Shoes: Controlled Commodity

Shoes form a vital part of our daily lives. Sometimes they are worn for practical purposes, other times for stylistic reasons, but most shoes are selected to suit our work and lifestyle needs.

The Fashion and Textile Collection at The Bowes Museum houses around 200 pairs of shoes. These are eclectic and wide ranging, including a pair of men’s First World War army boots from 1914, and an impressive pair of ice skating boots worn by Empress Eugenie, the last consort of the French, in 1855.

Standard issue army boots, 1914 [CST.1664]
Empress Eugenie’s ice skating boots, 1855 [CST.139]
Throughout history shoes have been adapted to suit varying circumstances: sport, climate, court dress, workwear, daywear and eveningwear. During the Second World War we see an interesting shift in the development of footwear, unique to its circumstance. A number of systems were introduced to help manage the decline in available materials. With regard to clothing, functionality, price and style were important considerations during this heightened period of austerity; rationing was pervasive and luxury consumer goods were a rare commodity. Clothes rationing was announced on 1st June 1941 to ensure a fair distribution and availability of garments. Each garment was allocated a certain amount of points which varied depending on the quality of its material and level of labour. For women, shoes required 5 coupons, while for men it was 7. When the scheme was first introduced adults were offered 66 points to last one year, but as the war continued, points were reduced.

Along with rationing, the ‘Make Do and Mend’ scheme was a pamphlet prepared for the Board of Trade by the British Ministry of Information. This provided households with tips and advice on how to make the most of items in one’s wardrobe; patching, adapting one item into another, darning and altering.

Make Do and Mend pamphlet [2014.6/TEX]
Though rationing and coupons worked well for shoppers, it did not necessarily mean clothing was cheaper. Purchasing clothing was a costly practice due to shortages of materials and labour, and most would still need to top up their coupons with cash. This caused a gap between the more affluent shoppers purchasing long-wearing garments and less well-off shoppers buying garments which lasted half the time. To help manage this matter, the Utility Scheme was sanctioned in 1942 which aimed to maximise quality, cost and design, making the most of value for money and saving on rationing coupons. The Utility Scheme also enabled work forces to produce the items more effectively and efficiently, maximising resources for the war effort.

Green suede shoes, utility mark CC41 stamped on sole [CST.2.489]

In our collection we have a pair of green suede and leather Delta Utility shoes from 1942, with the Utility mark ‘CC41’ stamped on the sole. ‘CC’ stood for Controlled Commodity which confirmed an item met the government’s regulations. These green suede shoes are typical of the period; durability was an important selling point. Along with the green suede shoes we have a Utility suit from 1941 and Utility corset from 1945 which were similarly designed for durability and practicality. Both the shoes and suit are on permanent display in our Fashion & Textile Gallery.

Utility suit [CST.1.817 A+B]
Utility corset with controlled commodity stamp [CST.852]
Further reading:

–  The Conscription of Fashion: Utility Cloth, Clothing, and Footwear, 1941-1952, Christopher Sladen

–   Fashion on the Ration: Style in the Second World War, Julie Summers

Hannah Jackson, Assistant Curator of Fashion & Textiles

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