During WW2, and more precisely in 1941, a utility clothing scheme was introduced by the British government to aid the economy and help the war effort. This scheme produced cheap clothing for both men and women that were referred to as “civilian uniforms”. This type of clothing (labelled with a distinct utility mark, “CC41”) was introduced for several key reasons:
- Raw materials (cloth, wool, leather etc.) were in short supply and had to be conserved.
- There were no workers to make clothing as most had left to fight.
- Clothing prices needed to be kept low so that the civilian population could afford clothing of a reasonable quality.
The government knew that in order to make the scheme a success, they needed to make utility clothing interesting and appealing. Thus, in 1941, lots of skilled designers were hired, creating the Society of London Fashion Designers. High end designers such as Digby Morton, Peter Russell and Handy Amies contributed to make a remarkable range of clothing. There was an initial period of doubt and dislike by the general public and a concern over wearing identical clothing. However, this soon changed! Over time, there was a newfound appreciation for the minimal pleating, patch pockets and muted colours. The designs were simple yet still very chic and above all the clothing was highly durable in a time when clothing needed to last! Moreover in a time of stringent clothes rationing, the scheme was helping to bring equality to the general public, democratising fashion and making good quality clothing affordable for everyone.
Utility clothing became a real source of inspiration in the post war era, capturing the imagination of designers such as Coco Chanel celebrating a more liberated version of the feminine silhouette. For others, utility clothing inspired a revolt against the austerity of the period and designers like Christian Dior were driven by a desire for excess and lavish expressions of femininity with voluminous dresses starting an era famously referred to as the “New Look”.
Undoubtedly, utility wear has had a lasting impact on fashion and brought about novel interpretations of clothing and yet is so powerful that we still enjoy wearing this style today!