Imagine that each person in your family has 36 coupons per year as a clothing allowance. A coat might require fifteen coupons, while a scarf might require 2 coupons. How far can you stretch those coupons? What do you do if a clothing item gets damaged? What do you do when children grow out of the clothes they already have? These were real concerns for the British public in June 1941 when clothing rationing was put into effect. Despite these limitations, however, there was a surge of colorful clothing and propaganda scarves. The exhibition, “Beauty as Duty: Textiles on the Homefront in WWII Britain,” gets its title from these items.

Set against a backdrop of grim, gray walls, the cheerful colors and eye-catching prints of the dresses and scarves on exhibit really stand out like beacons. Likewise, after years of wartime hardship, these fashions were created to catch the eye and boost morale. Though these items were made to meet standards of utility and austerity (limited fabric, buttons, and trim), they are examples of making the best of very little. Not only for beauty, many of the scarves contain messages of patriotism and support for Allied forces and reminders of safety and discretion. Through the use of textiles, photographs, video, and materials distributed by the British government, the exhibition sets up the juxtaposition of determined positivity during a dark period of struggle for the British public. The exhibition can be viewed at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston through May 28, 2012.