– by Julie Summers, author of Jambusters/Home Fires
‘If you put men and women together in close proximity in a danger shared, a mutual attraction is not only the inevitable result, it is what we should expect, and we should be very surprised and perturbed from a national point of view if it wasn’t.’ Thus wrote the English novelist, Barbara Cartland in 1945. As a welfare officer for the women’s services during the Second World War she was warm, generous and young people responded to her: ‘No one has ever minded when I have talked to them, and I’ve been both personal and intrusive. Being a novelist helps. I don’t know why, but people always want to confide in novelists, and the other thing which I believe makes everything alright is the fact that I am sincere. I do believe what I say.’ There were those in society who judged young people who got into trouble and condemned them but Cartland thought that was unfair and wrong. They were young, in love, in danger and in a hurry.
Wartime love affairs were not exclusive to nations under attack. Toronto-based Star Weekly’s front covers feature one belle after another, often with her beau, always exuding fresh excitement at new-found love. With the influx of trainee pilots into Canadian airfields there were plenty of opportunities for dalliances, as there were indeed in British villages when handsome, well-dressed Canadian soldiers and airmen turned up and turned heads. From today’s perspective it is difficult to imagine or understand the stigma caused by extramarital affairs or illegitimate children. For both men and women during the war there was a sense that living for today was fine because tomorrow you might die. This spilled over into behaviour which to some seemed reprehensible but which to others was inevitable, and not even particularly surprising. ‘War Aphrodisia’ was traditionally ascribed to men in battle and was a well-recognized condition. In total war, as the Second World War undoubtedly was for Britain and mainland Europe, a hedonistic impulse reached many other segments of society and was reflected further afield, wherever service personnel were stationed.
The emancipation of women in Britain after the First World War had led, briefly, to a more liberated attitude towards fashion and behaviour. One commentator wrote: ‘Women bobbed their hair, donned short skirts, smoked in public and wore the heavy makeup which had formerly been the attribute of the harlot.’ The seeds of emancipation had been sown and the flame was fanned hardest in the USA where the combination of a buoyant stock market, bootleg gin and the racy novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald fuelled the frenetic pace of the social revolution. Hollywood played its part, producing erotic films for a mass audience and elevating the leading stars to almost legendary status. Audiences flocked to films such as Alimony (1917), which promised ‘brilliant men, beautiful jazz babies, champagne baths, midnight revels, petting parties in the purple dawn, all ending in one terrifying climax that makes you gasp.’ The Great Depression put a stop to much of this and divorce rates in Britain plunged along with the stock market, reaching a low in 1933, down 40% from the 1928 level. The number of weddings also fell.
The outbreak of the war changed everything. In the autumn of 1939 couples all over the country rushed to marry. The statistics show that in 1939-40 more marriages were recorded than in any previous or later year on record, a 30% increase on 1938. In the face of an uncertain future couples were desperate to tie the knot while the chance was still there. Many wartime weddings followed the briefest of courtships, like that of Kate and Jack in Home Fires.
Other couples had had lengthy courtships but were catapulted into decision-making by circumstances. Frank and Gladys Mason met in 1932 and got engaged six years later. They had planned to marry in the summer of 1940 but the war focused their minds, as it did for so many others, and they joined the rush for an early wedding, marrying within two weeks of making the decision. Gladys kept a diary throughout the early years of the war and some of the entries, juxtaposed as they are against the backdrop of the sinister news from the war in Europe, make strange reading. Two days after announcing she would marry Frank she wrote: ‘Hitler watched German siege of Warsaw. City in flames. Had my wedding dress fitted. Lovely.’ Many young women chose to marry in traditional long white dresses but a significant number saw the advantage of having an outfit that could used on more than one occasion. Gladys selected a pink crepe material and her mother, a dressmaker by profession, created a calf-length dress with a Peter Pan collar, short sleeves, button-through with buttons and belt of the same material. The matching short jacket had long sleeves and she offset the outfit with a navy hat and shoes. The night before her wedding she wrote in her diary: ‘We are both looking forward to our wedding very much. Frank went on duty at 6 pm. I did odd jobs. Went to bed about 11. Very excited. Hitler made a speech. Wants peace. Won’t get it.’
Later in the war, when everything was in short supply, including wedding dresses, help came from among others Lord Nuffield, a wealthy British motor manufacturer and philanthropist. He had about two hundred wedding dresses made in the United States and held them in a warehouse in London. Young brides in the Forces could borrow a dress with as little as 24 hours notice and have the chance to look beautiful on their wedding day, rather than having to marry in uniform, which was the other option. Barbara Cartland also stepped into the fray with 150 wedding dresses she bought from women who were prepared to sell them for use by Forces brides. The War Office set a maximum price of £8.00 (£200 in 2015 or $350) for a dress, with veil and wreath, though occasionally she would top that up with a bit more from her own pocket, ‘because I understood that those dresses were made of more than satin and tulle, lace and crepe de chine; they were made of dreams, and one cannot sell dreams cheaply’.
– Photo: Canadian War Brides/Facebook
Writer, Broadcaster and Historian Julie Summers is the author of Jambusters, the true story of the wartime Women’s Institute which inspired the hit ITV series, Home Fires, premiering on VisionTV Wednesdays at 9pm ET/6pm PT through March 9, 2016. Julie is also the author of Fashion on the Ration, exploring style during the Second World War.
Read more from Julie here and visit her official website here. Home Fires, the book, is available for purchase here and Fashion on the Ration here. Watch for more fascinating Home Fires backgrounders from Julie each Tuesday through March 8.
Need to catch up on episodes of Home Fires online? Each episode will be available to watch here for 30 days from the day after its premiere broadcast.