Originally posted January 6, 2021
Shortly after ordering the new mask fabrics, including one based on a map of London, I was reading Vogue and ran across this line in an article: "Dressing up in the face of catastrophe has a venerable history... In London during the Blitz, those craving a new frock used furniture rations to get a hold of upholstery fabrics--or sewed outfits from repurposed silk Royal Air Force maps."
THAT piqued my interest! You might recall that I've written to you about fashion in Paris during WWII. Now let's talk about England!
British fighter pilots were issued detailed maps in case they were shot down over Germany, so that they could find their way back to safety. The military had these maps printed on silk. Better than paper, silk was durable, could be folded and unfolded an infinite number of times, and took up almost no space. They could be hidden inside coat linings, the hollowed-out heel of a boot, or even inside gameboards sent to POWs. The maps, and small tools hidden with them, saved an estimated 750 lives!
Back on the homefront, England strictly rationed fabric. Silk was needed for parachutes and was completely unavailable for purchase. English women "made do and mended" and were just as resourceful as their French counterparts. Occasionally, however, one of those maps would find its way into their hands and they cherished every square inch of that precious silk.
A few garments made from those maps still exist today, including this adorable lingerie set in the archives of the Imperial War Museum.
I'll be honest, I got a little misty the first time I saw this picture. I imagine how anxiously the seamstress laid out her pattern pieces, how carefully she stitched each seam, and how she must have felt wearing it. It would have been a tiny token of luxury or guilty pleasure while waiting helplessly on the sidelines of a six-year war. I feel for her.
I was unaware of this history when I bought my map fabric. It is supposedly a map of London, although considering how large the "repeat" is, it's probably just a neighborhood. I felt more connected to it all the same.
One More WWII fashion "Fun" Fact
40 million respirators were distributed to English civilians who were advised to carry them at all times for the duration of WWII. Enterprising designers made handbags like this one, with a compartment for the mask. A chic accessory for an unfortunate situation!