In 1940, with all-out war looming, the UK government Board of Trade decided to restrict the amount of clothing available in order to preserve resources. They called in the help of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers, comprising the leading English couture houses, and asked them to design robust clothes using a minimum of material. These ‘utility’ clothes were created with simple but effective variations on the theme of button-through dresses with revers or high necks and skirts which reached just below the knees, flared for easy walking. Waists were belted and well-defined, and dress sleeves were short to save material.
This odd alliance of government officials and fashion designers could never perhaps have realised just how much of a revolution in tailoring they created. For the first time fashion, such as it was, derived from (and was created for) the proletariat, not from the privileged. Moreover, the utility style persisted right through until the late 1950s – perhaps the longest surviving single fashion trend in modern times. With an improved economic climate after the war, the style evolved. There was a more generous use of cloth; the volume of the skirt grew, postured over a net petticoat. Rock ‘n’ Roll was just around the corner!
I believe these dresses are to be admired for their deceptively detailed, well-proportioned and flattering lines. They are very chic – even sexy, although what is revealed (unbuttoned!) is for the wearer to decide, not the designer. Looking at these garments today, I see everywhere the creative touch of the true designer. In spite of the forced economies, there is nothing skimpy about the results. It’s a classical example of the true expert knowing just how to make the most with less.
Something perhaps present couturiers have forgotten? Today the value of a design brief is often rated by the amount of money thrown at it. And ‘expertise’ is often measured by the untrammelled usage of expensive (not to say bizarre) materials. The game is about money, status, theatre, personality and exclusiveness.
It’s a fascinating side-show, but as a tailor, my real thrill comes in working out an elegant solution to a practical challenge, whether that concerns cost, material, utility – or indeed shape.
As I prepare summer wardrobes for clients, I have found that variations of these dresses provide an ideal starting point for fit, taste and style. In a range of fabrics from cotton prints to silk georgette they can be incredibly versatile – appropriate for almost any occasion.
What makes them special however, has nothing to do with the consumption of raw materials, but rather the time, effort and technical skill required to produce the detail. Sadly, you are unlikely to find garments like these on the high street, where today the name of the retail game is rapid obsolescence and high turnover for minimum cost.
Red crepe day dress: This Utility prototype design made in rayon crepe was designed to save on yardage and labour, with its scantily gathered, knee-length skirt and all-in-one piece collar and centre front. It was widely copied by the ready-to-wear industry. From Through the Looking Glass by Elizabeth Wilson and Lou Taylor.
‘Pearls of Little Price’ from A History of Fashion by J. Anderson Black & Madge Garland