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The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as a young child

Coping with clothes rationing
in and after 1940s wartime Britain

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In the shortages of the Second World War, there was no way to buy what might be regarded as 'nice clothes'. Quite apart from the fact that money was so short, clothes were rationed and could only be bought from shops on a point system. This page is about how people coped legally, rather than through the illegal 'black market'.

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Buying 'utility' clothes

The 'utility' mark, stamped on goods made during the Secon World War.

The 'utility' mark, stamped on basic, functional goods made during the war.

The clothes that were available in the shops were basic and functional because all non-essential resources had to go into the war effort. These clothes, like most other things produced in the war bore a mark that was called 'the utility mark'. I grew up with it all around me, as even though we 'made do and mended' various items really did wear out and have to be replaced. Furthermore, utility goods never seemed to wear out and could still give good service many years afterwards, in better times, had we chosen still to use them.

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Passing on outgrown clothes

Clothes rationing and young people

My mother was about 18 when WW2 began. She said that the war shortages were particularly difficult for young people, because, unlike older people, they hadn't had time to get a good stock of clothing together, and many were living away from home and family support.

Sandra Hanson

In view of the shortages of nice clothes and the severity of clothes rationing, there was no stigma in giving and receiving outgrown clothes. I remember some particularly expensive-looking dresses in two sizes which had been bought for a neighbour's two girls before the war, and which served me well for several years. As I grew out of one size, the next size up was ready and waiting. Families too provided cast-offs, which were in relatively good supply while I was young because they had been bought before the war started, ie before there was rationing. Children born towards the end of the war and in the years of austerity afterwards were less fortunate because outgrown clothes had already received wear from several children.

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Making clothes

Women made a lot of their family's clothes. Although fabric was rationed and relatively basic (with the utility mark stamped on the edge), making clothes was cheaper than buying and the style was one's own choice. It was also normal to make new clothes from worn old ones.

Women also did a lot of knitting, and girl-children were also taught to do it from an early age, as was I. Life was still very sexist at that time, and it would have been unthinkable for a boy to knit.

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Gifts from American soldiers

Living as I did in Edgware, I never saw an American soldier during the war, but I knew that they were regarded as having no shortages at all. (This still puzzles me, as presumably the merchant seamen who brought their luxuries were risking their lives to do so. Or perhaps the goods were flown in.) My cousin did see American soldiers and got chewing gum from them.

Young British women who befriended American soldiers would navailable in our British shops. Young women who were not so fortunate would often stain their legs and paint a seam along the back.

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Bartering

Although selling rationed things for money was classed as Black Market for which there could be a prison sentence, swapping was legal. So bartering came into its own in this time of rationing and shortages. People would swap things, most shops had postcards in their windows saying things like:

  • Swap two rabbits for a wedding dress.

  • Babies cot swap for men's trousers.

Peter Johnson


If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster