In association with The National Archive Women modelling the latest in utility fashions. Women modelling the latest in utility fashions.

Stockings & siren suits: 1930s women’s fashion

Depression and war inspired many innovative designs in women's fashion, including miraculous liquid stockings (A.K.A. 'gravy')

The financial hardship that hit much of Britain during the Great Depression meant that fashion in the 1930s was a far cry from the ostentatious 1920s, as simple cuts intended to conserve fabric were the order of the day. With the outbreak of World War II and the introduction of clothes rationing, fashionistas had to be innovative in order to keep up to speed with the latest trends.

With the outbreak of World War II and the introduction of clothes rationing, fashionistas had to be innovative in order to keep up to speed with the latest trends.

Austerity led to many clever innovations in fashion. Materials that were previously easier to come by, such as silk, became less commonplace. Nylon would be used as a substitute for garments like stockings, but even that became difficult to come by, meaning that many women would paint their legs with makeup (or, in some cases, gravy) and draw on seams to give the appearance of stockings. Companies even began to produce bottles of beige liquid that were marketed as “Liquid Stockings”.

Elizabeth Arden

Elizabeth Arden modelling one of her own jackets

For those women who wanted to avoid the mess of liquid stockings, trousers were starting to become more commonplace, especially for working women and for playing sports. In 1939 Vogue published their first fashion feature picturing women in trousers.

In 1939 Vogue published their first fashion feature picturing women in trousers.

The blackout was an unlikely source of fashion inspiration. In an attempt to tackle both fashion and safety in one go people started to make luminous accessories such as flower pins for bags or coats that reflected light and made the wearer more visible at night. Another blackout invention was buttons that were reflective in the dark but looked like ordinary by day. People also wore white hats and light clothes to make themselves more visible at night.

Elegant women's fashion

Clothes that provided practical solutions to wartime problems were also a favourite. The “siren suit” was a boiler suit style construction which could be quickly slipped on over regular clothes to protect them from the dirt of the air raid shelters. The women’s version was also available with fashionable features such as puffed shoulders, bell bottomed legs and a fitted hood. There was also a practical panel at the back which allowed the user to go to the toilet without removing the suit. Siren suits became hugely popular with stores offering a variety of different styles. Winston Churchill was the unlikely poster boy of the trend.

Winston Churchill in a Siren Suit

Winston Churchill models a siren suit

Another fashionable reply to the functionality of wartime was that of the gas mask handbag. To encourage people to always carry it with them, gas masks were provided with a regulation cardboard box with a string to be worn over the shoulder. For the fashion conscious a new line of handbags were produced which featured a special compartment designed specifically for gas masks.