Fashion Trends in the Age of Austerity

I’ve been reading some interesting stuff lately from Laura Clouting (Imperial War Museum) on fashion and trade during the Second World War and how things develop in Britain in this industry from there on. As we all have very ingrained in our minds, this was indeed a period of great austerity in the UK with rations and shortages severely affecting people’s lives. So how did this affect fashion? And why does it matter? Well, I hope that by reading this update you will realise some measures taken during this time had a serious cultural and social effect, and they did much to revolutionise British fashion particularly for women.

This all comes from the realisation of the board of trade that things need to change: people needed to be clothed but also needed a moral boost due to the soaring effect of the war. Therefore, the board decides to work together with several fashion designers to provide a new range of clothing that was suitable for a war-scared Britain. During the age of austerity the accessibility to a good range of materials was seriously limited, and certainly good quality fabrics were hard to come by. But a deal was struck so that designers would have access to better resources in other to produce something known as ‘utility clothing’. The idea behind this was to enhance quality of clothes in a way that made them more durable whilst affordable at the same time. Some big names of the UK fashion industry contribute to these new designs such as Norman Hartnell, Hardy Amies and Digby Morton. With the help of these visionaries, clothing becomes actually stylish yet well made, and very colourful which is not a conception often associated with the Second World War. Nevertheless, a little help came from home as well. Throughout this period we see women at home adapting the fashion to their needs during war times, so that Brit gals were fashionable yet perfectly functional. If you see some of the designs you would probably laugh, but who did not want to be able to have  matching outfit to their latest gas mask? Many women did find long dresses and trouser suit pieces made this a quirky yet interesting look!

It is also during this time that we see some interesting developments in how clothes are made. For example, from 1942 onward, clothe designs saw a reduction in the number of buttons used in coats and jackets. Pockets were also kept for purely functional purpose, and many outfits found them reduced to none. Skirts too suffer transformations, and the popular pleated skirts of years past, become more simple and plain-looking. Due to the shortage of materials, however, the fashion industry had to think of ways around their design issues, and found some very creative solutions that we see completely ingrained in our fashion today. Due to the occupation of Japan and other parts of South East Asia, it was very difficult to obtain rubber for the elastic bands that had been incorporated into ordinary pieces of clothing. In addition, the high demand for leather in other industries made this a no go area for designers. So, instead braces were introduces as a replacement for elasticated waist bands (so all of you hipsters have loads to thanks to them chaps and chappetes in the 40s!). It is a similar case scenarios with wedge heels. Resources such as wood or cork were not rationed, which made this transition from heeled shoes into wedges and platforms very easy for fashion designers.And, you want to know something interesting? During this period, the length of socks gets reduced to a mighty 9.5 inches to save on materials. Imagine the roar it would have been if we had this trend for ankle socks ballerina tights back then!

In any case, the domestic economies did find this a real relief both economically and emotionally. Yet, these were still times when the made-do attitude were at a peak. We see fashion at home really pushing for amendments rather than buying new clothes. I am sure you are all aware of the old trick of rubbing ones legs with the bags of a recent brew and using eye lines to produce the impression that you were wearing tights. Holes were sawn back together, and clothes that were in no state to be worn, were recycled into rags or fabrics to mend other clothes. We think ourselves very cool for wearing sawn in and iron patches on our jeans and what not, but this was actually rather common back then.

So, next time you want some inspiration on how to keep your fashion cool yet sensible, perhaps you will have a throwback moment and think: what would have my grandparents or great grandparents do?

Upper and Lower Class Tudor Fashion

Fashion, along other sociopolitical signifiers, has often been used as a sign of wealth throughout history, and Tudor times were no exception. Most trends were introduced by the royalty, who popularised them and produced the copycat effect, therefore propagating these tendencies amongst other of their same ranks, if not the whole of society. So today I will be looking at some aspects of Tudor fashion that were at their peak back in the day. However, I will also give you the contrast of what was common fashion among those less fortunate; the poor and working classes of early modern England.

Let’s set the scene first. Just so you get an idea of how important clothes and bling were then, it is believed that Henry VIII spent over £2.4 million of today’s pound a year on his wardrobe…I mean, he was a large man but even so, just like the celebs today, huh? Well, as we are talking about Henry, something that became really fashionable during his reign was the codpiece. As a clothing item, the general rule of thumb was big was good and bigger better. In fact, the codpiece was known to be stuffed with a padding called bombast. Codpieces could be big enough to fit and conceal a weapon! But, the trend died out by the late 16th century, giving way to the perhaps more elegant 3 piece Elizabethan suit (jerkin and hose). Henry’s wives were just as fancy as he was, and they set their own trends too. for example, Anne Boleyn is often attributed the introduction of the French hood in England, which was quickly copied by the ladies of the court. Even Catherine of Aragon had impact in a rather peculiar artefact that accompanied women’s attire: the mini prayer-book. This miniaturised books of worship were fastened around the waists of high-ranking female aristocrats and merchants, perhaps as a sign of piety.

You know how the saying goes: like father like daughter, so it is no surprise that Elizabeth I was herself quite a fashion victim. It is well-known that she owned the signature pale make up of the nobility of her age. This look was achieved by the use of a substance called ceruse. Unfortunately for Elizabeth and the rest of Tudor society, ceruse was composed by lead, therefore causing severe skin damage as well as hair loss, which must have been a horrible combination for the Queen and her unfortunate contraction of smallpox…Who said beauty did not come at a high price? But, moving on, there were other items of fashion that were popular amongst Tudor nobility and were not exclusive of the royal family. Brooches were a popular item of jewellery as an ornament for wealthy women in the 16th century. In addition, certain fabrics such as velvet, silk and satin maintained their status of previous centuries as luxurious textiles, therefore only accessible by those who could afford the coin. Interestingly however, and something that perhaps contrasts highly with out modern attire, is the fact that black clothing were exclusively available to the highest ranking members of society. This is due to the fact that black dye was incredibly expensive to maintain and hard successfully stain textiles with it. So if you were good for money in Tudor times, you wouldn’t have looked terribly off from a Goth – funny…

Nevertheless, this was not all joy and colourful extravaganza, as it is seen by the attires of ordinary people. We know thanks to archaeological discoveries, particularly in London, that knitting seems to have become a popular activity for the everyday woman of the 16th century. The poor would have riled in home knitted wear to keep themselves warm. All types of garments have been found made this way, from mittens to underwear vests. There is a particular type of knitted wear that is known to have been worn by the working men in London: caps. These were made with neck and cheek or ear pieces to keep the face warm, but also way from the dirt. In addition, these caps were fairly waterproof and perfectly capable of coping with the bad weather. Interestingly, we have also found leather pattens that would have been layers on top of normal shoes to keep them clean when people went outside. I guess this is what happens when you can only afford a pair of shoes: you must ensure they are kept in the best condition possible, and covering the shoes with multiple layers, could well have been a cheaper fix than buying a new pair every so often. As a final point, I would like to bring attention to the ordinary clothes any man would have worn on a daily basis in comparison to the pompous codpiece and the 3 piece suit. I am talking about them commoner’s shirt and breeches, also known as slops. These are believed to have been a practical attire particularly used by sailors and other labourers.

So, perhaps next time you go shopping or find yourself browsing through a clothes magazine, you will take a moment to consider how fashionable fashion actually is, or how new such and such trend actually are 😉

Interview with Stardust Years owner, Karen Fitzsimmons.

Stardust Years is a brilliantly unique shop on the Winchester High Street, specialising in vintage and historical fashion items. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the shop for the first time and at once fell in love with the beautiful items on display. After my visit, I approached the owner Karen Fitzsimmons, and she kindly agreed to answer a few questions I had about historical fashion and the growing popularity of vintage-wear.

Q: When did Stardust Years open?

A: July, 2013

Q: Where do you get the items from?

A: That’s a bit like asking Tinkerbell where she gets her Magic Fairy Dust!  All I can say is that I go out and source all our stock myself.  We do not buy over the counter so, if you’re reading this and you have a treasure to sell please don’t come to us as you’ll only be disappointed.

Q: It must be hard to part with some of the beautiful items on sale, what has been your favourite item that you’ve encountered?

A: Oh, it is! I think there are too many to choose from but if I had to choose it would be some of the Rayne Shoes that I had when we first opened the shop.  As a result of researching Rayne Shoes, I met Nick Rayne, the son of Sir Edmund Rayne who steered the family business during its most successful years.  Rayne Shoes supplied many Hollywood stars with shoes, including Marlene Dietrich and Vivien Leigh. They also made the Queen’s wedding shoes.

Nick bought some of our shoes for the Rayne Shoe Archive (you can see some of our shoes – including the pair we donated) in the book, Rayne, Shoes for Stars which accompanied last year’s exhibition at the Fashion & Textile Museum. We were invited to the Book Launch at the Dorchester Hotel, held in the famous Oliver Messel Room. It was wonderful.  I was very sad at parting with the shoes so soon after I had found them – my husband took a photo of me saying goodbye to them when we were packing them for the courier’s collection!  However, they led me on an exciting journey and I know their beauty and craftsmanship will be enjoyed by so many more people in the future.

Q: When did your interest in vintage and historical fashion begin and why?

A: I loved Cinema from an early age and I grew up watching fabulous films from the 1930s, 40s and 50s which gave me my love for the fashions of the past.  They were so creative and glamorous.

Is there a particular era that you feel drawn to, and if so why is this? (Would you say it was based on the aesthetics of the era or a historical interest? Or both?)

A: My favourite eras are the 40s and 50s.  Across those decades there was so much diversity and creativity, even though we were plunged into a World War.  I love the tailoring, the detail and the care that went into the creation of accessories as well as clothing. Designers of some of the most glamorous fashions of the day were also involved in developing Utility Clothing (eg Digby Morton and Hardy Amies) and functional, eccentric items such as the Gas Mask Shoulder Bag (H Wald).

Q: What era of clothing is the most popular among your customers, and why do you think this is?

A: I think the 1950s is the most popular due to a number of factors.  There are the customers who are ardent vintage fans and attend a lot of vintage dances and weekend events.  The most popular period for vintage events seems to be the 1940s and the 1950s.  Then there are the customers who are looking for a dress for a special event and find the choice on the High Street limiting.  These customers find our 1950s rails attractive because of the diversity of styles that ran throughout the decade.  Whatever your figure, you can find something that suits you and looks wonderful.  The 40 and 50s were a time of great social change and these changes are reflected in contemporary fashion.

Q: What is the strangest/quirkiest vintage item you’ve encountered in the shop?

A: I can’t think of anything strange!  I always have to consider who would buy whatever I source. What I do love about vintage is that you can find quirky elements such as a 1940s clasp on a handbag or a clasp to a necklace.  We did have a marvellous 1920s bag with a mirror base and a large carved, enamel clasp which had to be twisted in a particular way to open the bag.  You can find lovely, unique accessories inside what appears to be a fairly plain handbag, too.

Q:  Do you have a vintage fashion icon or inspiration?

A: Too many to mention in terms of designers but Christian Dior is one of my favourites. I love those designers who also designed for the cinema such as Adrian, Edith Head and Irene Lentz and any of the actresses they dressed.

Equally, do you have a contemporary fashion icon or inspiration?

A: No.

Q: Can you see the influence of past styles on contemporary fashion? If so, what would an example of this be?

A: Oh, yes.  Nothing seems to be new.  There was a recent resurgence of 1950/60s fashions, as well as the 1970s with maxi dresses (which, of course were pre-dated by earlier fashions!).  I do wonder if future fashion will ever be as exciting as the developments that occurred during the 1910s – 60s.

Of course, fashion historians will be able to point to other great periods in history.  As the way we live changes, so will the way we dress so it’s interesting to see how young fashion designers will translate that into fashion and accessories.

Q: Why do you think vintage fashion is becoming so popular? In your opinion, would the popularity of programmes such as Downton Abbey or Mr Selfridge have anything to do with this?

A: Popular culture has always influenced fashion so it’s no surprise that very successful period dramas have contributed to the continuing popularity of vintage fashion.  There have also been a lot of anniversary events around the two World Wars and I think that has increased the interest in the 1940s, in particular.

The way in which we celebrate our lives has also been influenced by popular culture and social history.  We’ve seen customers buying vintage for birthdays, weddings and anniversaries.  Sometimes, it’s been a Mad Men birthday party or a 1930s wedding. I once had three ladies in one afternoon all going to the same 1940s party but none of them knew each other.  None of them liked to dress in unfamiliar clothing! (With each lady, I looked at our reference books, discussed what they already had in their wardrobe and accented it with an accessory or advice on hair).

Q: What would you say to someone with a newly found interest in vintage and historical fashion? Any tips or advice?

A: I would recommend joining the mailing list of the Fashion & Textile Museum in London.  They have some fabulous exhibitions. I would advise anyone wanting to buy vintage to be discerning – for me, there’s a difference between vintage fashion and old clothing.  Good vintage will cost more but it’s worth it for the superb tailoring and quality of the fabrics. I have some customers who come to Stardust Years because they’ve become collectors and buy investment pieces.  Others, are looking for a high-end piece of fashion that’s unique and won’t be identifiable as a “High Street piece.” Then there are those customers who just want to enjoy wearing the fashions and feeling a little closer to the past.

Also, always try on a garment – and never over jeans! I love wearing vintage but shapes have changed – plus, we’re all individuals!  I’ve never agreed with fashion sizes – we don’t fit a designated size. For this reason, I never buy my vintage wardrobe online.

Finally, remember there are no rules – you don’t have to go for the “complete” vintage look. Sometimes, it’s just as much fun and stylish to put the past with the present and create an individual look for you.

Q: Is there any era that you dislike in terms of the fashion trends? If so, why is that?

A:  The 1970s – I remember it the first time round – and I wasn’t keen on it then!
Though, looking back, I do admire what designers like Zandra Rhodes and Emilio Pucci achieved.

Q: What do you think we can learn from vintage and historical fashion?

A: The way people lived their lives, how our values have changed and how much effort went into creating something – whether it was a dress or a handbag.  People comment that our stock is in very good condition (most of it, anyway!) and that’s generally because, people didn’t have many clothes.  “Sunday Best” was exactly that.  Hardly worn and very well looked after because their “Sunday Best” was the only Best they had.

I’ve seen haute couture items by Dior, from the 1940s and 50s, which were constructed with wide inner seams so that as the wearer’s shape changed, the fashion house could alter the dress, accordingly. Nowadays, we live in “disposable” times – if something breaks, needs a part or needs letting out, we don’t mend it, we throw it away and just buy a replacement.

Q: Have you ever encountered an item with a really fascinating history attached? 

A: We have a costume once worn by actress Glenda Jackson in the film The Incredible Sarah, based on the life of Sarah Bernhardt. The designer, Anthony Mendleson was nominated for Best Costume Design in 1976 (but lost out to Danilo Donati’s Fellini’s Casanova).  It has a gorgeous circular train and would be a beautiful wedding dress. We also have a fur wrap believed to have been worn by actress, Vivien Leigh.

Sometimes, the most interesting items are the ones that come with clues to their owner/wearer’s life eg the 1930s clutch bag that has a theatre ticket inside it, dated the 18th of August, 1945.  When we find such clues to its past, we always keep the item with the vintage piece.  I once had a 1940s suit with a damaged skirt.  The jacket was priced but the customer had to take the skirt, too (at no charge, of course). I couldn’t bear to have them parted, not after they had been together for over 75 years!

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: Just that if you find a vintage item remember, it is just like you; individual and unique – you won’t find anything like it anywhere else!

Q: Thank you so much for your time.


A great many thanks to Karen for taking the time to answer my questions, I loved reading your responses. Stardust Years will be celebrating its third birthday this weekend. To help celebrate in style, there will be free signature cocktails as well as the return of the TLC Rail, and vintage ‘Rescue Remnants,’ going free to a good home! On Sunday afternoon, between 1 and 3pm, Stardust Years will also be joined by Virginia Hannan, Bespoke Dress Design who will be available to offer tips and suggestions on dress design and alterations.

More information can be found on Karen’s Stardust Years blog, and on their Facebook page.