Austerity fashion 1943 style and the building that inspired 1984’s ‘Ministry of Truth’

Richard Maddox

A WOMAN MODELS a green and mauve dress (which cost 7 clothing coupons), designed by Norman Hartnell. The model is standing on a windy rooftop in Bloomsbury, London. Senate House, the headquarters of the Ministry of Information, is clearly visible in the left of the frame. Image Copyright: © IWM. IWM catalogue reference D 14820. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205192912.

A WOMAN MODELS a green and mauve dress (which cost 7 clothing coupons), designed by Norman Hartnell. The model is standing on a windy rooftop in Bloomsbury, London. Senate House, the headquarters of the Ministry of Information, is clearly visible in the left of the frame. Image Copyright: © IWM. IWM catalogue reference D 14820. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205192912.

IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE that the photograph was taken in the middle of the Second World War.

And it’s hard to think that the woman in the printed dress was modelling a new design by British fashion designer Norman Hartnett.

Norman (later Sir Norman) Hartnell created innovative fashion designs during the 1920s and for the next fifty years.

His clients ranged from the British Royal Family – including the Coronation Dress worn by Queen Elizabeth -to ordinary British women. (1)

Senate House – part of the University of London – was the British capital’s first skyscraper and dates from the late 1930s. (2)

It was the home of the Ministry of Information from Britain’s entry into the Second World War until the department was disbanded in 1946. During that time it was responsible for many images designed to boost morale as well as for censoring material. (3)

It is said that Eric Blair – better known as author George Orwell – based the Minstry of Truth in his novel ‘1984’ on Senate House and the work carried out within.

In the book the central character Winston Smith works as a minor civil servant revising history by rewriting and correcting published material to match the ever-changing demands of the English Socialist Party (INGSOC or ‘the Party’) of which Winston is a member. In reality Blair’s wife Eileen worked in the building during the war. (4) (5)

In recognition of this the building was used as Winston Smith’s workplace in the 1984 film version of Orwell’s novel. (6)

Evelyn Waugh, another British writer used Senate House as the location for his book ‘Put Out More Flags’.

Published in 1942, the building is described as keeping ‘all the secrets of all the services… hidden in that gross mass of masonry’.

In his 1943 novel ‘Ministry of Fear’ Graham Greene described the building as ‘a high heartless building’ with ‘windows always open for fear of blast and the cold winds whistle in’.

To add to Senate House’s notoriety, it has been suggested that it survived the destruction inflicted by the Luftwaffe because it was ear-marked as a ready-made and significant headquarters building in the German plans to administer occupied Britain. (7)

Given the accuracy of aerial bombing by both sides in the early war years – plans for the invasion of Britain were shelved after the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 – this seems unlikely.

Sources

(1) https://fashion-history.lovetoknow.com/fashion-clothing-industry/fashion-designers/norman-hartnell – retrieved 26 October 2019.

(2) https://www.senatehouseevents.co.uk/features/history-senate-house – retrieved 26 October 2019.

(3) https://london.ac.uk/about-us/history-university-london/ministry-information – retrieved 26 October 2019.

(4) https://www.senatehouselibrary.ac.uk/blog/building-literary-history – retrieved 26 October 2019.

(5) https://london.ac.uk/news-opinion/london-connection/news-brief/senate-house-opens-its-doors-graduates – retrieved 26 October 2019.

(6) https://london.ac.uk/about-us/history-university-london/on-the-screen-senate-house – retrieved 26 October 2019.

More information

Wartime fashion:

The image was made by an unidentified Mnistry of Information photographer for a series on women’s fashion.

To see more images in the series, go to https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections and search for
‘ Utility clothes ‘.

Other links:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/teach/did-ww2-introduce-designer-fashion-to-our-high-streets/zjqfmfr

http://blogs.iwm.org.uk/research/2015/05/fashion-on-the-ration-1940s-street-style/

https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/how-clothes-rationing-affected-fashion-in-the-second-world-war