Not dressed to kill

Laurence Alster finds utility and glamour at a Forties fashion show

In the first few months of the Second World War, most people in this country went in fear of bombing raids, gas attacks and news of further Nazi gains through Europe. Some, though, were troubled for rather different reasons. In November 1939, the fashion magazine Vogue addressed what it supposed was a preoccupying anxiety of the nation: "Comparisons between this war and the last are in-evitable. 'Did we really wear this, say that? Shall we not look as hilarious, 20 years on?'"

Visitors to Forties Fashion and the New Look, an extensive new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London, can judge for themselves how well the British met the challenge of trying not to look too passe while fighting Hitler. Not that he was the only threat. At home, women being squired by American servicemen were said to be wearing "Utility knickers" (one Yank and they're off). Less than truthful in a moral sense, perhaps, the allegation was certainly correct with regard to the garments.

Beginning in 1942, Utility clothing - items made according to strict, government specifications - became part of everyday life. The Utility clothes on display at the exhibition, be they suits, coats, maternity smocks or wedding dresses, form an austere contrast to the gorgeous pre-war gowns and dresses that make up the first part of the exhibition.

Victory before vanity was the message implicit in the design of Utility clothes. Other items, though, were more plainly propagandist. Set among ration books and clothes coupons is a scarf embroidered with catch-phrases from BBC radio programmes. "It all depends what you mean by", one says. And - "Goodnight children, everywhere".

Another display case holds a woman's dressing gown strewn with patriotic snippets - "this demi-paradise", "this precious stone set in a silver sea" - gleaned from Shakespeare's Richard II.

If such effortful designs strike the modern observer as more likely to depress than inspire, they also show why women longed for a little style and glamour. For that they looked to Hollywood.

"Make do and mend" was a message unknown to American movies, where stars such as Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers and Joan Crawford wore clothes and cosmetics, many of which are displayed here, to make their British sisters sigh.

But this exhibition is far more than simply a glorified nostalgia-fest. Most fashion and history students will find much to interest them, while sociology enthusiasts could draw some interesting conclusions, particularly from the last section. This is largely given over to the New Look, which was created by Christian Dior and revealed to the public precisely 50 years ago.

The designs of the New Look caused a sensation. Extravagant creations that accentuated all of a woman's corporal assets - entirely the opposite of the practical, pared-away and squared-up look of wartime - the clothes signalled a return to an ideal of femininity that, as the propaganda posters show, had been deliberately suppressed for the duration of the hostilities.

The Forties Fashion and the New Look exhibition is at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ. Tel: 0171 416 5313.

* The admission fee is Pounds 4.70 for adults, and Pounds 3.70 for students. Children (age 5-16) pay Pounds 2.35. The exhibition ends August 31

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