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Fashion on the ration

Posted on May 27, 2016

From luminous flowers to gas-mask balls, Zoë Anderson looks at dance and fashion in World War II

Imperial War Museum North’s new exhibition,Fashion on the Ration, includes a photograph of a young woman pinning a flower to her lapel. It’s luminous, a decoration designed to make her visible in the blackout. With bombing raids expected, towns and cities went dark, switching off streetlamps, lowering car headlamps and muffling windows so that no crack of light would escape. Some people wore glow-in-the-dark buttons for the darkened streets; this was the prettier version.

Running at Imperial War Museum North (IWM North), Manchester, the exhibition marks the 75th anniversary of the announcement of clothes rationing in Britain. It’s a glimpse of daily life in wartime, from uniforms and “make do and mend” to functional fashions such as siren suits and gas-mask handbags. Glamour remained important: the exhibition’s “Beauty as Duty” strand examines how some women went to great lengths to maintain their personal appearances. Many fashions acquired a patriotic edge, with slogans or military imagery printed on fabrics.

Fashion and dance were both recognised morale-boosters. The war created a dancing boom, from packed dance halls to a huge new audience for ballet. The Dancing Times archives reveal huge changes in social dance in the period. By 1942, three years into the war, Irene Raines reported that ballroom dance hadn’t just survived, but emerged “through blitz and black-out to the position of nationally approved safety-valve and accepted educational asset”.

The boom had begun with the start of the war in 1939, and just kept growing. “Writing in London in the middle of September whilst the German blitzkrieg is at its height, it is a little difficult to forecast the prospects of the coming winter season,” the magazine reported, temperately, in 1940. “One thing, however, seems very apparent: the youth of this country, whether in the Forces or on essential work, will dance so long as there are halls for them to dance in…”

The social dance scene was transformed by the new conditions, from air raids to a nation in uniform. Once the bombing started, curfews made daytime dancing popular again. “Blitz has, paradoxically, sent the business of the underground restaurants sky high,” reported Irene Raines in 1940. (These subterranean venues weren’t always safer; at least 34 people would be killed at London’s Café de Paris when two bombs fell into the basement ballroom through a ventilation shaft.) Another club, Oddenino’s, offered dinner, dancing and an underground dormitory: “there are camp beds and blankets ready for all guests who do not care to face the Blitz.”

The magazine lists many dance schools and studios bombed, with teachers quickly reopening in new premises to meet demand. Phyllis Haylor reported in 1942 that “many teachers in provincial cities tell me that they are doing five and six times the business of pre-war days… dancing plays an important part in the programme of relaxation for war workers in the Forces, factories and Civil Defense.”

Teachers also had to adjust to the needs of their new pupils. In 1943, Eve Tynegate-Smith compared pre-war teaching with the case of a soldier on short leave. He wouldn’t have time to learn standard figures, and anyway the crowded dance halls wouldn’t give him room to dance them. “In fact he will be very disappointed if he is not turned out just a comfortable, pleasant dancer, who can confidently ask any girl to dance a second time.”

Many just wanted to get up and dance; others were keen to learn in more depth, with plenty of army personnel telling Dancing Times their progress with lessons and medal tests. “What with one thing and another, overwork and being in all the ‘Blitzes’ that London has had to offer, I suppose I might have had just a touch of War Nerves,” reported one “Army Officer”. “For these I have discovered that dancing is a most excellent substitute.”

A Liverpool dance promoter noted that competitions were especially popular with Forces couples: “I don’t think they understand anything about ‘official rules’ and I am sure we, as the organisers, don’t want to be bothered with such trivialities, at least for the duration.”

The Star Ball of 1941 was held as an “all services” competition, requiring at least one partner dancing in uniform. One former competitor couldn’t help lamenting the lack of “tail-coats, flowing chiffon frocks and the usual glamorous setting” for the long-established competition. Another observer was more cheerful about wartime fashions: “The admirable pleated crêpe frock worn by amateur champion Mrs Harman stood out among the abbreviated ‘fluffies’ in general wear, and Miss P. Smith looked charming in her nurse’s kit.”

Shorter “fluffy” dresses had another problem. One reader complained: “What can we dancers do about this ban on silk stockings – just when we are wearing short frocks all the time and our ankles should be looking their very best we are doomed to clumsy, shapeless wool, or even worse, ‘horrid art silk’.” The reply promised exciting new developments in artificial fabrics, but didn’t mention the newly-developed nylon. Shoes were less of a problem: Hammersmith Palais actually offered free use of dancing shoes to members of the armed forces.

Smaller competitions had other patriotic aims, from raising funds to encouraging safe wartime behaviour. In 1941, Mecca dance halls held a series of “Gas Mask Balls”, with reduced entry prices for “every civilian carrying his or her gas mask”, while competition prizes included gas mask cases. Each ball featured numbers “in which the dancers wore their masks”, which must have been an unnerving sight.

allies parade

If ballroom dress codes were shaken up, so were the steps. The war started with a fashion for “party dances”, such as the Lambeth Walk, with catchy tunes and simple steps. Party dances had become popular in the late 1930s, but war saw the introduction of patriotic versions, such as “The Black Out Stroll” (“There is tremendous merriment when the lights go out”) or “The Allies’ Parade”.

Another, more lasting development was the jitterbug. This is often associated with the arrival of American forces in 1942, but cinema had helped to make the dance popular in Britain long before that. Dancing Times was discussing the new dance in 1939, and reporting both horror and cautious optimism from teachers. In 1940, Alex Moore addressed the “jitterbug menace”, horrified by the “disgusting and degrading” acrobatic steps he’d seen in competition – but loved the rhythm, arguing for a “quieter” version of the dance instead. As Charles Thiebault argued in 1941, jitterbug “has left us with a better sense of rhythm, and we don’t see so many couples dancing out of time as we used to.”

The same year, teacher Frank Spencer noted how dance halls had changed. They were now full of “very young people, girls and boys in their teens who are earning more money, enjoying more freedom and growing up very suddenly!” Like the young woman pinning on her luminous flower, the changes in social dance reflect both the stresses of the time and the urge to make life go on.

Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style is at IWM North, Manchester from May 27, 2016 to May 1, 2017. Visit iwm.org.uk or call 0161 836 4000 for tickets.

Pictures: Top: Blackout accessories for sale at Selfridges, London, 1940. Photograph: IWM

Bottom: Cyril Farmer and Joan Davis demonstrate “The Allies Parade” in the pages of Dancing Times, 1940. Photograph: Dancing Times archive

Zoë was born in Edinburgh, and saw her first dance performances at the Festival there. She is the dance critic of The Independent, and has also written for The Independent on Sunday, The Scotsman and Dancing Times. In 2002, she received her doctorate from the University of York for a thesis on “Nationhood and epic romance: Ariosto, Sidney, Spenser”. She is the author of The Royal Ballet: 75 Years and The Ballet Lover’s Companion.

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