July 21, 2021

The 1940s Wardrobe – Coats

Posted in The 1940s Wardrobe tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , at 2:26 pm by historywardrobe

‘A smart coat is one of the first essentials of a good outfit’

Woman’s World magazine, April 27th 1940
Fabulous 1940s red wool coat with one-button & belt fastening, and lovely deep pockets

Coats can be overlooked in clothes histories, but they are a basic staple of the 1940s wardrobe. A good quality coat was an investment. Canny consumers chose styles that would be practical, protective and stylish.

Womenswear coat styles at the start of the decade favoured either a fairly slender silhouette with mildly padded shoulders, or a generously swagged short coat, often in plaid wool.

Vogue Pattern Book October 1940

Tailor-made coats were not only for the elite. Textile centres such as Leeds, Manchester and London boasted specialists who could produce a well-fitting coat. Customers provided their own fabric or chose from a selection of samples. The coats would be priced per size, and according to the fabrics used.

Locata Tailor-Mades – catalogue 1939
Synthetic or silk linings added a pop of colour to your tailor-made coat. From Locata tailor-mades catalogue, 1939

For convenience, coats could also be purchased via mail order. After browsing catalogues with sketches of designs (sometimes in colour, but usually black and white), a postal order form and payment secured delivery. Shoppers had to trust the glowing description of each coat – there was liberal use of adjectives such as ‘smart’, ‘luxury’, ‘attractive’, ‘popular’ – and to hope that the fit is good when the garment arrives. Some catalogue companies offered seven days’ free approval period before requiring payment. Once rationing was introduced, consumers also had to count coupons to ensure they have sufficient for their new acquisition. In Britain, allocated points dropped from 66 a year to 24. A woman’s coat required 18 points – a considerable proportion of clothing points. Not a purchase to be undertaken lightly…

The British government introduced a system of streamlining production and designs, which came to be known as ‘Utility’. Utility garments aimed for decent quality, affordable pricing and as much flair and variety as restrictions would permit. In this catalogue from Derry & Tom’s department store in London there are two options for a Harella coat. A more deluxe version in off-white wool for £11, 3/1, and a Utility version in mid brown or green for only £4.10/9 18 coupons. Even if you could afford the prices, you still needed to surrender 18 clothing coupons. There was also the small matter of wartime stock shortages: you could have the money and the points, but shop rails might be empty.

Derry & Toms Catalogue, undated

If you had both time and talent there was always the economical option of making your own coat. Patterns were available from companies such as Vogue, Maudella and Butterick. You could also send off for sixpence patterns from magazines such as Woman’s World. Good construction used a range of techniques. The Haslam system of cutting, created by a Lancashire woman, offered an accessible guide to tailoring techniques.

Woman’s World coat pattern offer, April 1940
Detail from a 1940s Haslam coat-cutting guide

For extra economy – or if new fabrics just weren’t available – existing clothes could be adapted, in keeping with the age-old spirit of make-do-and-mend. Old coats could be unpicked, turned (to avoid stained and faded outer parts) and dyed to freshen them up, then updated to new fashionable styles, or cut down into smaller garments.

The Pictorial Guide to Home Needlework offered ideas for how to turn a man’s shabby overcoat into a child’s winter coat, or to convert an old-fashioned flaring swagger coat into a smart new renovation.

Pictorial Guide to Home Needlwork, 1946 edition

British couturier Digby Morton played his part designing smart uniforms for the Women’s Voluntary Service, including coats made of grey-green wool. Servicewomen appreciated the smart, warm coats issued as part of their kits.

Original Westmoreland WVS Civil Defence coat (replica hat) worn by Iris Hillery

Good quality wool (with an umbrella) was good for wet weather, but waterproof raincoats were highly coveted, particularly as rubber was in short supply.

This translucent coat was bought in Rome in 1944 by a sapper in the British 8th army, and sent home to his sweetheart in England. The stitching is very nice quality. British firms advertised coats of ‘Raintite pliofilm’

Hooded, belted 1944 Italian raincoat, worn by Francesca Duvall, with rubber galoshes

Fur was essential to endure winter weather. High quality pelts gave luxury to the elite, but rabbit fur was relatively inexpensive and truly very warm. Old pieces of fur could be used to revamp an existing coat by adding fur collar & cuffs, although fur is tricky to sew. For extra snugness, accessorise your fur coat with matching gloves and muff.

Synthetic fibres – aka fake fur – were not as warm as real fur, but an acceptable wartime alternative. This coat was gifted to a woman who lost all her belongings during the infamous 1942 Coventry bombing. She later said she felt embarrassed to own and wear such a coat, when some people had nothing.

Fake fur coat from Coventry, 1942

However you acquired your coat – from a shop, clothes-swap, jumble sale or salvage project – it would have to be very good quality to see you through to peace and beyond. In Britain, wool supplies for women’s wear were cut post-war to favour the manufacture of men’s demobilisation suits. Military surplus sales at least provided blankets which could be made into coats. Fuel shortages meant even high fashion in post-war Paris aimed combine elegance with warmth.

Illustrated magazine November 24th 1945 – military influences are still in vogue on French streets

After 1947 the new lines of Christian Dior’s New Look were absolute trendsetters. British women who didn’t have enough clothing coupons or money to buy these extravagant styles adapted as best they could by adding bands of fabric or fur to existing coat hems.

This 1949 group may not have the sloping shoulders, padded hips and nipped-in waists of the New Look, but they still have great flair (and great fun, by the look of it!)
A flamboyant banana yellow reversible tweed coat by Molyneux, Vogue October 1949

For more on 1940s clothing history you may enjoy

Women’s Lives and Clothes in WW2: Ready for Action

The Dressmakers of Auschwitz

All images are from the History Wardrobe collection