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Bexhill Looks at the 1940s

From Tragedy to Utility

OUT of the tragedy of a premature death in the royal family has come the focal point of a new exhibition at Bexhill Museum which also looks at a logo which came to epitomize an era.

The Duke of Clarence, elder son of the then Prince and Princess of Wales and grandson of Queen Victoria, was one of the victims of the influenza pandemic of 1889-1892.

Christened Albert Victor Christian Edward but known to history as “Eddy,” the Duke of Clarence had only just celebrated his 28th birthday when he died at the royal residence at Sandringham on January 14th 1892.

His funeral service was held at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on January 20th.

The black funeral dress that Queen Victoria wore on that occasion has been on extended loan to the museum.

Now finishing touches are being put to the museum’s 2018 Costume Gallery exhibition. Following the success of last year’s exhibition devoted to the 1920s and 1930s, the main thrust of the exhibition is the 1940s.

But the grieving monarch’s voluminous black chiffon dress, one of the most significant items in the gallery’s care, has pride of place.

The exhibition highlights the deep contrast between Victorian excess and Second World War economy measures. Older visitors to the museum will be familiar with the “double-C” logo that was the Utility Mark. The “CC41”label (Civilian Clothing 1941) indicated garments made to minimum quality standards. The term “utility” came to be the hallmark of an heroic period in British history.

The Utility clothing scheme was introduced by the war-time coalition government in 1941 as part of clothes rationing. The government took control of raw materials for manufacturing clothing in order to conserve limited supplies. Utility clothing had to make up 85% of production, the Board of Trade allowing manufacturers to devote just 15% of their output to clothing unrestricted by the economy measure.

As a result, says museum board of directors member Georgina Bradley, surviving garments from the era are comparatively rare.

Yet, together with her team of fellow volunteers and clothing conservators, Georgina has put together an exhibition that is rich in diversity.

A humble tweed cap, still in pristine condition, bears the Utility mark. Georgina says: “These caps are very rare today because they were so hard to come by and so much loved that men tended to wear them until the caps were completely worn out!”

The same applied to many other types of clothing. Material was in such short supply that it was a case of “make do and mend.”

Other costumes from the Utility era include a ladies’ tweed suit. Georgina says: “It’s very nice. We have all the information about it.”

Elegantly displayed on the Costume Gallery’s catwalk are three evening dresses that epitomize the efforts made to bring glamour to a grim era. They include an example in pink satin crepe which features the Utility mark inside. A slightly later example in velvet satin has a diamante clasp. A third features figured satin.

The Utility mark and rationing via clothing coupons were to remain a feature of “austerity” Britain until the scheme ended in 1949.

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