Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style 

5th March – 31st August 2015

Imperial War Museum, London, UK


By Sandra Dubois & Helen Spencer


Fashion exhibitions staged outside of the fashion museum have become increasingly popular. They allow institutions such as The Imperial War Museum, London, the opportunity to engage with a wider audience, as curator Laura Clouting (2015) explains: ‘Clothing is a special type of collection to use in an exhibition. Not only does it have a visual and sensory richness, its familiarity of purpose forges a resonant connection with visitors’. Clouting’s current exhibition, Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style, explores what life was like for people on the British home front during the Second World War through the experience of dress. In particular, it describes a narrative in which fashion appeared to flourish, despite the government-enforced austerity of the rationing system and the unpredictability of life during the war. Further, it questions how austerity impacted the promotion (and thus experience) of fashion, which, for instance, applauded ‘Make do and Mend’ but cast suspicion on French ‘New Look’ silhouettes. This review is centred upon a reading of the exhibition’s feminisation, and asks how this is evident in the exhibition design and object selection.

Unlike previous exhibitions at the IWM, which allocated less importance and status to dress, in Fashion on the Ration garments feature as the focal point of the display. Articles of clothing are supported by other sources such as letters, photographs, oral history testimonies, interview recordings, films, paintings and posters. Together, these materials weave a rich narrative, and immerse the visitor in the visceral surroundings of war, where life was controlled and restricted, punctuated by an incessant stream of propaganda. Exhibition spectators experience the period’s flux, notably through films that depicted bustling life on London’s streets, which provided an eerie contrast to static mannequins and props in glass cases.

The exhibition is grouped thematically and divided into seven sections: Into Uniform; Functional Fashion; Rationing and ‘Make do and Mend’; Utility Fashion; Beauty as Duty; Peace and a ‘New Look’, and ‘The legacy of 1940s style,’ which, together, showcase men’s and women’s uniforms, civilian clothing, as well as accessories such as shoes, handkerchiefs and other ephemera, sourced mostly from the museum’s own archive. The majority of the display is dedicated to female dress, despite the fact that the exhibition narrative does not exclusively refer to women. Indeed, the feminisation of the display and exhibition design is evident upon entry, and provides a marked contrast to the rest of the museum’s installations, which do not explore war through a female perspective. Whilst the presentation of aesthetically diverse womenswear makes for an appealing display, this curatorial choice also serves to offer an alternative perspective of this period. Through dress, it illustrates the pivotal role women played during the war effort on the home front, and makes an inadvertent comparison between the experiences of men and women.

Fashion on the Ration






[Figure 1] Illustration of woman’s work in manufacturing ©IWM ART


Likewise, the exhibition rethinks traditional narratives in that it depicts women as increasingly independent as well as the puppets of the political propaganda machine. Government-fed propaganda disseminated the ideal of maintaining beauty standards to uphold the semblance of normalcy and morale in wartime. Thus, women’s patriotic duty was fulfilled both by their work outside of the home as well as through their appearance. The exhibition shows how, outside of functional roles of the workforce, civilian fashions could be characterised by a hyper-femininity. Particular importance was placed upon hair and makeup upkeep, as rationing demanded simple and practical clothing silhouettes. Propaganda relayed the message that women’s appearance was still one of their most valuable assets. As shown from an image of a uniform-clad woman applying makeup, women’s newfound freedom and position in the workforce was constrained by their gender. Such paradoxical propaganda fostered uncertainty in terms of the construction of their identity. The friction between freedom and constraint suggested by the exhibition, however, could have been further developed through curatorial interventions.

 A female member of ARP staff applies her lipstick







[Figure 2] Beauty as duty, applying the wartime look ©IWM ART

The presence of women is equally felt within the exhibition design, in the form of posters of giant female characters and models who towered over spectators. In the first two sections, uniforms and clothing are mounted on mannequins, displayed in glass vitrines and positioned at eye level with the audience. The curator complimented these display methods, which create height contrast and distance between object and viewer, respectively, with videos and women’s testimonies recorded on 1940s-style phones. Through the aide of these audio tools, visitors gain access to a more intimate space of communication, and thus a deeper understanding of the reality of life on the home front.

View of the Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style exhibition. This exhibition explores how men and women found new ways to dress as the rationing of clothes took hold. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to functional fa






[Figure 3] Exhibition’s entrance at IWM ©IWM ART

Different display approaches are used in a section that features dress examples from the Utility Scheme, the governmental program that produced garments by London designers to ensure good quality clothing on the rationing system. The status of the designer-made pieces is elevated, through their positioning on noticeably higher plinths, without glass vitrines. This type of display, which privileges the beauty or craftsmanship of the object, contrasts with the term ‘utility fashion’, which denotes the conformism and equality of women wearers. Whilst this display method underscores the dresses’ aura, it obscures the narrative behind utilitarianism.

Visitors to the Fashion on the Ration Private View explore the gallery.This exhibition explores how men and women found new ways to dress as the rationing of clothes took hold. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to function





[Figure 4] Utility Fashions on display at the private view. ©IWM ART

A wide breadth of curatorial research is evident in the exhibition’s display, which is, however, at times overwhelming. Similarly, the variety of perspectives explored—consumer, government and industry—worked at the expense of a more focused narrative. While dim lighting and frequent overcrowding may hinder visitors’ appreciation of the garments’ details, most of the exhibition’s information was printed on small, hard-to-read labels. Information could have been more effective if delivered, for example, through multi-sensory techniques. Despite these minor setbacks, the exhibition provides a rare glimpse into women’s history. It allows the public to explore a lesser-known aspect of the war, and negotiates the tension between survival and maintaining a sense of normality, through the framework of dress.


Select References:

Clouting, Laura (2015) ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Streetstyle’. Research Blog. [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 20th May 2015].

Clark, Judith, de la Haye, Amy and Horsley, Jeffrey (2013) Exhibiting fashion: Before and after 1971. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Palmer, Alexandra (2008). ‘Untouchable: Creating desire and knowledge in museum costume and textile exhibitions’. Fashion theory. 12 (1) pp.31-63.

Riegels Melchior, Marie and Svensson, Birgitta, Editors (2014) Fashion and Museums: Theory and Practice. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Steele, Valerie (1998) ‘Fashion Is More Than a Clothes-bag’. Fashion Theory. 2 (4) pp. 327–336.

Steele, Valerie (2008) ‘Museum Quality: The rise of the fashion exhibition’. Fashion Theory. 12 (1) pp.7-30.

Stevenson, NJ (2008) ‘The fashion retrospective’. Fashion Theory.12 (2) pp. 219-236



Dubois and Spencer is a collaborative partnership between Sandra Dubois and Helen Spencer, LCF MA alumni from Fashion Curation and History and Culture of Fashion, respectively. Both are early career practitioners and researchers developing a variety of projects within the field of fashion curation including exhibition design, research consultancy and creative direction.

After studies of the practice and history of fashion curation, Sandra Dubois is developing a distinctive voice to interpret and display and objects across time and space. Whereas Helen Spencer investigates the theoretical underpinnings of fashion and its history, grounded within a material culture and object-based approach. Taken together, these perspectives allow for an in-depth analysis of dress in the context of fashion curation.


Review: Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Streetstyle, Imperial War Museum, London, UK

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