replenished, though the amount steadily decreased over time, with adults only receiving
24 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 were
given 50 extra coupons to buy things like baby clothes and blankets). Again, these amounts changed throughout the
war to reflect the ever growing scarcity of supplies. It’s important to point out here that most
at this time did not have closets and dressers bursting with clothing as is common today
thanks to a much more industrialized and global clothing industry. Thus, people generally had far fewer garments
to 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 variety
of ways in which to make clothes last, such as to buy bigger clothing than needed for
children so they had room to grow. They also illustrated techniques aimed towards
modifying and repairing clothing using various atypical materials. (More on this in a bit.) They even setup classes to teach basic seamstress
skills, though many women of this era were already quite good at this. It’s also important to note that the public
still had to pay for clothes; the coupons were merely exchanged for the right to buy
them in the first place. Because of this, the fashion industry not
only survived the war, but thrived, even high-end manufacturers (an expensive, tailored dress
still generally costing the same number of coupons as a cheap one, since they used about
the same amount of material). While clothing makers may have seen their
volume of civilian sales decrease with the scarcity of supplies and rationing, they simply
increased their prices accordingly. (That’s not to mention that making uniforms
and the like was extremely lucrative business.) Unfortunately for those who couldn’t afford
the 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 needed
solved pronto if women were to continue looking their best- something deemed important for
the country’s morale. To solve the issue, the government actually
did something somewhat innovative for once, which would ultimately have repercussions
on fashion and clothing in the UK long after the war- they created what was dubbed “Utility
clothing” in 1942. Essentially, Utility clothing was mass-manufactured
clothing produced in a limited range of styles, fashions and colors to minimize production
costs 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 for
the war effort instead of making clothes for civilians. But making it cheap and durable wasn’t enough. After all, the overarching goal was, for women
particularly, to look good. Thus, the government managed a trifecta by
enlisting the aid of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers to provide the
nation’s best in the field to oversee the designs for both men and women’s Utility
clothing. As a result of this foresight, Utility clothing
actually became something of a hit with the public and many of the designs would probably
still be considered fashionable today, because things like conservative dark suits, tapered
dresses and black plimsolls never really go out of style. In fact, they even made a relatively fashionable
air raid outfit known as a “siren suit”; so if a woman needed to jump out of bed and
flee to a bomb shelter, while possibly literally having bombs raining down on her, she’d
look damn good while running for her life. This all brings us to makeup. Unlike most everything else during WW2, makeup
and cosmetics were never rationed during the war, instead being subjected to a massive
luxury tax which was levied upon all items deemed “non-essential” by the government. Of course, as that same government was very
publicly pushing women to “look your best” at all times, many of the fairer sex didn’t
consider 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 we
are fighting…” On this note, amusingly, many cosmetic brands
continued to put out adverts despite the fact that the stock of the very things they were
advertising for were low to non-existent. So why’d they do it? In essence, it’s generally thought they
were afraid if women got used to not wearing makeup, when the war was over, some might
just not go back to it. So the companies did everything in their power
to push women to continue to find ways to wear some form of makeup. Paradoxically, this meant they continued to
advertise a product that it was impossible for many women to obtain, right next to full
page ads telling them if they didn’t wear it, they were letting Hitler win. That’s not hyperbole by the way; it was
well known at the time that Adolf had a particular distaste for makeup and cosmetics, with the
fuhrer even known to chastise women for wearing perfume or using hair dye. On top of this, he also saw to it that wearing
furs was out. (He, ironically, abhorred the killing of animals.) In fact, when Hitler came to power, he established
a 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 that
the end goal, according to Hitler, was that “Berlin women must become the best dressed
in Europe”. So what was a patriotic, Nazi hating British
woman about town to do when she wanted to stick it to Hitler, but didn’t have the
coupons (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 everything
from curtains or furniture upholstery to old parachutes, and would raid their wardrobes
to reuse, mend and alter their existing outfits to make them more stylish. The lack of materials also allowed women to
be a little more risque in their clothing choices and the hemlines of dresses became
noticeably shorter during the war as a result. This, however, caused a problem of another
sort- exposed bare skin, with no good way to partially cover it thanks to a shortage
of stockings and the relatively newly invented nylon being unavailable owing to almost exclusively
being used by the military. To get around the problem, women began staining
their legs with various things, including gravy browning, to make it look as though
they were wearing something, even drawing a seam down the back of their legs to complete
the effect. With the government seeing to it that, “every
government poster recruiting a land girl, image of a Wren or member of the Women’s
Royal 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, women
would 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 herbs
into their pockets to get around the lack of perfume. Some girls working in certain factories also
notably used the powder meant to protect their face from heat as rouge, and would sometimes
speckle their hair in TNT powder to dye it blonde. (Note: When it was first made in the mid-19th
century, TNT was actually originally used, not as an explosive, but as a yellow dye.) On that note, some women couldn’t help but
go yellow, specifically those working in munitions factories. They eventually got the nickname “canary
girls” because the powdered explosive, whether they wanted it to or not, would dye their
skin and hair bright yellow. The color eventually faded, but the powder
caused horrible skin rashes and breathing problems. Oh, and we should probably mention that prolonged
exposure to TNT can cause liver, blood, spleen, and immune system problems, among others… But hey, when “beauty is your duty”, you
do what you have to do. Can’t let those German women look better
than you; then Hitler would win…

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