The term Utility Clothing became associated with Britain's Utility Scheme during WW2.

However, apparently such a "utility" in fashion seems to have been known even before this time.

I came across an article entitled Utility Futility, which expands upon the word Utility and its associated negative fashion meanings which were present before the commissioning of the 1941 scheme.

Here is a relevant excerpt from that article (bold is mine):

Why was “Utility” such an inadequate label? First, it had been used in the clothing industry before to describe a type of heavy-duty garment designed to weather tough use, the equivalent of what consumers today might think of as blue-collar “work clothes.” It appeared with relative frequency in advertisements for coats and jackets well before the Utility scheme’s conception, proving that consumers already had a preexisting idea in mind when they heard the word “Utility,” an idea contrary to the reality of Utility scheme clothes35 […] “Utility” made consumers picture drab, unflattering jumpsuits.

The first verdict came in February 1942, when the Drapers’ Record, a prominent journal for clothiers and other sectors of the clothing industry, released one of the earliest articles surveying women’s initial receptions of the Utility scheme. The article began by pointing out that since Utility had yet to make a significant appearance in stores, many of the women interviewed based their opinions solely on their impressions of the word “Utility,” rather than on firsthand experience. One interviewee commented that “Utility” made her think of a uniform – “government stuff, sackcloth.” Another interviewee worried Utility clothing would be “clumsy and heavy.” Still another expected colors to be “dark and uninteresting.” The reporter even added that these three women had not heard about the scheme before being interviewed about it, further demonstrating the power of the word “Utility” to produce negative first impressions of the entire project.

Are there online first-hand resources regarding such clothings deemed to be like these 'utility clothings' later (e.g., pictures or illustrations of such "utility clothings" from that time)?

The article does refer to a Vogue advertisement of that time of interest:

35 Advertisement for Allama “Utility” coats. Vogue, February 1939, p. 29.

But there's no such an advertisement in both February 1 and February 15 issues' page 29 (nor some other page, to the best I could see).

  • 1
    @MarkC.Wallace, your edit changed my question purpose: The title before edit specifically mentioned: regardless of the World Wars. I also specficially mention in the question: before the commissioning of the scheme. That Wiki article refers to what I'm not interested in.
    – HeyJude
    Apr 7, 2021 at 12:37
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    Vogue claims to have an entire archive online, like here archive.vogue.com/issue/19390201 registration required (& not working for me…) But I strongly repeat my hunch that this is formost a language and meaning issue, about 'clothing deemed to be with/of utility' more than anything else. Apr 7, 2021 at 13:58
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    @LаngLаngС, that's a nice suggestion. I edited my question to address what I think you mean - did I get your intention right?
    – HeyJude
    Apr 7, 2021 at 14:00
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    I read google ngram viewer as support for @LangLangC's theory that this is a language/semiotics issue.
    – MCW
    Apr 7, 2021 at 18:49
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    If I may explain in comments: before 'scheme' "utility" in clothing was sen as akin to 'practical/working class' (thus connoting cheap, dull, etc) ie: anathema to (high) 'fashion' (impractical, but nice looking, 'en vogue', 'modern', rare , expensive, etc). As the excellent src-artcl by Durfee explains: "seen as"; a terrible misnomer for a pol campaign (whose results were rather sexy CC41-cuts, despite limits-frame, IncSOC designers being trained properly in trade & taste & style) — mismatch in comm between subjects & well-meaning civ-servants (cue MA&earlymod-style sumptuāriae lēgēs). Apr 8, 2021 at 0:04

1 Answer 1


After some digging into this question, I realise that @LangLangC's comments are right.

Looking at the dictionary, one of the lexical meanings of the adjective utility is:

2: Functional rather than attractive.

Correspondingly, the term utility clothing had (and actually still is, but I'm limiting myself here to pre-WW2) referred to functional clothes, serving primarily for utility rather than beauty.

While in some contexts utility clothing refer to everyday clothes, which may actually be stylish (though not "dressy"), in some other contexts this term just referred to work clothes, which of course are not supposed to be attractive.
It is understandable, then, why those women interviewed back in 1942 – in the lack of firsthand experience with Utility Scheme clothes – had the impression that such clothes will look bad.

Let's demonstrate with examples these two related meanings, i.e., utility clothing (1) as a juxtaposition to dressy clothing, and (2) as simply meaning work clothes.

Note: unfortunately, all examples are from American sources, not British ones.

(1) utility as a juxtaposition to dressy

The Mother's Magazine, Volume 12 (source. published in New York, 1844):

enter image description here

Textile-apparel Analysis - Volume 4 (source. published in New York, 1928):

enter image description here

Where and how to Sell Manuscripts (source. published in Massachusetts, 1919):

enter image description here

Now take a look at this advertisement by Lane Bryant for maternity clothing, from 1917 (source, from Vogue, volume 49, number 4, February 1917) – this utility coat looks quite nice, isn't it?:

enter image description here

(2) utility clothes are just work clothes

  1. NOGAR's utility clothes, ad from 1927 (source):

enter image description here

  1. Duxbak's utility clothes, ad from 1918 (Popular Science Monthly, volume 93, November 1918):

enter image description here

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