Clothes rationing ended on 15 March 1949. In World War II Britain, clothes rationing had been introduced in June 1941. Clothing materials were needed to produce the uniforms that were by then worn by a quarter of the population.
Most things were rationed in the drive to be more self-sufficient in the fight against Nazism. Petrol came first, then food was severely rationed. Everyone had to register at chosen shops, and was given a ration book with coupons. Shopkeepers were given enough food for registered customers. Would-be buyers took ration books with them when shopping, so that coupons could be torn out or cancelled.
In 1939 it was petrol. Then in 1940 bacon, butter and sugar were rationed. Then came rationing for meat, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, lard, milk, and canned and dried fruit.
When clothing was rationed, it was calculated to provide one change of outfit per year, with more coupons for growing teenagers. The ration was based on how much labour went into a garment, and how much material was used. A dress could take 11 coupons, whereas a pair of stockings took only 2. Men’s shoes took 7 coupons, while women’s shoes were only 5. In 1945 an overcoat needed 18 coupons; a man's suit, 26–29, depending on the lining.
No coupons were needed for second-hand clothing, but prices were fixed. The ‘Make do and Mend’ campaign, supported by poster advertising, urged people to repair rather than replace their clothing, thereby engendering a generation of skilled repairers.
In 1942 clothing austerity measures were introduced to limit the number of buttons, pockets, pleats, and decorations on clothes, and shoes and boots became hard-to-get items. The ‘Utility’ brand denoted basic, government approved clothing. As a child, I wore a ‘Utility’ raincoat.
Rationing led to black markets. ‘Spivs’ offered additional non-rationed supplies to those who could afford it. This was a lucrative industry, and the maximum five-year jail sentence for being a ‘spiv’ was not much of a deterrent.
After the end of the Second World War, rationing continued. In some cases it became stricter after the war. With many men still in the armed forces, an austere economic climate, and a centrally-planned economy under the post-war Labour government, resources were not available to increase production and imports. Strikes often made things worse. Cheating became widespread, and often the ration books of the dead were kept and used by their relatives
In 1950 the Conservative Party played upon public resentment at continued rationing, scarcity, controls, austerity and government bureaucracy. People had seen how the socialist policies of the Labour Party had failed to alleviate shortages and were ready for alternatives. The Conservatives, under Churchill, staged a political comeback with the slogan “Set the people free,” and won power in the 1951 general election. Their appeal was especially effective to housewives, who found shopping conditions harder after the war than they had been during it.
It was alleged that clothing rationing ended because attempts to enforce it were thwarted by massive illegality, including black markets, unofficial trade in clothing coupons, many forged, and bulk thefts of unissued clothes ration books. Either way, its ending in 1949 came too late to save the Labour government. People were fed up of shortages and rationing, and turned to the Conservatives to end them.