Flour power: The ingenious way depression-era households saved money on clothes

Australian fashionistas looking to fill their wardrobe with next season’s styles may need to get creative as increased inflation eats into the nation’s discretionary spending power.

Australian fashionistas looking to fill their wardrobe with next season’s styles may need to get creative as increased inflation eats into the nation’s discretionary spending power.

The most recent inflation data from the ABS shows the price of everyday goods including food, fuel, and electricity all increased in the three months ending 30 June – marking a 3.8% increase in prices since the same date a year earlier.

Some of these gains can be chalked up to the unusual economic impact of the pandemic (which temporarily drove the prices of some goods to historic lows), but a deeper dive into the ABS’ data shows there’s more to this inflation story than meets the eye.

Specifically, it reveals a growing disparity between prices of necessities (things like food and rent) and ‘discretionary’ spending on items consumers want, but don’t need.

In the past 15 years, the prices Australians pay for the things they need to simply live their lives have grown by 44%, while discretionary goods prices have ticked up only 32%.

Spending on these necessities now takes up almost 60% of the average household’s budget – and that typically means less money to spend on the finer things in life – including haute couture.

Cooking up a solution

A similar conundrum faced depression-era families in the US. Cash-strapped families struggling to make ends meet couldn’t afford to dress themselves in store-bought garb, and instead resorted to making their outfits from salvaged material.

An example of a book outlining how to make clothes from flour sacks. Source: The Archive Project


Cloth flour, wheat and feed sacks quickly became the go-to fabrics for crafty matriarchs across the country, and soon national sewing competitions sprang up from this thrifty practice.

Flour manufacturers took notice, and by the 1940s most were selling their flour in brightly-coloured and patterned sacks hoping the attractive designs would attract customers looking to repurpose their sacks once the flour had been used up.

A mill worker carries patterned bags (left), and women in clothes made from such sacks (right). Source: NCI FM

The popularity of these patterned sacks grew as World War II raged on and cotton fell into short supply, but the popularity of the trend well and truly outlasted the global conflict by giving rural American women their own sense of style and identity.

These patterned bags were still being produced and released until the 1960s, but as demand for recyclable fabrics diminished, manufacturers began switching to the paper commodity bags we’re more familiar with today.


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