Studying the history of the Royal Voluntary Service has lots to tell us about the past. What did volunteering look like in the 20th century? What was the impact of the Second World War on the development of a welfare state? How have the lives of women, or the elderly, changed since 1938?
At the same time, the records held by the Royal Voluntary Service Heritage Collection can teach us a lot about solving current problems, too. According to recent reports, more than two tonnes of clothing are bought every minute in the UK – and a hefty portion of those are thrown away after only a handful of washes. Current pushes on sustainability are asking us to rethink our attitudes to clothes consumption, and take action by buying less and making more of the clothes we already have. ‘Mend and make do to save buying new’, the approach adopted by millions of women to clothing during the Second World War, is one which might be usefully applied almost eighty years later. WVS volunteers were at the heart of putting this mantra into action, from assisting with rationing and running clothing exchanges, to giving lectures on sewing and organising thrift competitions. Using examples from WVS Narrative Reports, this blog post asks: what can we learn about making clothes more sustainable today from the work done by the WVS during the war?
here are some important differences, of course, between the challenges posed by clothing in wartime and modern Britain. Today we enjoy a surplus of cheaply made clothes which are quick and easy to buy. Pressures from magazines and social media encourage us to indulge in ‘fast fashion’, buy more and more clothes, but wear them only a handful of times to avoid ‘outfit repeating’. By contrast, people living in wartime Britain faced a shortage of clothing caused by restrictions on shipping and the need to maintain supplies for the military. After the declaration of war in September 1939, essential items such as shoes and stockings became much harder to find and much more expensive to buy. British men and women had little choice but to make do with less, whereas living more sustainably today requires a great deal of voluntary effort on our parts. While those living in the 1940s were motivated by the war effort, in 2019 our efforts to reduce clothes consumption are driven by environmental concerns. Yet the goals of austerity fashion and sustainable fashion remain strikingly similar – to buy less clothes, and make more of those we already have.
To limit how many clothes people could buy, and make sure that limited stocks were distributed as fairly as possible, the British government introduced a clothes rationing scheme in June 1941. This worked by assigning each type of clothing a ‘points’ value (for example, eleven coupons were needed for a dress) and allocating people a certain number of ‘points’ to spend each year. The Women’s Voluntary Services helped with the scheme by distributing clothes coupon books and answering questions from the public at centres and advice bureaus – of which there were plenty. Volunteers in York reported that they had been ‘exceptionally busy’ in June 1941 due to clothing enquiries. Meetings were held around the country for WVS members to hear from representatives from the Board of Trade, who would brief them on the new rules and what advice to pass on to the wider public.
‘The big excitement of the month was, of course, the rationing of clothes etc. The meeting asked for by the Board of Trade was duly held and was well-attended on June 3rd’
Narrative Report, Hull, June 1941
WVS also set up ‘Clothing Exchanges’ to help people deal with the shortages and avoid buying new. At exchanges people could swap their old (but still wearable) items for those donated by someone else, which was particularly useful for mothers struggling to keep up with buying clothes for their growing children. By 1944 there were around 400 exchanges in operation and more than six and a half million garments had been distributed.
At clothing depots WVS helped evacuees, refugees and people made homeless by bombing, who sometimes owned little more than the clothes they were wearing when they arrived at the centre. This could be a huge task – Narrative Reports reveal that in March 1941, Brighton volunteers helped to fit clothes and shoes for more than 1000 children:
Narrative Report, Brighton, March 1941.
WVS volunteers were also involved in a range of events and initiatives as part of the ‘Make Do and Mend’ publicity campaign. ‘Make Do and Mend’ was designed to encourage women to repair clothes that might be damaged or remake them into new garments. Narrative Reports held by the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection reveal the many different ways this campaign came to life at the local level. For example in February 1943, volunteers in Worcester held a ‘Thrift Exhibition’ in February 1943 where members ran ‘Make Do and Mend’ stalls, showed informational films created by the Ministry of Information and organised competitions and prizes for the public to get involved in. The event was described as a ‘great success’.
Later in the year, the Worcester centre ran a series of ‘Make Do and Mend’ lectures where women could learn to properly clean and care for clothes to make them last longer, brush up on their sewing skills and learn to darn holes, or be shown how to turn old hats into shoes and felt slippers. In the autumn of 1943 WVS centres across the country were involved in ‘Make Do and Mend’ competitions, where submissions of clothing were judged on their utility, ingenuity and originality. In Worcester an exhibition was organised for the start of December where the public could view the various garments sent in, creating a sense of community fun for the event, and the winner was announced by the Mayor to a ‘packed audience’ – a frock made from an old coat. WVS support for the ‘Make Do and Mend’ campaign therefore involved a mix of providing useful information and training for the public, alongside encouragement to get involved and a healthy dose of competition.
Although WVS volunteers were involved in a wide range of schemes to help wartime communities buy less and make more of what they had, not all of them could apply today. It’s unlikely that rationing clothes on a coupon scheme would work in the ‘fast fashion’ context of 2019. But others might help us turn our clothes from ‘throwaway’ to ‘forever’ items. Clothes swap initiatives, like the clothing exchanges operated by the WVS, can be a fun, inexpensive, and more sustainable way to create new outfits and put unloved items to good use, while learning skills in basic clothing repairs, like those taught by the WVS in ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes, might help us to wear our favourite items for much longer. The records held by the Royal Voluntary Service Heritage Collection give us an insight into the many ways women used creative thrift to face clothing challenges in wartime, which might spark our own ideas about ways to live more sustainably. Perhaps though, most of all, it is the impressive voluntary spirit that the WVS deployed in their work with clothes that we should draw inspiration from today.
Charlotte Tomlinson is a PhD researcher in the School of History at the University of Leeds. Her PhD explores experiences of female civilian volunteers in Second World War Britain and is generously funded by the White Rose College for the Arts and Humanities.