We'll meet again on the design front

The women who had their knees up and their hems down on VE Day would not be too surprised at the styles being paraded on today's catwalks - but they might reel at the prices. Tony Glenville and Marion Hume take a trip back in time
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
"She has met war's responsibilities unflinching yet outwardly remains calm and composed. The simple routine prescribed by Miss Arden has cared for her complexion throughout the years of stress. Peace will find her as she has always been, serenely beautiful."

Such was the wording for Elizabeth Arden's advertising in Vogue, May 1945 - which had gone to press before the announcement that Europe was at peace. Throughout 1945, the fashion and cosmetic industries geared up for the demand for feminine frivolity that they knew would follow the fighting. Of course, the war with Japan would not be over until August and clothing coupons would not be abolished in Britain until 1949. But by spring 1945, designers' creative juices were flowing.

By February, Paris had been liberated. French Vogue, which had voluntarily ceased production, had been relaunched - "the first magazine of this nature for which the French Ministry of Information has given a special paper allowance" said an ad in British Vogue, which published throughout the war. Only a small run of this Paris Vogue was produced, for it was the fact of the relaunch that was deemed important, for Vogue was a big moral boost to women and couturiers.

Here, the most morale-boosting commodities had been tea and lipstick. "Lipstick was by Tangee, heaven knows what was in it, and it came in red, very dark red and orange, no pinks at all. You bought it at any chemist," recalls Josie Wye, who spent the war in London.

Nail varnish was harder to come by, as shown by ads in the 1945 editions of British Vogue: "Peggy Sage hopes ... her polishes will become available in the not too distant future. Many of the ingredients essential to the making of fine polishes are also essential to the war industry, but as peace draws nearer it is possible small supplies may be released ..." Ditto pancake from Max Factor of Hollywood. The victory issue of British Vogue, published in June, trumpets that refills of pancake "are now available to fit the containers we hope you have saved ... price 7/4 each."

Clothes for victory looked like those of the war years. What was new, for those who could afford one, was the Jacqmar victory scarf, the final design in a series called "Lauriers de la Victoire" and priced at a hefty 55/10d and 2 coupons.

What women wore for VE Day pretty much depended on where they were. Women's magazines had been full of tips on how to restyle clothes using the minimum of fabric. Yokes, and ruching details at the waist to suggest drape without wasting precious cloth were popular.

The rigorous mid-Forties silhouette (now enjoying a renaissance) was the result of stylish utility. Skirts were to the knee. Jackets were boxy or slightly rounded to the shoulder. Despite the rigours of the war years, evening dressing did not disappear. "Satin is having a great innings ... in the prettiest evening coat imaginable" was how Vogue captioned an apricot jacket, worn with gloves, which looks not unlike Gianni Versace's January 1995 proposal.

Even for the famous, clothes were hard to come by. As the war drew to a close, the late Celia Johnson was filming Brief Encounter in the North of England. As she wrote in her diaries: "I can't tell you what agony it is getting my clothes for the film

But surely people dressed up for VE Day? The late Cecil Beaton, writing in The Happy Years was in Kensington, where "it is as quiet as a Sunday ... no general feeling of rejoicing. Victory does not bring with it a sense of triumph - rather a dull numbness of relief ... VE Night: by twilight the crowds have poured into the West End and small groups are celebrating in the ruins outside the pubs."

Joan Deering, then a 21-year-old Londoner, headed for Trafalgar Square wearing "a crepe dress with a straight skirt, gathered sleeves, with a zip down the back and a curved seam over the behind with pleats. Over the top, I wore a grey flannel coat with padded shoulders and a 3in inserted waistband which fastened with three big buttons. And I was furious because by the end of the night I'd lost one of those buttons! Goodness but there was a feeling of euphoria. Oh, and my hair was rolled up all the way round the front and in a page boy in a snood at the back."

Josie Wye, who now lives in Surrey, spent VE night at Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square. "I wore a moss crepe dress in black with a jacket to go with it with blue cuffs and lapels. I had this new outfit because the caretaker in the block I lived in had given me his coupons. I wore silk stockings and high-heeled black shoes. Normally I would have worn a hat, but that night I wore my hair rolled."

Ethel Rae, a Glaswegian who spent the war inthe Scottish city, recalls: "There was a great deal of excitement. I worked in a factory making clothing for the army and navy but that didn't mean I had access to fabric! I wore a lot of black in those days, because I liked it, but I wouldn't have been wearing anything very elegant that night because clothes were so hard to get."

Nora Blacklock, who now lives in Buckinghamshire, recalls: "I was a petty officer with the Fleet Air Arm, a radio mechanic stripping down the radio equipment for planes. We wore navy issue, our bellbottoms tucked in our socks when we were riding our bikes, fronts (sailors' tunics, similar to T-shirts) and serge jackets. I was at camp, I wasn't demobbed until August and we certainly danced that night."

Joan Youngs, also now resident in Buckinghamshire, says: "I tried to join the Wrens, but my university subject was maths and all the male maths teachers had gone into rocket research. So we women were trained to teach. What did I wear? I suppose we were wearing summer dresses with cardigans. What I do remember is Churchill on the balcony leading us singing "There'll always be an England". I saw myself on television a fortnight ago in a programme about him. In front of him were 20,000 dots and I was one of them!"

Isobel "Tibby" Russell of Argyll was Sister Connell, nursing in the Middle East. She heard the news in Alexandria. "I was chosen as one of eight sisters for the parade. We marched through town in our uniforms and Gaumont filmed us. I later saw myself on screen, but I didn't think it so special at the time. I was in Syria for VJ day and that was when we celebrated, with ginger beer and sandwiches in a church hall."

These women may be surprised that today's desirable day clothes are not so far from those Celia Johnson pined for: the tweedy suits, the mac she craved, are very close to Margaret Howell's collection for autumn/winter 1995. Joan Youngs will doubtless be surprised to learn that those summer dresses and cardigans she and her friends wore to sing along with Churchill are among this summer's prized fashion items, available from Ralph Lauren at £765 apiece.

Comments