Kitted Out: Style and Youth Culture in the Second World War by Caroline Young

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

This extremely well-researched and authoritative book takes us through the Second World War, in the UK, the US, the Far and Middle East and Europe, through the lives of the young people who took on the majority of jobs and volunteer roles, and seen then through the lens of the clothes they wore. The author keeps this up through the whole book, pulling scraps of information pertinent to her theme from secondary and first-person resources, archives of interviews and a couple of her own interviews, weaving together a fascinating resource for future researchers as well as casual readers which never forgets that just as important as the clothes they wear are the people wearing them.

Young takes a good look at both the UK and the US just before the Second World War, examining the tribes that were building up – and their uniforms – from jazz-lovers to Blackshirts. Then we’re into the armed forces – by Service – and the tweaks everyone made to their uniforms, whether condoned by the authorities or not. The detail here is astounding, from colours to ID bracelets and hairstyles – and that’s just the men!

Moving on to the women in voluntary and auxiliary roles, there is fascinating detail about the design of stylish uniforms – or practical ones – those for the most prestigious volunteers, the WVS, being purchased at upmarket shops like Harrods and Fenwick’s, effectively barring poorer women from joining. Underwear is described at length, as it seems to have had a startling effect on some women it was handed out to, and the point is made, in counterpoint to the one above, that having several sets of blouses and underwear was a revelation to some women from deprived areas.

The bravery of civilians in France and Germany who defied their occupiers and authorities respectively is highlighted, with Parisian women dressing up to the end, starved but defiant, French “zazous” having their long hair forcibly cut and being beaten (or worse) for their defiance, and German “swing youth” wearing forbidden styles of clothing and agitating against Nazism. This is an area I hadn’t really known about and was pleased to find out about.

The author makes a good effort to be inclusive, talking about West Indian, African, Indian and Mexican people who served in the armed forces and including images of African American members of the US Women’s Army Corps and the British spy, Noor Inayat Khan, who is also treated at length in the text. The effective desegregation of US troops by British hosts is also discussed. Women are just as important as men, and in fact the woman spies are treated in most detail than the men; there’s also a thorough treatment of the way women volunteers and servicewomen were presented in the media in order to persuade them and society as a whole that it was both a vital and an acceptable, even attractive role to take on.

We track some characters and their groups through various periods of the war, which ties the book together nicely, although obviously moving between theatres of war and nationalities involved brings in a high number of subjects and a bit of jumping around. It’s all handled very confidently and effectively, though, and the book hangs together very well. The final chapter has some very interesting details about what it was like to move back out of uniform into civilian clothes, with no more hitch-hiking in Army jeeps and less respect for a women abandoning her Red Cross uniform. This chapter also rounds up the fates of those characters we’ve been following who survived the war. 

There is naturally some material that is violent or difficult to read – about the fates of spies or resistance workers, for example – but it never feels gratuitous and is woven about with the general themes of the book on young people and style. It’s maybe best to be aware it’s not all jolly silk scarves and picking up local fashions in bazaars however; but also decent to be reminded that it wasn’t all about the look of the thing.

The illustrations are very nicely selected and all together in a set about half way through, enabling one to quickly flick to find pictures of the individuals or tribes she’s discussing. They have a good range of people pictured, including the aforementioned BAME people and unknown soldiers as well as well-known faces. There is a comprehensive bibliography, sorted usefully into books, articles, archive material from different projects and interviews, and there’s a good index, too. And it’s a lovely book as a book, with a smooth cover, French flaps and a cover illustration adapted from a contemporary one.

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Liz Dexter has never knowingly worn a uniform apart from a school one. She blogs at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Caroline Young, Kitted Out: Style and Youth Culture in the Second World War (The History Press, 2020). 978-0750992176, 288 pp., ill.

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