I was about ten years old. We lived for a short time at Newbury near Greenham Common which was a massive military air base.
I sat in the barbers shop, holding my ninepence in my hand waiting my turn to have a short back and sides. The conversation went something like this: the barber had a relation who wanted to buy a brand new, definitely not second hand wedding dress. The family had worked out that if they all put their clothing coupons together they could just about buy one – assuming there was a pre-war one available in the shops.
In my innocence I spoke up. I said that I knew someone who had a white nylon parachute for sale. The Yanks (Americans) had been practising dropping supplies and a parachute had gone off course and someone had retrieved it before they came in their little Jeep to pick it up.
There was an ominous silence in the barbers shop. The barber said in a stern voice “I think you have said enough sonny”. The man next to me whispered that the barber was a policeman and only cut peoples hair to earn extra money. This was one of my earliest brushes with the law.
Clothes rationing was introduced in 1941. I never remember having new clothes during the war: for me it was ‘hand me downs’ and ‘make do and mend’. My father’s old worn out jumper was valued because it could be unroved and re-knitted for me. After the war things were only marginally better because for many families clothing was in effect rationed by price.
It was five decades later that I was able to study the effects and after-effects of war on the clothing industries.
During the First World War the manufacturers soon faced two problems: the shortage of workers as thousands of employees volunteered for the forces and the shortage of raw materials as supplies of silk, cotton and wool needed to be transported thousands of miles along hostile sea lanes. One of central Leicester’s larger factories, Corah Ltd, supplied over seven million garments to the government between 1914 and 1918. The completion of orders was achieved despite the loss of half of the male members of Corah’s workforce to military service. Of the 330 that went to serve their country, sadly forty never returned.
There had been a widespread movement of workers to the forces and appalling loss of life, with the consequent result that women had to be ‘substituted’ for men to keep the factories going. After the First World War the industry, in common with many others, enjoyed a very short boom and then a period of short but severe recession late in 1920. Around this time the trade unions had little difficulty in removing those ‘substituted women’ who were on men’s wages. However, the growing trend for women to forsake more genteel employment and domestic service and to work in industry with its higher wages continued in peacetime and women were still able to find work in a labour market that could exploit the low cost of female labour, particularly in the expanding hosiery and knitwear industries. As a result, the number of people employed in the industry was over 50% greater in 1924 than in 1912.
Following the First World War there was the abandonment of the dark styles of earlier eras and ankle length skirts of the Edwardian era. Short skirts of the Charleston years increased the fashion for fully-fashioned stockings for women and the favoured change from boots to shoes for men increased the demand for fancy socks.
As World War 11 approached, hosiery and knitwear firms again turned to producing clothing for the troops. From 1939 men and women were recruited to the armed forces of Great Britain and the Commonwealth in great numbers and needed uniforms. The clothing industries were placed on a war footing, and this entailed a massive reduction of civilian output by the UK hosiery and knitwear industry. Many employees were called up to the armed forces or transferred to other occupations, particularly engineering.
Clothes rationing was introduced in June 1941. To indicate that an item of clothing met the quality standards set out in the regulations, a utility quality mark ‘CC41’ plus the style number and the company’s code was stamped onto the garments. By the end of 1943, 99% of women’s stockings and 96% of all other garments were utility marked. The number of clothing coupons needed to purchase any type of garment could be increased or decreased without notice to stifle off or increase the output for the civilian market. Clothes rationing ended in 1949.
Many firms approached the end of the war facing severe problems. For example over 2,000 employees had left Corah, the ‘Flag Ship’ M&S supplier, and entered the armed forces or been transferred to other vital work. The firm was reduced to half its pre-war labour strength, it had worn out equipment, one third of its floor space had been allocated to other essential war work and expansion was limited by complex planning regulations.
During the Second World War, several jobs that had previously been male dominated, such as knitting, were also performed by women, but after the war they gradually reverted to male domination, a trend that was accelerated with the introduction of three-shift working. Band-knife cutting was regarded as men’s work but sewing machine operations and hand-cutting of knitwear and garments was almost exclusively women’s work.
War had a lasting effect on the manufacturing gender structure as women increasingly sought employment in the industrial centres of the clothing industries – particularly in the hosiery and knitwear sectors in Leicester and Nottingham.
Sadly, the clothing industry was decimated from the mid-1970s due to the importation of cheap clothing in the era of ‘globalisation’ of trade. As the clothing industry declined women were able to find employment in large numbers in the service industries and the professions.