The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe of Vintage Clothes

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This week, I’ve been mostly marking essays from my undergraduate module Origins and Developments of Children’s Literature. Actually, I’ve been mostly marking essays about C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) because the majority of the class are completely fixated on the book and want to write about it. Which is no bad thing really.[1]

I’ve done a lot of research about C.S. Lewis, particularly into in his use of landscape and the role that his memories of Ireland and his relationship with Ireland play in his fiction. I’ve given a couple of talks about his work and there was a brief time when I thought I might write my next book about his Narnia series. But then I got distracted by Victorian children’s books and the possibilities of archvies I’ve had to put Narnia aside for another day….

But I still get to lecture about Lewis and Narnia every year which is some compensation.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was published in 1950 though it was conceived of rather earlier. Lewis wrote to a friend in 1948 to say he was working on a children’s story “in the tradition of E Nesbit” and in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he notes that the image of the faun in the snow had come to him when he was a teenager. But the story is set during World War II and it bears the marks of its wartime setting throughout.

Several critics have noted the influence of rationing on the story. Judy Rosenbaum observes that the meal Lucy shares with Mr Tumnus

“is not, it would seem, a feast befitting a wondrous kingdom. Yet meals of this simple, hearty variety abound in Narnia. One reason might be that as Lewis wrote the Narnian Chronicles, England was still living under stringent wartime/postwar food rationing. Every English child would have savored reading about these meals.”[2]

But the description of the meal doesn’t just make it seem like a wonderful treat in the midst of rationing, it also suggests that there’s something very odd about Mr Tumnus. The meal he provides for Lucy is almost totally comprised of items that were rationed and were increasingly hard to come by. So, the tea may even hint that there is something sinister about Mr Tumnus. Is he a black-marketer? Does this luxury and abundance come from his alliance with the White Witch?

But the aspect of rationing that interests me is clothes rationing.

Clothes rationing  came into effect in Britain in 1941. There are numerous  blogs about vintage fashion that cover the topic. Lucky Lucille has a fantastic round up of links about different aspects of rationingand The History Girls have some brilliant resources, including a review of the Imperial War Museum’s “Fashion on the Ration” exhibition.  One of the best things I’ve stumbled across is a radio show called “Harry and Edna on the Wireless” which combines old-timey tunes with up-to-date chats about the vintage scene: this episode features an interview with Laura Clouting, the curator of the “Fashion on the Ration” exhibition, and historian Julie Summers (who has her own wonderful blog here).

Clothes were so strictly rationed that, as Laura Clouting points out, a new outfit was seen as something you saved up for, a ‘dream’ purchase for some future after the war ended.[3]

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Plan Your Future, Save with a plan, 1945 poster: Art.IWM PST 16368 Taken from http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/8-facts-about-clothes-rationing-in-britain-during-the-second-world-war

 

Clothes play an essential part in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – they help to describe character and they shape relationships between characters. The children enter Narnia through a wardrobe (which is full of fur coats and mothballs).

Pauline Baynes illustration from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

illustration by Pauline Baynes

So, for the most recent lecture on C.S. Lewis and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I decided to focus on the role clothing plays in the text.

 

In the seminar on Lewis and Narnia, I put up the clothing allowances and the number of coupons allocated to each item and ask students to add up how many coupons their outfits would have cost them.

There are always gasps of horror and giggles as we realise how prodigal our attitudes to clothing have become. There’s usually an argument about why dresses should ‘cost’ more than trousers and why men’s shoes have to cost more than women’s shoes, regardless of the size. Most of this year’s group were either cutting it fine or well over the rationed allowance (wearing socks over a pair of tights was a particular extravagance). One student this year had an outfit that ‘cost’ 60 coupons – more than a whole year’s ration. And then there’s always the moment that the realisation sinks in…no more new clothes for a whole year.

Always winter, never Christmas.

Which makes clothes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe all the more interesting.

Think about the wonderful new clothes bestowed on the children when they reach Aslan’s camp. Or think about the luxurious furs worn by the White Witch and the weight and warmth of the mantle she drapes over Edmund.

Clothes also reveal much about the characters in the story. For instance, Mr Tumnus’ dual nature is show by the contrast between his bare torso (his Pan-like wildness) and the red scarf muffling his throat (his essential domesticity).

In terms of rationing, we can look to the Beavers:

At the Beavers’ house, Mrs Beaver is busy sewing when the children arrive. Like the freshly-prepared meal that nourishes the children, sewing is a sign of a deeper trustworthiness. It’s a sign that the Beavers, unlike Mr Tumnus or Jadis, are frugal and are willing to make do and mend. Though they are Narnians, the Beavers adhere to the codes of food and fashion the children are familiar with from war-time England.[5]

And so to the wardrobe of war-time clothes…

When I visited the archives at the Imperial War Museum I found a bundle of knitting patterns. Some of them were terrible – things that could only be made for a joke, or for a post-apocalyptic horror movie where there’s no heating and fashion has been murdered in its sleep. But other patterns had the potential to pass as real garments and I planned to make a couple of them. The first one I made was a land girl’s pullover.

But then other projects and other archives grabbed my attention and I didn’t really think about the possible projects from the IWM for a long time.

Then in Autumn I heard that twin-sets were back.

I’m now pretty certain that this is a lie but the internet did a pretty good job of persuading me twin-sets were, indeed, THE thing to wear this winter. And I was pretty sure that Peggy Carter would be everyone’s idea of a style icon and I was certain that a twin-set would be just the ticket.

And so I turned to my notes and rediscovered this thing of magnificent and hideous beauty.

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Striped Twin-set from Vogue’s 20th Knitting Book

Just look at those shoulders!

This striped twin-set is from Vogue’s 20th Knitting book. I don’t have an exact publication date but the advertisement for Sandisons Real Shetland Yarns printed to the right of the pattern makes reference to coupons so I know it was published while rationing was still in effect.

 

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This issue and several other issues of Vogue were used in the Imperial War Museum’s “Fashion on the Ration” exhibition.

The original pattern calls for 12oz of Sirdar Super Shetland 3-ply in dark green and 3oz of the same in light green. After a bit of research[6] I found out there was approximately 140 yards to the ounce of this yarn. It’s unavailable now so I cast on in Mabel and Ivy’s Supersoft 2-ply (Prussian blue because green makes me look like I need a lot of sleep and a generous amount of rouge). The Supersoft is rapidly becoming my go-to yarn for vintage projects.

Because I hate seaming, I decided to cast on the back and fronts together and knit them as a single piece. This didn’t seem to affect the overall width of the cardigan. The pattern suggests that it’s for a 34’’ bust but there is a lot of ease and the shape of the body (increasing gradually in width from the waistband to the underarms) leads to a very generous fit.

The pattern instructions are here. The magazine is laid out very strangely so I’ve had to use several images to reproduce the pattern. If you follow them in order, all should be well.

 

Modifications

Needles: I could not get gauge using the needles suggested in the pattern so I went down a couple of sizes. The ribbing was worked with a 2.5mm needle and the stocking-stitch worked with a 2.75mm needle.

Sleeves: I’ve had problems with the sleeves on vintage patterns before so I decided to add an extra half inch to the suggested length for the sleeves.

Buttonholes: The original pattern suggests adding buttonholes where needed as you knit but I wanted to try on the finished cardigan first before I decided how many buttons to use or where to place them. So I decided to add buttonholes afterwards as part of a buttonband. Once I had the cardigan finished I tried it on and marked where I wanted buttons with safety pins.

Button band: I don’t hate myself and so I decided not the follow the pattern for the buttonband (which suggests casting on six stitches and knitting back and forward until you have a strip long enough to face the entire edge of the cardigan). I picked up stitches with the 2.5mm needle and worked in K1P1 rib for 7 rows, adding button holes in the 3rd/4th row, before casting off in rib.

Shoulders: When I tried on the finished cardigan I realised that it was designed for someone with a serious addiction to shoulder-pads. As you can see from the photos above, it looks like it’s falling off my shoulders and I am losing the effect of that lovely high sleeve cap. I either have to invest in some shoulder pads or I will need to put a couple of stitches in the top of the sleeve to secure the sleeve cap in place and give the effect of narrowing the shoulders without having to rip back or fold the fabric. Will experiment and update.

Pocket Flaps: I haven’t made these yet – I’m waiting to see if I have yarn left over from the sweater before I do anything rash.

Next up – half a dozen other vintage projects including trying to cook from William Morris’s recipe file, knitting from a 19th century lace pattern for Glasgow University’s Knitting in the Round Project, and my part in Roehampton University’s bran-new Archiving Childhood Project. And making the jumper for this twin-set!

***

[1] I secretly yearn for the day when Maria Edgeworth is given her due as a clever, forward-thinking writer of children’s books and is the star of a whole batch of undergraduate essays. Though it’s hard when she’s up against Lewis in the module. Lessons about logic and managing the household budget just aren’t as thrilling as talking lions. Pity.

[2] Judy Rosenbaum. “Critical Approaches to Food in Children’s Literature (review).” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 34.3 (2009): 297-299. Project MUSE. Web. 8 Jan. 2016. <https://muse.jhu.edu/&gt;.

[3] http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/8-facts-about-clothes-rationing-in-britain-during-the-second-world-war

[4] Plan Your Future, Save with a plan, 1945 poster: Art.IWM PST 16368 Taken from http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/8-facts-about-clothes-rationing-in-britain-during-the-second-world-war

If you’re more interested in the style than the history, I’d recommend Mrs. Fox’s Finery and Tuppence Ha’penny Vintage  which have numerous posts about vintage clothes, makeup, and hair which are very useful for all vintage enthusiasts and really just lovely to look at too.

[5] Though it is worth noting that the Pevensies are wearing fur coats when they arrive at the Beavers’ house. In WWII many fur coats were made of beaver-skin so I’m always a little curious as to what the Beavers really think about their fur-clad visitors.

[6] For ‘research’ in this instance read “creative Googling”

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One thought on “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe of Vintage Clothes

  1. Thank you for this interesting post! I love the journey you take from Narnia to knitting your own twinset. As a C.S. Lewis fan myself, I’m tempted to try a similar thing, although not being a champion knitter I might be limited to a red Mr. Tumnus scarf. Or I might try my hand at Turkish delight…

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