A wartime-style economy is often cited as a potential path towards meeting our international carbon emissions agreements. In debates about the fashion industry, the idea of a shift as radical as the one that took place in the second world war is frequently mooted in conversations about sustainability.
Clearly this is a problematic comparison. It is important not to romanticise the violence of war or glamorise the reality of political states of emergency. But there is a reason the idea keeps being raised. The war is the most recent time in which the economy was overhauled in the face of an existential threat. It is the closest demonstration we have that quick, radical change is possible if we all come together.
Clothing was rationed then – a system that changed consumption habits and helped to keep precious materials for use in the war effort. This did not actually mean the end of variety, or creativity. There were varying qualities of clothing still available at different price points and design was cleverly rethought to minimise waste. Uniforms were made without covered button plackets; pleats were removed from pockets to save on cloth; double cuffs, trouser turn-ups and elastic waistbands were abolished. Utility became desirable, with garments produced by top designers and endorsed by celebrities, and clothes generally became more practical.
“Make do and mend” was a cultural effort by government to encourage people to fix clothing or modify it to make it feel new. Dressmaking and pattern-cutting lessons built up skills and many made their own clothes to save on coupons. Knitting took off as a practical pastime and jewellery was made out of reclaimed and unusual materials. Clothing exchanges took place via the Women’s Voluntary Service and an independent points system enabled swappers to claim the value back at another time. This was especially helpful for those with growing children to dress.
Rental, swapping, sewing clubs and upcycling are being widely explored at the moment, too. All could be seen as a revival of wartime principles and ideas. But the key difference is that in the second world war there was such a need to meticulously plan. The dominant mode of shopping was to seek out clothing based on needs, not wants, and on a sense of duty to the future.