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October 2020

‘The Traitor’s Market’: Black Market Clothing During WWII

Clothes are so readily available today – purchased cheaply through chain stores (though recent exposure of labour conditions and wages paid might make us think twice), at high-end designer boutiques, in op-shops or online – that it can be hard to imagine such short supplies that they need to be rationed. But in Australia, pressing shortages resulted in civilian clothes rationing spanning a six-year period between 1942 and 1948. Alongside it, a black market loomed.

Dwindling supplies of cloth and clothing were apparent in 1941. The subsequent rationing of clothing was put in place from May 1942, after which a coupon system was introduced to manage scarcity and ensure equitable distribution. But some still longed for garments now considered a luxury. Others were unwilling to wait months to purchase the clothing which was available. A black market in clothing, and the uncut cloth to make it, began to flourish Australia wide.

In 1943, the Australian Government published a leaflet titled The Black Market is the Traitor’s Market. It sent a clear message: black marketing was ‘one of the most insidious crimes that can be committed against a nation at war’ and buying black market goods not only injured the war effort but was an act of betrayal.

Commonwealth Rationing Commission, The Black Market is the Traitor’s Market:

Clothing materials were stolen after leaving mills, in transit from wharfs or train stations, or in warehouses where they were stored prior to distribution. Those caught were arrested and charged.  For the right price, clothing was sold without the required coupons – though this price was often severely inflated. Material used to make men’s suits were eagerly sought and made up by back-room tailors or sold by door-to-door agents.

But buying from a seller going house to house posed its own problems: those who purchased black-market goods were liable for a fine or gaol time. And for traders, the retribution was swift: by mid-1945 more than 760 prosecutions were recorded.

Normally-sensible tailors fell foul of black-market temptations, as did suburban housewives missing a range of goods and the freedom of choice. Yet the leaflet was clear: ‘The BUYER of black market goods is just as guilty as the SELLER’, and it roused Australians to ‘STRANGLE BLACK MARKETS.’


Big Black Market “Ring” Gets Huge Rake-Off from Clothing’, Sun, 31 May 1945, 3.

‘Blackmarket in Clothing’, Morning Bulletin, 6 June 1945, 6.

‘Brisbane’s Black-Market’, Smith’s Weekly, 22 December 1945, 1.

‘Huge Queensland Black Market in Suitings’, Daily Mercury, 28 May 1947, 1.

Minister for Trade and Customs and the Commonwealth Rationing Commission, The Black Market is the Traitor’s Market (Adelaide: K. M. Stevenson, Government Printer, 1943), 1.

‘Theft of Clothing Materials: Believed Intended for Black Market’, Advocate, 30 May 1946, 3.

‘Finding’ John Dedman’s Victory Suit

Recently I wrote about World War II clothes styling regulations and their impact on men’s suits. As they were ‘streamlined for victory’, suits were stripped of elements that in wartime became superfluous.

The ‘Victory Suit’ – so called because the savings made in fabric and other supplies could be allocated to the nation’s war effort – was far from universally popular. Anticipating this, John Dedman, Minister for War Organisation of Industry, spruiked the first victory suit in a short film for the Australian public.

He outlined how fashionable double-breasted jackets used too much fabric when single-breasted would do. Buttons and buttonholes on sleeves and turned-up trouser cuffs might look stylish, but wasted buttons and thread that could be used for functional purposes elsewhere. Likewise, trims and top-stitching created a tailored finish but could be done without.

‘National Security (General) Regulations: Controlling the Clothing (Male Outerwear) Order’, Commonwealth of Australia Gazelle, no. 209, 31 July 1942, p. 1838.

I watched the film many times with an eye trained on these differences – and each was there on the suit he modelled – but knew that examining a surviving suit might tell me more. But had any been acquired by museums during or after the war, or in the decades to follow?

I suspected this was unlikely either because they had been worn out or unceremoniously disposed of: perhaps as they looked embarrassingly dowdy when clothes styling regulations again lifted, or were an unwelcome reminder of civilian sacrifice during the war years.

The Australian War Memorial’s collection search, however, displayed a tantalisingly brief record:

‘Victory suit’ or ‘Dedman’ economy suit, introduced by Mr Dedman, Minister of War Organisation of Industry during the 1939-1945 war. The suit was designed to reduce wastage.

Intrigued, I arranged a visit. The dark grey suit with its red and white pinstripes brought out of the collection store looked surprisingly familiar. I reasoned this was as it followed Dedman’s regulations outlined in the ‘Control of Clothing (Male Outerwear) Order’ in July 1942 to the letter.

The victory suit was made by Louis & Charles Noble, Melbourne. Victory Suit jacket, Australian War Memorial Collection, REL/00039.001.

But perhaps more surprising was that for all the encouragement over the war years to save fabric – or the often-repeated appeal to ‘make do and mend’ – the suit showed very few signs of wear. Why would a victory suit be made, and the one in front of me was beautifully tailored and hand finished, if not to be worn?

The trousers were made to be worn with braces and could be tightened at the waist with a buckle. Victory Suit trousers, Australian War Memorial Collection, REL/00039.002.

The acquisition documentation provided answers to my questions. This victory suit was the same suit worn by Dedman in his short black and white film to promote the new style – the one in which I had watched him enter his office, sit behind his desk, and gesture to its various features.

It was, in fact, the first sample made according to the new clothes styling restrictions, manufactured for the Department of the War Organisation of Industry to demonstrate the new look that suits would take for the press.

In 1943, the Department contacted the Australian War Memorial to see if the suit might be of historical interest. I, for one, am glad they recognised its significance. The result is that Australia’s first victory suit has a safe, permanent home where researchers like me can see how it was made and consider its importance to Australia’s everyday dress across the twentieth century.

An excellent description of John Dedman’s victory suit, and number of photographs, are now available on the Australian War Memorial’s website.

My thanks to curator Jane Peek at the Australian War Memorial for so kindly facilitating my visit and for discussing John Dedman’s fascinating suit.


Australian War Memorial, ‘Victory Suit’: Mr John J. Dedman, Minister of the Department of War Organisation of Industry, REL/00039.001 & REL/00039.002: /

Australian War Memorial, ‘Aust. “Victory Suit” donated by Dept. of War Organisation of Industry’, File No. 55/3/45/4.

John J. Dedman, ‘National Security (General) Regulations: Control of Clothing (Male Outerwear) Order’, Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, no. 209, 31 July 1942, p. 1838.

The National Films Council of The Department of Information presents A War Organisation of Industry Production, John Dedman in ‘Victory Suit’, 35mm black and white film, directed by Ralph Smart, commentary by Harry Dearth, Australian War Memorial Collection, F01641: