The flood of military histories in recent years covering the Second World War has focussed on the high drama of the conflict: the bombings and extermination, the fighting and internments, the bereavements and loss.

Military strategy, political scheming, humanitarian rescue and noble sacrifice are the lifeblood of these tales, evoking not only the industrial scale of this conflict, but also the uneasy mix of terror and boredom that millions endured during those interminable six years.

That this was the first major war in which civilians were as much at risk as the armed forces is well known. Even so, there are more than a few nostalgics who secretly pine for a return to the days of 'blitz spirit', when a comradely sense of mutual support created a closer-knit, more egalitarian society, and the way we lived was simpler and - so long as one was not killed - healthier.

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Anyone tempted to look back in envy for life as portrayed in such sepia-tinted soaps as Foyle's War should read Fashion On The Ration. Written to accompany an exhibition of the same name at the Imperial War Museum in London (it runs until August 31), every page makes one increasingly grateful for modern comforts, and clothes in particular. Few histories capture so simply yet vividly the monotony and grind of ordinary life for the British at home, when patriotism and fear were leavened, daily, by the increasingly irritating restrictions on what people could wear. A year or two of making do and mending might be manageable for most of us, but as the story of drastic shortages on material and fabrics, on elastic, shoes and shampoo unfolds, it is no wonder that lipstick was so coveted, it being the only thing with which womankind could paint a smile on its face.

Using diaries, letters and mass observation accounts by the likes of the now famous Nella Last to bring personality to the subject, Summers, whose previous histories include Jambusters: The Women's Institute In The Second World War, presents a riveting social history of the kind that looks narrow, yet encompasses every individual - infants as well as the elderly - who had to endure these years. Tales of derring-do from this era may be inspirational, but one finds a quiet heroism in the ways in which the enterprising and the clueless alike eked out threadbare wardrobes and made stockings with longer ladders than a fire brigade last for months.

Among the characters Summers introduces is Gladys Mason, a Londoner who was amused in 1940 when the doctor she went to see for advice was more interested in her gloves than her cold; another is the seamstress Eileen Gurney, "an avid reader of Vogue", who could turn her hand to almost any kind of home-made repair, be it making a bra for a friend - who, she confided to her soldier husband by letter, did not really need one - to unpicking a tatty coat of her aunt's and transforming it into something fit for the pages of her favourite magazine. The sketches of Gurney's handiwork show that hers was a talent of a high order, even in a time when most middle-class women knew how to make dresses and skirts and turn a collar on their husband's shirt.

Rationing of clothes did not arrive until 1941, sounding the death knell for trouser turn-ups and pleated skirts, but long before then the war was beginning to be felt in the way civilians dressed. For a start, so many millions of uniforms were required - about a third of the population was in uniform - that factory capacity was stretched to meet demand, with the result that clothing shortages became common long before ration coupons were issued. Another casualty of the uniform production line were the Highland regiments' kilts, which were withdrawn until protests obliged the authorities to reinstate them for those who, as the Picture Post reported, "resented having to go to war in the battledress of the Sassenachs".

Summers is a distant cousin of Audrey Withers, the war-time editor of Vogue, a doughty and clever woman whose cheering advice to her readers can be read like a litmus paper of the nation's morale, darkening as the war proceeds. Throughout the conflict the magazine acted as a weathervane, telling the fashion conscious how to stretch their money, and their rations and still remain elegant. As it trilled, the cost of buying the magazine - two and sixpence - would save women pounds in thoughtless or unnecessary expenditure. When the Vogue offices were wrecked by a nearby bomb, it carried on, showing readers the devastation from which it continued to keep going. In this, it was like everyone else: undaunted and upbeat.

Although times and skirts were tight, the war years were not all bad news for fashion. For some, both men and women, their uniform was the first time they had ever possessed a completely new set of good quality clothes. With so many men in the forces, employment in the country was at an all-time high, so people had more money to spend on clothes than ever before, until rationing set in. Thereafter, in order to make couponing of clothes more palatable, and in a remarkably far-sighted move, the Board of Trade employed some of the best designers of their day - among them Hardy Amies, Norman Hartnell and Bianca Mosca - who were asked to create a high-quality functional utility range of clothes, which were not just simple and cheap, but flatteringly chic.

Gone were the frills and flounces of pre-war dress, fuss being suddenly old-fashioned. Even the initial mistrust of trousers was overcome, though Vogue initially chastised those women "who pad around in hairy sweaters and flannel bags, on duty and off; letting themselves go - and other people down - slackers in slacks". A few of the uppercrust still dressed for dinner, but the days of ostentatious furs were gone. A scene in Nancy Mitford's Love In A Cold Climate, where the pregnant Polly huddles in the airing cupboard in her much envied fur coat, captures the stringencies most suffered, even among the gentry.

As the years passed, so fervour for doing one's bit and making do waned. How could it not when knicker elastic was carefully removed when items went in the wash, to be threaded into the fresh pair? The dreariness of dressing became soul-destroying. Wearing scarves and turbans might conceal unwashed hair, but nothing could hide darns, patches and clothes that had not been laundered in months.

Underwear - to which Summers devotes a fascinating chapter - became the greatest source of grievance, after the lack of shoes for children and dearth of silk stockings. Nothing appalled women so much as the substandard corsetry they were obliged to wear. Unlike clothes, the utility corsets were poor quality, and caused untold misery.

One new mother was so riled, she wrote a letter which was published in the Times, in which she took to task Hugh Dalton, President of the Board of Trade, who was responsible for rationing. "A band of infuriated housewives should force Mr Dalton into a utility corset and a pair of the best fitting utility stockings he can buy. I would add a saucy black felt hat for which he had to pay four guineas and a pair of those ghastly wooden-soled shoes. He should be made to walk one mile, then stand in a fish queue for an hour. By the end of this time his utility stockings would [droop] from knee to instep in snakelike coils and twists. His corset would have wilted into an uncomfortable, revolting mass of cotton and cardboard. He would find himself supporting the corset rather than the corset supporting him..."

There speaks the voice of the people, ground down but not flattened. Fashion may look like a trivial subject but, as Summers shows, it goes to the heart of people's confidence and mood. Given the sartorial hardship Britain was obliged to endure, our enduring chuzpah - and victory - seem all the more remarkable.

Fashion On The Ration: Style In The Second World War by Julie Summers is published by Profile Books, priced £18.99