Monday 12 May 2014

Black and White

The latest Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge is Black and White. The challenge (unsurprisingly) is to make something in black, or in white, or in black and white, but I have interpreted this quite loosely and made something from a fabric with a black background. The inspiration is from a black and white photograph though, and also from a black and white logo.

I decided to make a 1940s dress from a pretty cotton I had found, which has pink and cream flowers on the aforementioned background. Both the print and the repeat are quite small, which is appropriate for the period, as large patterns and repeats were more wasteful of fabric. Mum (my primary source for all things dressmaking related from the 1940s onwards) thought that a black-based fabric was unlikely for the 1940s, but I did manage to find a couple of examples of similar fabrics in books.

I have posted before about rationing in Britain in the 1940s. Rationing ensured that limited resources were shared equally, but did nothing to address quality. An expensive dress which would last for several years required the same number of coupons as a cheap dress which would last a fraction of that time, so rationing was less of a problem for the better off.

Initially the British Board of Trade tackled the problem by setting specifications for the quality of the fabric manufactured for making civilian clothing. The system of making clothes from these textiles and controlling the prices they were sold for was known as ‘Utility’, and by the end of the war more than three quarters of all clothing produced came under the Utility scheme.

Utility clothing was identified by the ‘CC41’ label, which stood for ‘Controlled Commodity 1941’.

The (black and white) CC41 logo

Running alongside the Utility scheme were the Austerity regulations, which were designed to save on both cloth and labour. Among other things, these regulations limited the number of pockets and buttons a garment could have, the number, style and size of pleats on dresses and skirts, and the width of men’s trousers.

Marks and Spencer Utility dress, © M&S Company Archive

In 1942 the Board of Trade commissioned a number of British designers to create suits, coats and dresses which used Utility cloth and met all the Austerity regulations. In addition, there were yardage requirements for each garment; for a dress the limit was 2 yards (1.8 metres). One of the designers was Digby Morton, who incorporated the CC41 logo on the buttons of this suit.

1942 Digby Morton suit (detail) © Victorian and Albert Museum, London

Those who were handy with a needle could save precious coupons by making their own clothes. 36” / 91.5cm wide fabric required three coupons per yard for wool and two per yard for cotton; quite a saving on the eleven or seven coupons required for dresses of the same fabrics. My mum and Granny T were at a double advantage here. As well as being able to sew, they lived in a railway town not far from Manchester, and stalls in the local market sold remnants from the cotton mills of Lancashire. As far as Mum can recall, remnants were off-ration. This seems quite likely; second-hand clothing was not rationed because it would be too complicated to administer, and I can imagine remnants being the same.

Discussing all of this with Mum inspired me to see if I could make a dress which met all the restrictions of CC41 clothing. First of all, I had to find out what the regulations were. This was easier said than done; I could find lots of snippets, but not the full set. Eventually I found a blog (update - sadly now defunct) which not only listed all the regulations direct from the relevant Act of Parliament but also detailed the writer’s attempt to clothe herself for 12 months on the equivalent of a year’s coupons.

The starting point for my dress was this photograph of Mum and her friends J, M and K.

Mum (second from left, with her hair in a victory roll) and friends

In case you were wondering, yes Mum’s and M’s dresses are made out of the same fabric. These are their school dresses. Shortages meant that school uniform policies had to be relaxed during the war, and for the older girls the only restriction was that they should wear a green dress. So when some green material appeared in a local shop, they both quickly bought some.

Mum’s dress reminded me of this one, in the Snibston Museum Fashion Gallery (update - the museum is now closed).

1942 cotton dress

This is a manufactured dress, but in terms of collar shape and only buttoning down to waist seam the design is similar to Mum's dress. I assumed that there is also a side opening, like Vogue 8686.

To draft the pattern I started with basic bodice block with a dart down to waist (you can just make out the dart on the right side of the Snibston dress). I raised the shoulder seam slightly to accommodate shoulder pads. I then had to draft a grown-on collar. Fortunately my go-to pattern drafting book, Hilary Campbell’s Designing Patterns had the instructions I needed.

Bodice front, with collar added on

Unfortunately getting the shape of the collar at the front was a bit like my approach to parallel parking; I understood the concept perfectly well, but struggled to grasp how it would work in practice! As usual the solution was to make a mock-up. Feeling lazy, I only made one side, photographed it, and manipulated the photograph to get the full effect.

The mock-up. Please ignore the crazy book effect behind!

The skirt was very simple; slightly shaped at the side seams and pleated at the waist, with a pocket in the side without the opening.

The two skirt pieces and the bodice back were cut on the fold, with the fabric only folded to the width needed, not just folded in half. All the other pieces were cut from a single layer of fabric. This took longer to do than a modern cutting layout, but was a far more efficient use of the fabric. I had to piece together two scraps to cut out the second pocket piece, but felt that this would be authentic. I made my own shoulder pads from Vogue 2787, and they turned out far better than the previous set.

I must admit that I cheated a bit and used my overlocker for some of the seams, which a home sewer in the 1940s wouldn’t have been able to do. My excuse is that this dress is for everyday use, so I want it to be robust for laundering.

The completed dress

The eagle-eyed will notice that I cheated a bit taking these photographs as well. The dress is still lacking buttonholes, so to photograph it I sewed the buttons onto the front, and pinned it closed. I’m toying with using pink cotton to attach them properly, so that the only black on the button is the circle.

Collar front

I’m really pleased with the end result, especially the collar - it lies beautifully.

Collar back

So how did I do against the CC41 regulations? Note: in the following table I have only included the regulations which were appropriate to this project.

So, reasonably well. Yay! This is only one dress however. This exercise has increased my respect for the people who designed clothing under these regulations and managed to produce items which were not all drably identical, but attractive and well-designed despite the restrictions. I would happily wear most of the CC41 pieces I have come across.

The small print:
The Challenge: Black and White (although I realise now that it would have been a good entry for the upcoming ‘Politics of Fashion’ challenge, but I’ve got something else planned for that)
Fabric: Cotton
Pattern: My own, drafted from a photograph
Year: 1942-5
Notions: Thread, buttons, press studs (poppers) for side opening, lining fabric and bump to make shoulder pads
How historically accurate is it? The pattern is based on a photograph of a dress of the period, but as detailed above, I used some modern sewing techniques to make it more robust. The fabric colourway is unlikely, but not impossible. 50%?
Hours to complete: As ever, forgot to count
First worn: Not yet
Total cost: Fabric £13.10, buttons £1, everything else from stash, so £14.10


  1. Great dress! I also did a WWII dress for this project. I did quite a bit of research but couldn't find anything related to obtaining sewing fabric during this time, in America (I'm in America) or Britain, so this is especially fascinating!

    1. Thank you Laurie, it was great fun to do. From reading your blog I think that you, like me, really enjoy the research which goes into these projects. I found I got completely into the spirit of the CC41 regulations when cutting the pieces out, trying lots of different layouts to keep wastage to an absolute minimum!

      Your dress was lovely, and it's interesting to see how different the pattern looks when made up in a different fabric for your daughter. That pattern is on my to-make list, so it was great to see it made up.

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