Blog: Leonie BarrieFoundations of social change

Leonie Barrie | 7 September 2011

Underwear has made its mark on the fabric of society in many ways over the years, but a new insight has revealed it was seen as key to the UK war effort too.

The perhaps surprising admission was made by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which is marking the 70th anniversary of government social surveys with details of some of the more unusual studies that have been carried out over the years.

Delving into the archives of 1941, it seems Ministers were so concerned that parts needed for corsets, bras and suspender belts were contributing to a nationwide steel shortage that they asked statisticians to work out details of supply and demand.

Officials asked 5,000 housewives and working women questions that would seem prying even by today's standards, ranging from the types of supporting garments the women wore and how much they cost, to how frequently they washed and mended them.

While we don't know whether the findings were ever put to any official use, what we do know is that on average, women owned 1.2 supporting garments, that agricultural workers owned more than housewives, and that 7.8% of shop assistants wore boned suspender belts. Furthermore, researchers gleaned that 34.3% of women wore slacks or trousers.

The government justified its activity by saying the information was key to efficient planning and population safety.

"It was therefore felt that detailed information should be secured on a subject which is of interest to most women - foundation garments." Which is something they probably wouldn't get away with today.


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