19 April 2022
With shows, festivals and events open at last, Ed Hallett is your guide to the world of re-enacting.
We are heading into military festival season and what better way of indulging your hobby than taking up re-enacting, whether as part of an organsied group, or simply to look the part when you attend an event. This is your guide to putting together a civilian impression.
The Home Front is perhaps the most democratic of all the themes to portray as it does not matter what age or sex you are. Civilians in wartime, of course, ran the whole gamut of human experience. As a re-enactor you can portray one of the uniformed civilian services or just a normal civilian man, woman or child. For the purposes of this article the focus will be on the British Home Front, however there is nothing to stop you putting together a US or German Home Front impression if you wish, both of which would offer a unique and interesting theme for an impression.
Uniformed civilian services
Throughout the war there were many uniformed civilian services, both pre-existing organisations such as the police and fire services and many specific to wartime such as ARP wardens and the Women’s Land Army. Creating an impression of one of these services can be a challenge, depending on what you chose to portray. There are some reproduction items out there, especially for the more popular services. Soldier of Fortune has an extensive selection of reproduction Women’s Land Army uniform for sale - a WLA bib and brace overall is £60, cord breaches are £80, WLA polo shirt is £15 and a WLA green jumper is £50. With a range of reproduction insignia, a Women’s Land Army impression is straight forward to put together.
Right: Soldier of Fortune produce a pair of replica corduroy breaches for £80, that are a close match to the original ones, such as these, issued to the WLA
For those wishing to portray the Women’s Voluntary Service, 1940shop.co.uk has a number of uniform elements such as a blouse for £24 and a beret for £21. Unlike military impressions, it is often very hard to find all the elements of a civilian impression in one place and re-enactors will need to research what pieces they need and then track down each component in turn.
Left: The website, the1940shop.co.uk makes an excellent reproduction of the WVS green beret, complete with the embroidered WVS cap badge
However, portraying the ARP or later Civil Defence can be a fairly straight forward impression to create. Initially wardens just wore civilian clothing with a silver ARP badge, which are still very common, and perhaps a Mk II helmet. Mk II helmets can be purchased in poor condition for under £50 and it is the work of a weekend to strip it back to its bare shell and then repaint it in the markings of your choice. Later ARP workers were often issued with blue overalls and blue civilian overalls can make an excellent substitute for these. Just make sure they are of the correct style and don’t have Velcro and plastic poppers! Reproduction or original insignia can then be sewn to the overalls and the ensemble completed with the appropriate helmet. Later in the war Civil Defence workers were issued with dark blue army style battledress. These are still available to purchase, and certain post war patterns can also substitute. As ever do your research and base an impression off period photographs if possible. Be cautious about Civil Defence insignia as early 1950s insignia looks like it should be correct, but is in fact completely different to wartime patterns so research is your friend here.
Right: The ARP offer a great theme for a civilian impression, with a range of different impressions from a simple helmet and badge, to overalls and rescue equipment. Women as well as men can portray the Civil Defence services
Another popular choice can be the police, who had a major role throughout the war where many new wartime duties were added to their usual peacetime responsibilities. During World War II the country’s police forces were far more numerous than they are today, with each major town and city having an independent force with its own insignia and county areas outside the conurbations forming the rest of the nation’s constabulary. As such it is possible to portray your local force should you wish to do so.
Police uniforms are not currently reproduced so you will need to search for an original example in your size. A matching helmet is also required, although the standard Mk II steel helmet was also common during the war, along with a slung long hose type general service respirator. These accessories help sell the impression as being wartime and for inclement weather, a traditional policeman’s cape is also a great investment. www.britishbobby.co.uk regularly has stock of wartime uniform and at present an early 1950s police tunic of the correct pattern (just requiring new buttons) is available for £100.
Above: Original police uniforms are still available for sale and careful hunting should turn up a set in your size
Left: With many older men returning to duty with the police and as special constables, age is not a huge consideration when portraying the wartime constabulary
Perhaps it seems that the simplest impressions to put together would be those of ordinary citizens in wartime, with simple civilian clothing of the period being all that is required. Whilst something that looks okay to the untrained eye is not too hard, and ideal for getting started, the cut and way of wearing clothing has changed over the last 80 years so to do it correctly is a little more involved. There are many amateurish civilian impressions where a fur wrap has been placed over a 1970s sun dress, worn with a hat. Any comparison with genuine wartime photographs shows how inaccurate these pastiches are.
Left: Women in America suffered fewer restrictions. This is a page from the Sears department store catalogue from 1943 showing three dress styles
Right: These women, photographed in 1942, are wearing tailored suits – commonly seen in office workplaces
Very few women wore fur scarves in everyday life, the average housewife preferring sensible shoes and a coat and often wearing a pattern wrap around house coat to protect her clothes. Rationing applied to clothing as well as food so hard wearing sensible clothing was the order of the day. Equally, men wore woollen suits, which are both heavier in cloth and less shiny than most post war suits which are made of wool and man-made fibre blends. It is easy to forget that houses and offices were not as warm in the 1940s as they are now, so a good thick woollen suit was a practical option. Period clothes catalogues and photographs are worth studying to see what people actually wore, rather than what we think they wore.
Left: Vintage dress patterns are available to allow civilian clothing to be made at home from your own choice of fabric
As well as woollen suits, slacks with sleeveless jumpers over a shirt were popular choices for men, usually worn with a tie. Leisure wear became prevalent during the 1940s and included polo shirts and zipped short jackets, whilst tweed sports jackets were also to be seen. Double breasted jackets and large turn ups were popular, but wartime clothes rationing in Britain saw these outlawed so all new garments had to be single breasted and without pleats and turn ups.
Hats were commonplace and helped determine a man’s class. If you are wishing to portray a working class civilian, then a flat cap or baker boy cap is ideal. For the aspiring middle classes homburgs and trilbies are the correct choice, whilst if you are wishing to portray someone working in the professions such as a doctor, lawyer or bank manager then little had changed since Edwardian times and the appropriate headdress was still the bowler hat or even the top hat for those at the apex of their profession. Shoes have changed little in 80 years, so smart modern dress shoes make an adequate substitute, just be sure to match them to your outfit as no self-respecting gentleman would wear brown shoes with a dark suit, or black with tweed. Revival Vintage (www.revivalvintage.co.uk) offers a wide range of period civilian clothing and accessories and you can choose based on size and era.
Right: As the decade wore on, more casual or leisure based attire came into fashion. This is from a 1940s men’s catalogue
The same company offer a range of women’s clothes and a period dress starts from £80. Women’s fashion during the war was still very much centred around skirts and dresses, although trousers were beginning to become more popular amongst young women, especially with those who were working in physical occupations such as in factories. Simple dresses were worn with tights and leather shoes. Women’s shoes did have heels, but they tended to be lower and thicker than many high heels today. Older women often wore two piece outfits with skirts and jackets over a blouse. Clothing in the UK tended to steer towards the more conservative cuts when compared to the dresses of US movies of the time. The influence of Hollywood on high street fashion was starting to be felt though.
A constant worry of women at the period was the lack of clothing coupons so when they did buy new garments they had to be well made. Although artificial fabrics were just starting to be developed, polyester was not in use and rayon was the only man made fabric in limited use. Wool and cotton were by far the most common materials to make civilian clothing from and knitted garments were hugely popular even before rationing. It was far cheaper to purchase wool and knit a cardigan yourself than to purchase it in the shops.
There are a number of companies that specialise in making accurate reproduction civilian clothing, whilst dress patterns can be purchased if you have the skills to make your own. Many people made their own clothes and original knitting patterns can be bought for a few pounds, whilst a number of companies offer reprints of original dress patterns. Equally there are many shops both online and at shows that specialise in vintage clothing and careful hunting can find original items in your size. Look out for tailors’ labels that say: ‘By Appointment to His Majesty the King’ or items with the utility ‘CC41’ mark in them as you can then be sure they are of the correct period.
Left: Railway events are great places to start in the hobby. The children have evacuation labels. However, most men would not have beards like this and the woman’s hair is too unkempt
A universal accessory is the civilian gas mask in its cardboard carrying box, luckily these were made in their millions so can still be picked up very easily and add the perfect final touch to an impression. For children, an evacuation label is a nice touch and examples can be found online that can be downloaded and printed onto suitable card stock.
Hairstyles are an important part of making an accurate civilian impression. For men, hair was neatly trimmed, with hair oils and Brylcream popular. A modern barber can cut your hair into an appropriate cut, however taking a photograph of what you want makes it much easier to get the correct look. Hair oils and grooming products are still for sale and with the rise in ‘hipster’ fashion, these period cuts have come back into fashion so do not look too out of place in day to day life. One area that is not as fashionable today as it was during wartime is the moustache. Beards were worn during wartime, but had fallen from favour compared to the turn of the 20th century. The toothbrush moustache was still popular, even with Hitler sporting a variation of it, but it was the pencil moustache, popularised by Hollywood actors of the day which was particularly popular.
Right: Clark Gable, as seen in the late 1930s. Hair then was very slicked back, so early war impressions could follow this style
Left: Errol Flynn, now in the 1940s, showing that the hair on the head had more volume and style as the decade went on
Right: These German NSDAP members show late 1930s hairstyles with the sides of the head being shaved
Recreating women’s hairstyles for wartime is a little trickier, as people tend to wear their hair far longer and looser today than they did in the 1940s. Happily with the rise of interest in vintage stylings, many acceptable hairstyles are also great for wear during the week. Victory Rolls have made a comeback and tutorials are available online guiding you through their creation. For a simple wartime look hair can be wrapped around a foam roller at the nape of the neck and secured in place with pins and a hair net and this gives a nice practical look for a less glamourous impression. For further reading on the subject, civilian reenactors are recommended to seek out a copy of The 1940s Look by Mike Brown which covers both hairstyles and the wider topic of fashion and makeup for wartime impressions.
Left: A range of women’s hairstyles, all from the 1940s. They all have the hair swept back off the face
Women’s makeup and jewellery was simple, but it was considered poor form to eschew it entirely. Advertisements of the period argued that it was good for men’s morale to see women looking as pretty as they could with makeup, even if wartime shortages made it hard to obtain cosmetics. Lipstick was very popular, as was a small amount of face powder to remove shine. Rouge and excessive eye makeup was frowned upon as being indicative of loose morals so less is more in this case. Again there are many online tutorials that can help you apply it in a period manner and modern cosmetics, applied correctly look perfectly authentic.
With all civilian impressions, do not copy other re-enactors, but do your own research from period sources and a pleasing and accurate impression can be put together with a little effort. Civilian impressions are also a great way of involving the whole family in a way that military impressions are not.
Right: Rita Hayworth made the Victory Roll hairstyle popular in World War II and the style is still in fashion today
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