I have become ever so slightly obsessed with snoods lately. Well, snoods and turbans. Not for me, you understand – I have a 1920s bob; they wouldn’t suit me. It’s all the fault of the latest edition of Designer Knitting, aka Vogue Knitting everywhere except the UK.
These two beauties are from Lola Ehrlich… and I’m pleased to report that they didn’t just float my boat; they got another member of our knitting group excited too (and she has much more appropriate hair).
Whether either of us will actually knit one of them, I don’t know – but I wouldn’t be surprised.
What really struck me was how downright glamorous they are – because snoods and turbans, the everyday mainstay of WW2 headgear for women, had something of a bad press at the time, especially in the early years of the war. Yes, they were practical; yes, they made doing lots of jobs much safer – but go out in one? There was some sneering in the media at women who didn’t dress up when they went out, but who just left their hair ‘shoved up’ under a knitted turban to keep it out of the way and still – in their opinion, if not that of Good Housekeeping – look presentable.
Because snoods and, to a slightly lesser extent, turbans were for work.
When women were effectively drafted into industry to replace men who had gone into the forces, the accident rate rose. This was expected: ‘they were grappling with unfamiliar machinery’ as one commentator put it. Keeping your hair well out of the way was a necessity.
This is Laura Knight’s painting Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, which is in the Imperial War Museum’s collection. (And let’s pretend that any anachronistic double-entendres around that title don’t exist.)
And because women are so often almost-anonymous subjects, let’s just look at Ruby Loftus for a mo. She was 21 at the time, and an ‘exceptionally talented’ machinist at a Royal Ordnance factory in her home town of Newport, Monmouthshire. She became famous through Knight’s portrait, which was widely reproduced and even discussed on the radio. Screwing breech-rings for big guns was a highly skilled job, and though Ruby was offered a rare engineering scholarship after the war she declined it and emigrated to Canada with her husband, where she died in 2004.
All over wartime Britain, women were wearing snoods. And turbans, but we’ll come to that. Snoods not only prevented your hair from catching in machinery – protecting long hair as well as fringes and curls with those knots above the forehead – but they also kept it neat under a cap.
They covered up hair that was in need of a wash (bear in mind that shampoo was often home-made and supplies of hot water limited), a perm or a set and style – hair grips had virtually vanished by 1941 – and snoods particularly could be dressed up for evenings with artificial flowers, beads and ribbons. Women often seemed to prefer wearing snoods, turbans and headscarves to hats, even though hats weren’t on the ration; they were, however, more expensive and not so easily made at home.
Inevitably, snood-like styles soon became transformed into knitted hats. It was often cheaper to knit than buy things which were made of fabric; yes, wool was also rationed – unless you were a member of a knitting party, making comforts for the troops – but there were often old jumpers to unravel and reuse.
So what’s the difference between a snood and a turban?
Well, by WW2 snoods were essentially pouches which contained the hair and were tied up to prevent it escaping; turbans wrapped the hair up. Turbans could be, and often were, made from odd lengths of fabric though of course they could also be knitted or crocheted.
And they became an almost universal item of clothing. This rather snazzy (and large) example is a home-made one, and it is in the collection of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris, along with some other examples of home clothing from the ‘Dark Years’, like some astonishing sandals with hinged wooden soles.
Love that fabric.
I’ve been rootling through my vintage patterns and old copies of the Needlewoman, and I’ve found a delicious little hat pattern. It’s neither a snood nor a turban, mind – how could I beat the revamped ones from Designer Knitting? – but it is a little cutie. Next time…
(* Just try singing ‘Snoodle-di-doo’ as the intro to the highly period-appropriate Chatanooga Choo-Choo. I wish I’d never, ever thought of it and now I can’t get it out of my mind. Argh!)