We have been exploring the theme of Disrupted Lives as part of the Museum of Cornish Life’s work with the Imperial War Museums ‘Second World War and Holocaust Partnership Programme’. This project has involved researching archival documents, oral testimonies and collecting local memories to explore how a global event affected everyday life for people living in Cornwall during the Second World War.
Another way of finding out about the past is by looking at the clothing people were wearing at the time. The clothing we hold in the museum’s costume store reflects over 150 years of social history and one object which tells us about everyday life in the 1940s is this men’s overcoat.
It is a basic woollen tweed garment, classic and practical in design without any surplus decoration or adornment. It seems unremarkable. However, taking a closer look, a small label tucked away under the right arm shows a CC41 mark meaning it is part of the Utility Clothing Scheme.
This small label speaks to a much wider movement in clothing manufacturing and reflects one of the many ways in which the global events of the Second World War had impacts on everyday life for people living in 1940s Britain.
The CC41 Utility Clothing Scheme
The CC41 Utility Scheme emerged amid a context of wartime shortages and rationing.
The outbreak of war meant that military requirements created a new demand for textiles manufacturers. Materials which had previously been used to produce civilian clothes were redirected for the production of military uniforms and equipment. Consequently, with new emphasis placed on fabric for military purposes, shortages led to price hikes in civilian clothing and clothing prices increased by 25% over the first two years of the Second World War.
In an effort to manage these shortages and inflation, rationing was introduced for clothing in 1941. As with petrol and food, rationing of clothing sought to distribute limited supplies further across the population. Ration books were supplied to households, with 66 coupons initially offered for each adult (a number which decreased as the war progressed). With a dress requiring 11 coupons, or a man’s coat needing 13, this generally translated to one new outfit for each person per year.
A rationing restricted the amount you could buy, the clothing you did purchase needed to last. Therefore, in late 1941 the Board of Trade introduced the CC41 scheme to improve affordability and quality in clothing.
With CC standing for ‘controlled commodity’ or ‘civilian clothing’, the CC41 scheme aimed to streamline manufacturing so clothes could be mass-produced to specific guidelines. These guidelines sought to create clothing which would be affordable for the working person, and also durable enough to last being worn for years.
One of the leading minds behind the scheme was Tom Heron, father of St Ives artist Patrick Heron and founder of Cresta Silks. With a background in textiles manufacture and design, Heron was instrumental in founding the scheme and involving the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers, lending CC41 clothing style as well as practicality.
The CC41 scheme didn’t just include clothes. The CC41 mark had first been introduced to regulate furniture, with clothing and other items like shoes, blankets and bedding soon being included. However, across all items the theory was the same – producing pared-back designs which would be efficient to produce and last a long time.
In order to achieve these aims, the Board of Trade restricted clothing designs, issuing directives such as the following from April 1942:
“Women’s and maid’s dresses are to be simplified… The number of buttons, seams and pleats, and the amount of ruching and gauging are strictly limited; no braid, embroidery or lace is to be used”
Meanwhile, in men’s clothing, bans on double-breasted suits and trouser turn-ups were introduced to save fabric. Even socks were limited to maximum length of 9 inches.
Some examples of such restrictions can be seen in this Collection Tour, where we take a closer look at some of the CC41 labelled items in our costume store:
A Civilian Uniform?
The object of the Utility scheme is not to standardise but to ensure the best possible use is made out of supplies”Board of Trade Publication
With such restrictions and mass-production of clothing, one concern at the time was that CC41 clothing would result in everybody looking the same. There was some backlash to restrictions – the banning of trouser turn-ups and limitations on waistcoat designs caused particular consternation. However, at a time when maintaining one’s appearance was linked to national moral, fashion magazines such as Vogue encouraged female readers to see the positives in utility clothing.
Public information films, such as Modes for Million (1942), demonstrated that while designs were simplified different coloured fabrics and prints could still provide variety. Furthermore, with the encouragement to ‘Make do and Mend’ people could still alter utility clothing or remake items into new garments when outgrown or outworn.
Overall, while CC41 clothing was controlled in design, different colours and prints in fabric meant that these clothes could still be individual and fashionable, even when remade into new items.
The End of CC41
Much like with food rationing, clothing rations and the CC41 scheme did not stop as soon as the war ended. As millions of servicemen and women returned to civilian lives they required clothing and material shortages were still experienced in Britain. While clothing rationing continued until 1949, the CC41 utility scheme did not stop until 1952.
Although the production of CC41 items has long since ceased, one interesting consequence of the scheme’s emphasis on durability is the survival of many garments, shoes and household objects bearing the CC41 mark. Today, CC41 pieces are sought after and collected among vintage clothing enthusiasts because of their classic style and durability. Their well-made quality, and physical connection to the past, make CC41 items recognised and desirable among those who cherish vintage fashion.
Do you have any memories of utility clothing? Have a look in the back of the wardrobe and keep an eye out for the CC41 logo. The items we still have today are a direct reflection of a time when minimalism, economy and durability were at the forefront in fashion and design.
- McNeil, Peter. “’Put Your Best Face Forward’: The Impact of the Second World War on British Dress.” Journal of Design History, vol. 6, no. 4, 1993
- Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style at the Imperial War Museum – watch
Find out more
Explore a 3D model of the CC41 Men’s Overcoat
Find out more about the Second World War and Holocaust Partnership
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