Donated in 1978 by G and J.E. Mansfield (Chelmsford, Essex) from the Beecroft Costume Store
This bold and cheerful knee-length rayon crepe dress dates from the late 30s/40s. It would have been an inexpensive everyday kind of outfit, using relatively cheap synthetic fabric, and like the high street designs of today, emulating more expensive designs of the era. The bright, striped print has a black background with blue, white, yellow, emerald and purple patterns, which contrasts well with the off-white collar and cuffs. The 12 scarlet buttons down the front are purely decorative, with the fastening of the dress hidden discretely at the side. It is nipped in at the waist with an inverted pleat in the skirt to add shape and movement. Despite this item being around 80 years old and belonging to the costume collection since 1978, it would not seem out of place on the British high street in 2016. Modern trends and design continue to draw inspiration from this era of women’s fashion, where clothes for women were becoming practical as well as beautiful, and the role of women themselves was also beginning to change in society.
While this dress in its shape and style fits with the functionality of clothes during the Second World War, the pattern maintains an element of frivolity and decoration during a period which was characterised by wartime austerity. It is almost like a shirt dress, which reflects the practical ‘uniform’ aesthetic of the era, and it is feminine without being overly delicate. As women were beginning to be seen as strong and useful outside of the domestic sphere, the clothes followed this trajectory, with references to work uniforms and factory garments. The ideal female shape was also changing, becoming a ‘more mature ideal, slim but not underdeveloped’1, and fashion followed this. The waist was defined, but not tightly laced or constricted, with a natural shoulder shape and space for curves. This was a departure from the straight and long designs of the 1920s and early 30s.
This era of style is referred to so often in fashion today, not only because of its simple elegance, but also because of the social history surrounding it. This period was hugely progressive for women and for breaking away from traditional gender stereotypes, which I’m sure still fascinates people today.
Sophie Conlon (Museums volunteer)