When I am asked what it is about the Second World War that fascinates me so much I reply that it is not war but people who excite my interest: how individuals cope in a time of emergency and how such events impact upon their later lives. One of the practical aspects that had to be considered was clothing and it is something I am regularly asked about in regard to Home Fires. Just to be clear, I am not involved in the production of the drama – my involvement stops with the scripts – but I did have the great good fortune to talk to the series costume designer, Lucinda Wright, in the lead up to filming series 1 and she took me round the fabulous collections of clothes at Angels Costumes. Their website claims they have over one million items and eight miles of hanging costume. Well, I didn’t see them all but Lucinda and I did discuss colour and fabrics in some detail.
I have been involved in researching the Second World War for the best part of fifteen years and fashion and clothing are a fascinating aspect of the social history of that era. It was a time of uniformity on the one hand and individual expression on the other. What people wore and how they felt about it – whether smart in battle dress or tatty in patched and darned clothes – said much about the spirit of the time. What people wore in the countryside was no less expressive than outfits seen in the towns and cities.
Everyone in Home Fires is dressed to their status. Steph Farrow wears dungarees in the fields but once she arrives at a WI meeting she is scrubbed clean and wearing a patterned dress, as would have been the case in the 1940s. Edith Jones, the wonderful diarist whose jottings form the golden thread through Jambusters, would always change into a frock in the evening for supper, even if it was just her and Jack eating supper together. She is similar to Steph in many ways. At the other end of the spectrum is Joyce Cameron. Always meticulously turned out and often wearing fur. Until the 1970s when there was a huge animal rights’ movement against fur coats, women of a certain standing would have one, two or even three fur coats in their wardrobe: a mink for the evening, a pine-marten for day use and a fox stole to wear over a tweed coat. The Board of Trade slapped a 100% purchase tax on luxuries such as fur coats during the war but they were still popular and widely worn. Hats were de rigeur for church, shopping and most social outings, though as the war progressed a certain degree of informality crept in and some women went bare-headed. Although they were never rationed, hats were not always easy to find in the shops after 1941 but for the summer of 1940 there would still have been plenty in evidence.
Teresa Fenchurch comes from Liverpool and stands out from the rest of the women in the village on account of her wonderful Liverpudlian accent and her city wardrobe. She wears wool, not tweed, and her clothes are often bright and single coloured rather than patterned. As a teacher she is an outsider in that she has a profession and a secret. It is apt that she lives with the other outsider in the village, Alison Scotlock, who also has a profession and a secret. Women teachers made up a large proportion of the profession in the war as many young men left their posts to fight. Pre-war when a teacher married she would have to give up work but this changed in the early years of the war as the government could not afford to lose qualified teachers, especially in villages where there was often only one teacher for the whole school.
One major change in Britain during 1940 was the proportion of people wearing uniform. You might not have noticed the change between series 1 and series 2 but it is striking and absolutely reflects what was happening in the country. About a third of the population of Britain were entitled to wear uniform during the Second World War. This would give a figure of somewhere in the region of 15 million people, a large number of whom were women. So we have in Great Paxford a mixture of RAF, Army and women’s service uniforms – that much is obvious. But then there are the women working in the Barden’s factory who all wear pinafores over their own clothes to protect them. Clare wears a uniform when she is working for Frances Barden as a maid, though not on her days off with Spencer. House coats, such as those worn by Pat, were popular and a sensible way to keep the wear and tear of ordinary clothes to a minimum.
With so many people wearing them, it is unsurprising that the general public knew how to ‘read’ uniforms across a street or at the scene of an incident, and could identify at a glance a man or woman’s job, rank and status. And it was very important to know and trust the person who was issuing an instruction, especially during the Blitz, when people needed to know who to listen to or appeal to in a crisis. Aside from emergencies, uniforms had a hierarchy with implications on many levels, some of them more personal than official.
Some uniforms, such as the Royal Air Force blue, gave men real status in women’s eyes. This was partly because it comprised a smaller body of men than the army, and their jobs, especially the pilots, were considered heroic and extremely dangerous. They were known as ‘Our Glamour Boys’. The PBI (Poor Bloody Infantry) suffered in their khaki uniforms from being the least admired of the three services by the general public. Members of the women’s services (just over 100,000 in June 1941) were said to grade potential boyfriends in an order of eligibility in which ‘RAF officers rated tops, being classified in turn by rank and number of decorations; naval officers came second and brown jobs a long way behind’.
So as you are watching Episode 5 of Home Fires, it is worth looking out for the distinctions of dress and the way different people react to it. That is, if you have time to notice that level of detail when there is so much drama going on around you. This is another breathtaking hour where I lurched from near tears of enchantment to gasping with horror. Enjoy Sunday evening!
In the autumn of 2014, while the first series of Home Fires was being filmed, I was writing a book for the Imperial War Museum about wartime clothing and fashion. It was a lovely project to work on and I greatly enjoyed delving into the Board of Trade’s archive. This department was responsible for the length of men’s socks and the width of the gusset in women’s knickers.
Fashion on the Ration was published by Profile Books in paperback in February 2016 and is the subject of a major exhibition at IWM North starting next month and running until spring 2017. Warning: this book contains Forces bloomers and corsets!