Was ‘Make Do and Mend’ an Early Example of Everyday Creativity?

We can learn a lot about creativity and resourcefulness of the female fashion innovators of the WWII era.

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Everyday Creativity

Part 1

When I first heard the term everyday creativity I didn’t quite know what it meant. I had an inkling it had something to do with looking at creativity differently so I looked it up and found a wealth of information on it. Basically, it is defined as ‘expressions of originality and meaningfulness.’ When we think of creatively we think of artists or musicians or other aspects of the Arts. Yet it is believed this is far too narrow a definition.

So people don’t have to write a symphony or paint a masterpiece to be being creative. Rather everyday creativity involves thinking outside the box, using problem solving skills and coming up with new ways to do things.

Which brought something to mind. Have you ever heard the term Make Do and Mend? Possibly not, as it was a term that was used during the Second World War and it was, in my opinion, a great example of everyday creativity.

The term everyday creativity was coined, defined and validated in 1988 by Ruth Richards, Dennis Kiney, and colleagues at Harvard Medical School. But long before that, people were forced to be creative out of necessity. They did not have the luxury to be creative in any traditional sense like writing, music, or painting. They simply had to survive. Food, fabric, coal – all sorts of things were rationed or not available.

The government stepped in and produced brochures and advertising based on the Make Do and Mend concept; they were keen to spread the message as soldiers needed more so people at home had less. It was not just compulsory, but rather a patriotic duty, one most people took very seriously.

If you need a new dress for an occasion what would you do? Chances are, you buy one from a shop. There was a time when you would have bought the fabric and made one yourself or had a dressmaker to do it. But imagine even that was impossible? There was simply no fabric.

Grandpa’s old coat or dad’s old pair of trousers could be picked apart and the fabric used to make a shirt, skirt or a dress. Some of the examples shown in the Make Do and Mend advertising were quite brilliant.

Now give me a pair of men’s trousers and tell me to make a dress out of it, and actually wear it and I would weep. Then again, I’m sure many women of the time thought that. They would have stared puzzled at the pants for quite a while perhaps, then at some point they realised if they wanted something to wear they simply had make it work.

In fact, dressing suddenly involved a whole barrage of thinking outside the box. After war broke out and silk became scarce, black seam stockings were unavailable. So instead, black seams were drawn on with eyebrow pencil. It became such a popular trend that if you were unsure how to do it you could pop to the Max Factor counter at a department store and they would show you (and no doubt sell you a pencil while they were at it!)

Nude coloured stockings were also unavailable and there was no fake tan then so they used tea or watered down gravy to dye their legs. I imagine with various results! Later they were saved when leg makeup actually appeared on the market.

Fashions even changed slightly in line with the need to be sparing. Ankle socks replaced calf length socks. Due to leather shortages, shoes started being made out of cork and other hard wearing materials. Skirts shortened to just below the knee and jackets changed size and style.

There was a huge shift as women became employed covering jobs that men had left to go to war. So women were required to do the sort of work where they had to worry about comfortable clothing and keeping their hair tied back.

Women who still wanted to look good suddenly found themselves with no unnecessary pleats, gathers, trimmings, or embroidery on any clothing. Though some trimmings were off coupon as were hats so many women decorated hats to make up for lack of colour (dyes were scarce) or decorative clothing.

Recycling clothing could only be contemplated once the item was completely worn out and unwearable. Until then, they would be repaired or mended. Think darning socks, putting elbow patches on jackets etc. Some items were even reinforced before any tears or worn patches appeared so they would last longer.

Lots of tips on darning and repairing clothes were supplied in pamphlets of the time featuring Mrs Sew and Sew, a rather basic puppet like cartoon drawing of a woman meant to represent the everyday housewife. I’m assuming people at the time did not find her as frightening as I do now.

Humour was certainly not lacking in these helpful pamphlets. Some had titles like “Keep them tidy underneath!” In a pamphlet giving instruction on reinforcing children’s underwear. Or “Smarten up your man!”

Hand-me-downs were, of course, common. When large families were still the norm, things would be repaired and passed down as each child grew out of them.

Prevention was best, so fabrics including household items like sheets and curtains needed to be hard-wearing and looked after. Of particular concern was keeping blackout curtains in good condition. Keeping London dark during air raids was incredibly important. It was literally life and death. So caring for your curtains was something not to be taken lightly.

So there you have it! The war effort required people to think outside the box in terms of clothing and other household products. Though it was not just these things, but also food and other consumable materials like coal. I will look at these things in part 2 of the piece so watch this space.

Note: If you are interested in viewing the pamphlets and ration instructions then you can in the book “Make do and Mend. Keeping family and home afloat on war rations. Reproductions of official Second World War instruction leaflets.”  With a forward by Jill Norman.