Conference Review: The Look of Austerity, Museum of London

This month, I was able to attend The Look of Austerity conference, supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and held at the Museum of London on 11 and 12 September.

Organised by both Museum of London curators and Royal Holloway, University of London academics, the conference focused on post war fashion and covered aspects from austerity, glamour and the New Look to austerity, scarcity and everyday fashion.  With over 20 speakers representing research interests in dress and fashion history from around the globe, there was a strong emphasis on understanding austerity and dress at both a national and international level.

The first day had a packed agenda, which by a quick headcount, saw attendance of approximately 50 delegates.  We listened to 11 speakers organised into four sections: introduction; austerity and the New Look; austerity and the fashion business and narrating austerity.   Each section closed with a discussion between speakers, prompted by questions from the audience.

The conference opened with two talks that set both the visual and historical stage for later presentations.  The first focused on the role of ruins in fashion photography during 1940s in London and was given by Dr. Rebecca Arnold, Oak Foundation Lecturer in History of Dress and Textiles at the Courtauld Institute of Art.  This was an interesting presentation, raising the question of how to read signs of ruin and dereliction in post war fashion photography, given that fashion is usually preoccupied with the now and the future.  Arnold suggested that magazines like Vogue used ruins as a backdrop in an effort to visualise austerity.  Judging from the subsequent talks, it was not just Vogue that did this as we continued to see ruins and remains of the war in many of the presented images. 

Elle, 1945; a magazine offering readers an alternative to the New Look, with its emphasis on American fashions and ‘bon-magic’ (adapting your own clothes)

The second talk was delivered by Dr Sophie Kurkdjian, Research Fellow at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) in Paris, working alongside Dominque Veillon, the director of research at CNRS, whom was also in attendance.  This presentation focused on the way in which austerity was understood by French middle class women in the post war period. It was suggested that consumers engaging with alternatives to the New Look through fashion magazines offering making tips and more affordable American fashions.

The opening talks were followed by the morning session, which focused on austerity and the New Look. Speakers included Dr Irene Guenther on fashion in post-war Germany, Mila Ganeva on the reception of Dior’s fashion in German film and Nickianne Moody on popular British responses to the New Look in the late 1940s.

The ‘rubble women’ of Berlin, clearing the city and in doing so, ‘de-nazifying’ their own clothes.

I was particularly moved by Dr Irene Guenther’s paper about the re-emergence of the fashion industry in post war Germany, set against a background of widespread scarcity for food and textiles.  Despite being one of the fastest industries to resurface, Dr Guenther highlighted the absence of Jewish fashion personnel and the industry’s silence on its own anti-Semitism activities during the war.  I appreciated Dr Guenther’s distinction between ‘fashion’ and ‘clothes’, and her reminder that cultural activities can often be appropriated in the name of political propaganda.

An advertisement for Clarks’ Skyline range, a popular austerity brand in the 1940s

After lunch, we listened to speakers consider austerity and the fashion business.  These included Edwina Ehrmann on the inclusions of British fashion at ‘Britain Can Make It Exhibition’ in 1946, Judeth Saunders on the impact of austerity measures on the shoe ranges produced by Clarks, Dr Sonia Ashmore on everyday fashion retailing and Deidre Murphy on austerity at court in Britain in the post-war period.  Ehrmann’s foray into the development of the Fashion Hall at the 1946 exhibition revealed over 100 outfits were on display yet its organisation was last minute and not necessarily overly strategic.  Saunders’ glimpse into the Clarks archive was fascinating, enhanced greatly by beautiful digital images of their 1940s ranges, which included the popular Skyline brand.  I also loved that Saunders was wearing a pair of Clarks that looked suitably inspired by the ranges discussed in the paper!

In The Mink, Ann Scott James, 1952

The last session, in the late afternoon, looked at narrating austerity and included a talk on fictional accounts of fashion and austerity by Dr Felice McDowell followed by a conversation between Elizabeth Wilson and Amy de la Haye about fashion in Wilson’s period crime dramas.  I enjoyed McDowell’s discusssion of the text ‘In the Mink’, published in 1952 and a frequently used source when it comes to research into post war fashion and austerity.  McDowell, I think, was also the first person to link the historical analysis of austerity with contemporary understandings of austerity in fashion.  This was further discussed during the audience Q&A when an academic sitting next to me suggested to the panel that more consideration of the term austerity was needed, going beyond using it solely as a period description.  De la Haye reminded us too just how fascinating post war austerity is because contemporary fashion and everyday clothing practices are experientially so very different. 

Overall, the conference was well organised and maintained a good pace despite such a busy programme.  However, one Q&A had to be cancelled due to timings and I would plea that these are maintained in future because they are invaluable learning opportunities for audience members.  Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the second day of the conference but the programme for this can be found hereI would love to hear from anyone who was able to make it in the comments below.

Top image credit: The girl on the ruins of Paris in 1945, dressed in Pierre Balmain, Vogue.

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