Coupons, Clothes and Codes – clothing rationing during WW2

The Second World War meant rationing for Britain and it was not just food that was rationed. Clothing materials quickly became scarce. In this article, we look at civilian clothing rationing during the war, and at BSI’s work issuing emergency clothing standards on the government’s behalf.

Rationing begins

When war rationing first started, only food coupons had been issued, and unused coupons in ration books for some food items became valid for clothing. Clothes and all fabrics were rationed from June 1941 onwards, and every item was given a value in coupons.

At the beginning, the coupons allowed for one completely new set of clothes per year, but as time wore on, the points were reduced until buying a coat used almost a year’s clothing coupons!

Make Do and Mend

The government launched a “make do and mend” campaign. The aim was to encourage people to take good care of their clothes and mend them when they became worn, rather than buying new. The second-hand clothes market flourished, as they were not rationed.

Older-styles clothes were transformed into modern styles, and women’s magazines carried tips on how to spend clothes coupons, and on revamping old garments. Blankets were used to make coats, large swagger coats were cut up to make smaller garments, and pillowcases were trimmed with lace and made into blouses. A “Mrs Sew and Sew” featured in magazines and propaganda cinema clips, promoting clothes recycling, although to most working-class women, this was nothing new.

Women in the workforce

In March 1941, Ernest Bevin, Minister for Labour, called upon women to help the war effort directly. Women of all ages were working not only in munitions factories and on the land. As they were conscripted, they were working in more male-dominated workplaces such as tank and aircraft factories, driving trains and tractors, manning anti-aircraft batteries and operating cranes. Inevitably clothing styles became practical – trousers and dungarees were worn instead of skirts for example. The era of “utility fashion” had begun.

The 1942 British Civilian Clothing Order CC41

Economies in clothing designs were made wherever possible. In 1942 under the Civilian Clothing Order 41, the British government introduced laws regulating the design of clothing. The laws made it illegal and unpatriotic and spend time decorating and embellishing clothing for sale. The Civilian Clothing 41 (CC41) label was placed onto garments to show they conformed to the strict clothing regulations.

Garments were not allowed to have fancy pleats, hem allowances were minimal. Clothes were designed from simple government patterns.

Enter BSI

When war had broken out in 1939, BSI put aside “ordinary work” and efforts were concentrated on producing “war emergency standards”, generally at the request of Government departments. In 1940, a BSI committee was established which helped the Board of Trade (BOT) in laying down standards for “utility” goods and especially “utility” clothing. Then the BOT requested BSI to release a number of emergency standards, many designed to support the Civilian Clothing Order.

Most clothing standards applied to women’s garments, possibly because so many men had been conscripted into armed services. The object given by the standards was to provide good coupon value for garments. BS/BOT1 Women’s Dresses covered minimum requirements relating to the manufacture of garments and minimum finished garments measurements for cotton, rayon and woollen dresses. BS/BOT2 covered Women’s Underwear, BS/BOT3 covered blouses. BS/BOT 4 Industrial Overall’s covered working clothes specifically for women, such as boiler suits, bib and brace overalls, overall jackets and wrap-overs.

BS/BOT 5 covered Women’s Domestic Overalls, again reflecting the age of utility clothing. Specifications were given for sleeveless wrap-overs, Empire slip-on overalls, open-back overalls, Halter Collar Pinarettes and smocks. On the last pages of these standards, a summary of the Civilian Clothing order was given. Under BS/BOT 5 for example, the notice was given “except under licence granted by the Board of Trade, any person making articles of civilian clothing being women’s and maids’ Domestic Overalls must comply with the following requirements, name that such garments shall be made in accordance with War Emergency Standard BS BOT/5” A number of emergency standards were also released covering boots and shoes, including BS/BOT 10 “Men’s Women’s and Boys’ Heavy Boots” and BS/BOT 22 “Infant’s Walking Shoes.”

What’s available in the Knowledge Centre?

BSI’s Knowledge Centre can provide access to many of the Board of Trade War Emergency standards. Members can view withdrawn standards without charge in Chiswick, and they are available for purchase in hard copy and PDF. BSI members receive a 50% discount, free postage and can buy on account. To find out more please contact the Knowledge Centre at: or on +44 (0)20 8996 7004.

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