How Hugh Dalton invented the onesie

The last few weeks have marked a massive change in the way we view the role of the state. Government is shifting to the kind of interventionism we haven’t seen since Harold Wilson or even Clement Attlee.

Very quietly a few weeks ago the Railways were brought back into state control, with the whole free market approach of the last few decades abandoned.

I wanted to go back and explore how extent of how an interventionist state operated when it was in full wartime mode.

Hugh Dalton (future Chancellor in the Attlee Government) served initially as Minister for Economic Warfare in the Churchill Government where he set up the Special Operations Executive and the Political Warfare Executive, the forerunners of modern special forces, and counter-intelligence

In 1942 he was moved to become President of the Board of Trade, where he was responsible for rationing. Clothes rationing had become a big and sensitive issue, with 400,000 clothing workers shifted from civilian production to war work or the forces.

People were allocated 66 pink clothing coupons per year to purchase clothes, a ration that Dalton cut to 48 and then to 36. A man’s suit was 26 coupons, and an overcoat 16. If your coat wore out and you had spent your rations you were going to be cold for the rest of the year.

To increase supply Dalton recruited Michael Metford Watkins from John Lewis to head up a Government clothes organisation – CC41, the UK Government’s clothes brand:

The 2 cheeses logo was designed by Reginald Shipp, and the clothes themselves were designed by The Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (IncSoc): Peter Russell, Norman Hartnell, Bianca Mosca, Digby Morton, Victor Stiebel, Elspeth Champcommunal and Hardy Amies. 

The clothes were still rationed, but they came with a guarantee of quality and function

Nice socks

Clothes were stripped down in style, with all extraneous detail removed to save fabric. There were strict rules on the number of buttons, and mens clothes were slimmer, single breasted and without turn-ups. This was a massive contrast to the baggy, double breasted styles of the 30s and 50s, with more in common with modern fashions.

The key item that CC41 produced was the siren suit – the original onesie. The suit was designed to be worn, or pulled on quickly, over nightwear in the case of an air raid.

In the hands of Hardy Aimes and Norman Hartnell this basic garment was given a lot of flair:

CC41 Siren Suit from the Imperial War Museum collection

Churchill had a pinstripe siren suit, which he often wore in public as a kind of smart casual romper:

Perfect for working from home

He also appears to be wearing mock-croc slippers. Nice one Winston.

Secretly Churchill evaded war time restrictions and had a green velvet onesie made by Turnbull and Asser:

L2014-4857, Winston Churchill’s green velvet siren suit.

The CC brand was revived a few years ago by a new company Community Clothing. CC use off peak production in UK factories and put British textile workers back to work. They produce a modern take on utility clothes. I’m wearing a CC utility suit in my profile picture.

These are their UK made selvedge Denim that I thoroughly recommend:

To bring the story full circle CC have recently switched all of their production over to making staff uniforms for the NHS, just as we have switched to making hand sanitiser.

CC41 goes to show what the state can do when it hires and empowers top quality employees, and allows them to be creative.

I’m hoping that when the modern CC re-open they will start making tweed onesies like this one from Etro:


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