Set against the backdrop of war-torn Britainbesieged by bombings and deprivations during World War IIa patriotic sense of style flourished, encouraged by the creation of visually striking textiles and fashions for women. Beauty as Duty: Textiles on the Home Front in WWII Britain, an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
(MFA), explores this trend by looking at the restriction and regulation of "non-essential" items on the one hand, and the drive to express style and beauty in the midst of wartime on the other. The exhibition, on view from October 8, 2011, through May 28, 2012, in the MFAs Rosemary Merrill Loring and Caleb Loring, Jr. Gallery of Textiles, features propaganda scarves from the collection of Museum benefactors Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf, as well as gifts from the Sharfs now in the MFAs collection, including British Utility fashion and a large lace panel memorializing the Battle of Britain.
"Strict rationing and restrictions on clothing were in place not only during the war in Britain, but continued through the entire decade of the 1940s. These scarves and dresses were a colorful response to those austerity measures, and ultimately served a propagandistic, morale-building purpose. That spirit of individual sacrifice and rallying for the common good is one of the most intriguing things to me about this period in British history," said Alex Huff, Curatorial Planning and Project Manager in the MFAs Textile and Fashion Arts Department.
The hardships of war made it difficult to think about being beautiful, but as British Vogue exhorted to its readers, it was a womans patriotic duty to look smart, not just for herself, but also for a loved one when he returned home from battle. The power of style became a powerful physical and psychological antidote to the sense of loss suffered by the British populace. By the end of the war, more than four million buildings were damaged or destroyed, and more than 40,000 civilians were killed.
Fashion became a morale booster, but because of limited resources, a number of measures were enacted by the British government to regulate the production of clothing, control prices, and ensure adequate supplies of clothing for civilians.
Known as the Utility Clothing Scheme, these regulations (along with additional "austerity" rules and a coupon rationing system) had a significant impact on wartime dress. To mitigate the perceived uniformity of fashion, the British Board of Trade enlisted the help of several London-based couturiersincluding Hardy Amies, Edward Molyneux, and Digby Mortonto create fashionable designs that conformed to the Utility regulations, which British Vogue editors enthusiastically supported. Accessories, such as brightly colored scarves, also provided a means of fashionable expression during the war, as did make-up. The exhibition investigates the tensions between the wartime restrictions placed on dress, and the creative ways in which designers and everyday women worked within these constraints in the pursuit of beauty. These seemingly competing needs were expressed in propagandainitiated by both the government and private industrytargeted toward women.
Beauty as Duty: Textiles on the Home Front in WWII Britainshowcases two groups of textiles. One was the mass-produced Utility fashion, produced under the Civilian Clothing Order of 1941, known as ("CC41"), which enforced quality standards in the type of cloth used to make garments and also fixed prices, allowing items that conformed to these guidelines to be sold tax free. British citizens were also encouraged to take special care of their clothing, prompted by sayings such as "make war on moths," and "make do and mend (says Mrs. Sew-and-Sew)." The other textiles highlighted are part of an important collection of wartime scarves, including many produced by the high-end firms Jacqmar and Ascher. These square scarves (measuring approximately 2734") were made in a range of natural fibers including wool and silk (early on and for the luxury export market) and synthetics, like rayon and acetate. They were printed with motifs relating to the war and British life in the 1940s and offered women a relatively inexpensive way to add variety to older clothes and a limited number of newly purchased outfits. Items in the exhibition are grouped into three sections: Military Motifs, Restrictions and Slogans, and Life Goes On.
The centerpiece of this section is a lace panel from the MFAs Textile and Fashion Arts collection made between 194246 at the Nottingham lace firm, Dobsons & M. Browne. It commemorates the Battle of Britain, a series of attacks that occurred during the summer and fall of 1940. The 15 x 5 cotton panel depicts a dogfight over St. Pauls Cathedral, along with other sites bombed during the Blitz, and incorporates Prime Minister Winston Churchills saying across the bottom: "Never was so much owed by so many to so few." Other objects on view include scarves that reflect how designers "aestheticized" war by using cartoonish figures, or bright colors, as seen in a turquoise and red scarf showing an aircraft carrier, and a multicolor scarf, The American Forces in London (1943), that acknowledged American involvement in the war and the presence of GIs on the streets of London. Other scarves paid tribute to the wars end in Europe, which arrived on May 8, 1945. One features images of Churchill and the royal family, and another, a victory bouquet of flags of the Allied Forces. This section also showcases dresses created under the Utility Scheme, such as one covered with Allied flags (called a "victory print"), and another that evokes military garb.
Restrictions and Slogans
During the 1940s, food rationing became the new reality for Britons used to importing many of their goods (rationing of a variety of items continued through the early 1950s). To augment what they could buy with coupons, the public was encouraged to grown their own vegetables, often on top of the bomb shelters in their backyards. Reflecting this is a scarf by an unknown designer with anthropomorphized vegetables wearing military caps. Many of the scarf designs also featured war-related slogans. One in particular, Jacqmars most famous propaganda scarf, London Wall (about 1941), shows a tromp loeil brick wall posted with a variety of wartime slogans, such as "If you must talk, talk victory!" and "Lend to defend the right to be free," as well as quotes from Churchill. Clothes were also rationed and regulated by the governments Utility Scheme in terms of the types and amounts of fabric that could be used. Utility dresses were often made of rayon or a rayon blend, and were labled "CC41" to show they met the standards. By the mid 1940s, nearly 80 percent of the clothing produced in Britain bore the CC41 label.
Life Goes On
The resilience of the British, both during and after the war, is seen in this section. One of the rare scarves of this period to be made out of silk shows daily life unfoldingwomen walking their children in the parkamidst bombed buildings and war planes overhead. Entertainment, like fashion and beauty, was still necessary for morale, as seen in an Arnold Lever-designed scarf for Jacqmar, which features references to various radio programs. Another scarf celebrates pub life, with the names of London pubs written around the border, and at the center, "Time gentlemen, please," the phrase used by bar keeps to end the night. Also on view are several luxury items that could be purchased when some of the austerity rules were relaxed in the late 1940s, but which still required ration coupons. These include a womans fur coat and an evening gown made out of acetate.
Beauty as Duty: Textiles on the Home Front in WWII Britain also showcases a variety of interesting period fashion items that evoke the war-time years in Britain and the United States, including a clothing ration book, posters from the "Careless talk costs lives" series, a US Army uniform, a womans Utility girdle, and a photograph of Winston Churchill taken in 1941 by Yousuf Karsh from the MFAs collection.
Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf are Millennial Benefactors of the MFA, and the Sharf Visitor Center in the heart of the Museum was named in their honor. The Sharfs have also endowed the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Exhibition Fund, and the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Curator of Design. Frederic Sharf serves as Vice President of the MFAs Board of Trustees and Museum Representative to the Foundation for the Arts, Nagoya and has worked to strengthen the Museums partnerships throughout Japan. Jean Sharf is an honorary overseer. The Sharfs have alsohelped bring Japanese art to the Boston community. In 2001, the couple gave 650 full-color prints from Japans Meiji era (1868-1912), one of the largest collections in the world, to the MFA. The collection was used to create the exhibitions, Art and Artifice: Meiji-Era Travel Photography and Japan at the Dawn of the Modern Age: Meiji Prints from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection. In addition to art related to Japan, the Sharfs collections include British imperial manuscripts, historical documents of war and the military, 19th-century artist renderings, weathervanes, and American sculpture, as well as architectural, automobile, fashion and industrial design drawings. In 2009, the couple provided support for the cataloguing and photographing of the archive of original drawings given to the Museum by fashion illustrator Kenneth Paul Block. Also in 2009, the Sharfs provided funding for the Museum to purchase the complete assemblage of design drawings from more than 500 collections by American fashion designer Arnold Scaasi to complement Scaasis gift to the Museum of his archive and more than 100 custom-made ensembles. The Sharfs have also lent their works to many other museums nationally and internationally.