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Utility dresses designed by Norman Hartnell.
Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

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Fast Fashion’s Surprising Origins

Both the high-low collab and ultra-efficient manufacturing were born out of WWII-era austerity.

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The Vogue editor didn’t hold back. Writing with palpable excitement, Isabella “Babs” Bouët-Willaumez proclaimed the high-low collaboration a “basic design of perfect proportion and line for which haute couture has always been famed.” The partition between haute couture and off-the-rack had been all but eviscerated. This was the democratization of fashion in action. “Now the women in the street, the government clerk, and the busy housewife shall have a chance to buy beautiful clothes, suitable to all their lives and incomes,” she gushed.

Bouët-Willaumez could have dashed off those words yesterday — about the H&M and Erdem alliance, say, or Target and Victoria Beckham’s cheap-chic pas de deux. But she wrote her review not in 2017 but in 1942, at a time when Great Britain, still battling the Germans in World War II, was in the grips of government cost-cutting measures known euphemistically as “austerity.” Those “beautiful clothes” were part of a government-run scheme known as Civilian Clothing Order 1941 — CC41 for short.

A display of Utility clothes in a shop, somewhere in Britain. All these clothes were designed by Norman Hartnell.
Photo: By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Clothing, like every other commodity, was rigorously rationed. The war effort consumed vast quantities of raw materials, most of which had to be imported into the United Kingdom. To exacerbate matters, naval blockades along vital shipping routes, along with increasing attacks on merchant convoys, spelled chronic supply shortages. The government needed to severely curtail civilian consumption — and quickly.

But even as it began issuing coupon books to every man, woman, and child, the Board of Trade realized that rationing alone would serve as an insufficient bulwark against dwindling resources. The Nazi air force, known as the Luftwaffe, had taken out key manufacturing facilities during the bombing blitzes of London and Manchester. Of the remaining factories, nearly half were pressed into the production of tens of millions of uniforms for the army, navy, air force, women’s services, and auxiliary corps.

Scarcity was just one problem. The soaring cost of available clothing was another. Rationing applied not only to the general populace, but to apparel makers as well.

“The amount of cloth [manufacturers] got was really hugely down on what it had been prewar, and if you're only going to get a certain amount of cloth in, then the natural tendency is to make it into expensive garments with a large profit margin,” Mike Brown, author of 2014’s CC41 Utility Clothing: The Label That Transformed British Fashion, told Racked. “This was the problem that government had: Under these problems of constraints of supply, how do you keep prices down?”

In July 1941, Metford Watkins, the director general of the freshly minted Directorate of Civilian Clothing, announced that he wanted to make the sale of clothes affordable to working-class people once more. He would do so by introducing a new type of clothing, which he referred to as “general utility,” then later, more formally, as CC41.

The British citizenry was less than thrilled. The very concept of state-controlled garments inflamed institutional memories of the “standard clothing” of the First World War. They too had been promised “serviceable garments at reasonable prices.” Manufacturers complained that the clothes failed to turn a profit, while consumers despaired over the inferior quality and unvarying designs of the pieces.

“Most people had the idea that anything to do with standard clothes was going to be a uniform, and a very poor uniform at that,” Brown said.

Two models pose in CC41 pieces, circa 1943.
Photo: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer/ IWM/ Getty Images
A model in a Norman Hartnell austerity dress.
Photo: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer/ IWM/ Getty Images

This was far from the case, however. It was true that frippery was now verboten, even unpatriotic. Women’s dresses could no longer have tiered skirts, imitation pockets, or more than four pleats, for instance. Men’s suits had to dispense with double breasts and buttons on the cuffs. Even infantwear had to forgo lace and embroidery. But despite the material constraints the scheme imposed on finished garments, the government made no restrictions on color.

“Many [utility clothes] were bright with interesting patterns such as checks, stripes, and even patriotic motifs,” wrote Julie Summers in her 2015 book Fashion on the Ration: Style in the Second World War. “[In fact], utility had the effect of replacing poor-quality cloth with better, durable material that was quality-controlled for the first time in its history and benefited consumers both during the war and after.”

The scheme even had its own “utility mark,” which was to be printed along with the manufacturer’s own label. Designed by one Reginald Shipp, the double Cs in CC41 were rendered as a pair of stylized “cheeses,” as they popularly became known.

The “cheeses,” as they were known.
Photo: By British Government (Scan of original.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Still, the government needed to get people on board. Somebody had a brainwave. “One of the assistant director generals of the Directorate of Civilian Clothing was a man called Tom Heron who had always been very deeply interested in design and style,” Brown said. “And he was the one who came up with the idea of going to the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers.”

Founded in 1942 with the aim of promoting British couture, both at home and overseas, the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers, or IncSoc for short, was the spiritual forebear of today’s British Fashion Council.

Its founding roster read like a Who’s Who of fashion luminaries. Inaugural members included Bianca Mosca at Jacqmar, Victor Stiebel, Edward Molyneux, Hardy Amies, Digby Morton, and Norman Hartnell. Hartnell’s fame, in particular, extended far beyond the Mayfair set. Best known for outfitting the women of the British Royal Family, he had by then earned his first royal warrant as dressmaker to the queen.

Historians agree that the “couturier scheme,” as the initiative became known, was nothing short of a masterstroke. Geraldine Howell, who penned Wartime Fashion: From Haute Couture to Homemade, 1939-1945 in 2012, declared the move an “imaginative answer to skepticism over the product” — the product being, of course, utility.

Each designer was charged with the drafting of a top coat, a dress, a blouse, and a skirt. As long as they used utility fabric and abided by the rules of austerity, the designers had license to do as they pleased.

The public was rapturous. Despite their stripped-down appearance, templates that produced for the trade, as well as the home dressmaker, were gobbled up. Hartnell’s involvement was a major plus.

“Suburban wives and factory girls will soon be able to wear clothes designed and styled by the Queen’s dressmaker,” extolled the Daily Mail. “Before long the society woman who pays 30 guineas for a frock will share her dress designer with the factory girl who pays 30 [shillings],” the News Chronicle raved.

Audrey Withers, editor-in-chief at British Vogue, was equally bowled over. Echoing Babs Bouët-Willaumez’s effusive sentiments, she described the designs as “serenely perfect … one would never guess that at every point they fit the framework of Civilian Clothing Orders.”

Seventy years later, “masstige” events can still inspire frenzied mobs, website crashes, and customer-on-customer fisticuffs. H&M regularly plies the public with affordable versions of designer labels like Karl Lagerfeld, Alexander Wang, Comme des Garçons, and Balmain. Target does the same with the rarified likes of Alice Temperley, Proenza Schouler, Rodarte, and Missoni. Gap has offered inexpensive pieces by Michael Bastian, Steven Alan, Thakoon, and Doo.Ri. Even Payless ShoeSource dallied with Lela Rose in 2011.

In 1942, however, the idea of marrying high fashion with the high street was completely novel, even audacious. “I believe this was the first time that they had used haute couturiers in terms of producing and designing cheap clothes ... I don't think that had been done before on a large scale,” Brown said. “An awful lot of the women at that time had never been able to afford to have a [luxury] label, so this was wonderful stuff.”

For a country still divided by class and means, World War II served as a great equalizer. And one of the consequences, according to Summers, was the democratization of fashion. “It had begun to some extent before the war with the mass production of Hollywood and Paris fashion in high-street shops,” she said, “but utility made the availability of good-quality fashion clothing much more widespread.”

The clothes were popular not only because they were well-made, and so needed scant replacing, but also because they accommodated even modest budgets. A woman’s utility coat could sometimes cost more than 1 pound less than a non-utility one, making a difference of a difference of 60 pounds in today’s currency, Summers said.

Prices had a fixed ceiling; under utility, manufacturer profits could not exceed 4 percent of production and sales expenses, while wholesaler margins had to stay within 20 percent of the manufacturer’s price. Retailer profits were capped at 33 percent of the manufacturer’s or wholesaler’s price.

“As more good-quality utility clothes came onto the market, they began to represent better value for money: wool utility dresses costing 3 pounds to 4 pounds hung on the same rack as non-utility wool dresses costing twice or three times, sometimes even more,” Summers noted. If you were counting coupons and pennies, the choice was clear.

A model sits on a flight of steps to show off her scarlet wool utility frock by Dorville.
Photo:By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As for the couturier scheme, the veil between high and low, once pierced, was never the same again. It might even have beget a kernel of an idea that evolved into today’s “fashion for all” ethos.

“Even after utility was dropped, more and more of the top fashion designers would not only have their couture at exhibition, but they would also have their off-the-peg designs,” Brown said. “At first, couturiers kind of turned their nose up at [ready to wear], but it soon became quite acceptable because there was a lot of money involved in being able to do this. So you have these parallel markets taking place, which I don't believe happened to any extent before, if at all, before the utility scheme.”

Certainly, utility made mass production more efficient. In addition to making clothes cost-effective, utility was intended to save materials and labor for employment in the war effort.

“Utility saw the simplification of material to a small number of very long runs,” Summers told Racked. “Cotton had run into hundreds of different specifications, but it was cut down to a dozen and that meant the quality was more likely to be consistent, the designs for clothes were mass-produced on a much larger-than-hitherto scale, and as a result there were clothes available on the high street that were recognizably of one design.”

Eric L. Hargreaves and Margaret Gowing, writing in History of the Second World War: Civil Industry and Trade in 1952, found that the one-two punch of utility and austerity saved millions of yards of wool, cotton, and rayon, while freeing up hundreds of thousands of workers for war work.

A model in an Atrima dress, circa 1943.
Photo: By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Even small tweaks proved significant: By shortening men’s shirts by two inches and getting rid of double cuffs, manufacturers were able to save 4 million square yards of cotton per year, as well as release “1,000 operatives in the cloth manufacturer alone.” One large-scale manufacturer of women’s clothing claimed it saved a quarter of a yard of woolen and of lining cloth for every “austerity” coat it made.

Consequently, World War II “really changed the way that we make clothes,” Brown said. “It went from the the little guy, you know, in the back streets somewhere to much bigger factories. That was entirely down to the government because the government during the war did not want inefficient forms of production. So mass production was brought in in a big way in the clothing trade during the war, and we've never looked back.”

We can see some of those efficiencies on the high street today, albeit on a more prodigious, global scale. Zara alone cranks out 850 million clothing items every year, according to Greenpeace. The difference is that while utility was built to outlast wartime shortages, “fast fashion” is characterized by its disposability. Where utility was based on thoughtful consumption, the fast-fashion model makes bank on shifting trends and unfettered impulse. Utility was parsimonious about materials; today’s Britons send around 1.5 million tons of clothing and textiles into the landfill annually.

“The thing that shows up how good utility was is there is still a lot of utility clothing about. You can go into lots and lots of vintage shops and find lots of utility stuff,” Brown said. “You try finding ’30s clothes; it’s incredibly rare. Utility clothing was worn for an awful long period. You couldn't just wear it once in a blue moon; you had to wear it a lot. And yet it's still there now.”

Some may argue that utility clothing was made a little too well. “This was one of the problems of the whole utility-austerity thing: People were stuck with wearing the same things for week after week after month after year, and as soon as they had the chance in the mid-’50s to go out and buy other things, they went and did so,” Brown said. “Nowadays people don't want things that are going to last for years and years.”

But even in 2017, the utility scheme can still school us on how to live with less without collapsing into a sartorial rut. Simplicity became a virtue. Women, seeking to remain elegant, learned to gussy up their limited closet with a rotation of brooches, scarves, necklaces, and earrings, which they sometimes pooled with friends and family. To encourage resourcefulness without buying new, the government unfurled the “Make Do and Mend” campaign. And when purchases were necessary, people opted for the best quality they could afford.

That’s not to say we have have to be stuck wearing the same old thing, says Sass Brown, author of Eco Fashion, as well as the founding dean of the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation. “We have a multitude of options now that weren't available then, such as clothing rentals and large-scale ‘swishing’ events,” she said. “There is also a lot to be said for the circular economy and fully disposable recyclable clothes that could address our need for constant newness.”

The utility scheme sang its swan song in 1951 — exactly 10 years after it first began. Yet we can still catch glimpses of the couturier scheme, not just in the minimal lines that have become a hallmark of British fashion but also in the malls we frequent today.

“The utility scheme was unique in that high-end designers were involved for the first time in producing styles for the mass market,” Summers said. “[It’s] a concept that is so familiar today in our high-street shops that we might forget that it originated in a time of austerity over three quarters of a century ago.”


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