This was not a history lesson or a nostalgic retrospective, it was immediate and modern. Clothes of the war era reflect this ethos. They show the infiltration of new artificial fibres, the evolution of industrial-scale ready-to-wear and, most significantly, the astonishing new visibility of women’s roles in all their diversity.
In 1914 the fashion-plate vision of Western womanhood depicted an overloaded ideal, more decorative than active.
It took four years of war to concede that real life was no fashion-plate. Women had always laboured, now wartime propaganda celebrated their work, making it visible in film and photographs. Across Europe and Russia women undertook almost all wartime roles, excluded only from government. Each role saw women dressed for the part, in clothes that were fit for purpose:
Women wore trousers, tunics and turbans in ship yards, foundries, factories and steel works. They wore breeches driving tractors and hewing trees for the Land Army, or speeding on motorbikes as despatch riders.
Seated at typewriters and telephone exchanges they wore art-silk stockings and office suits.
They were proud in military uniform: square-bashing, button-polishing and saluting just like the men. They ballooned in maternity frocks, bringing up the next generation of workers, shirkers and fighters.
As World War One continued Women slept in wartime ‘onesie’ slumber suits, waking to sounds of air-raid sirens.
Women danced in short chiffon frocks, sporting cigarettes and cropped hair… And they also mourned at memorial services in muted crape hats and black armbands.
Women used thrift and ingenuity to be well-dressed in war. Fashion defied shortages and accusations of frivolity. Elite magazines such as the new Vogue flaunted styles from top design houses including Lucile Ltd, Callot Soeurs, Redfern and Chanel. Skilled needleworkers made their own versions with paper patterns from the cheap weeklies. Late in the war the British government suggested a drab civilian ‘uniform’; fashion laughed and proposed wide skirts, flamboyant frills and even hoops. New clothes boosted morale… and the wartime economy.
Corsets were still very much a feature of almost every woman’s wardrobe. They were worn from ingrained cultural habit, to give back support, and to tether stockings and petticoats. The clothing revolution only went so far… it would take several more decades for women to go girdle-free and slip-less.
Four years of war brought four years of change. In externals, this was seen in new fashionable silhouettes, military-inspired styles for womenswear, and the revolution of women wearing trousers to work. At the heart of the changes were more profound shifts. Necessary, paid, visible labour gave women an insight into the roles (and potential incomes) they could aspire to in peacetime. By 1918 it was clear that women were no idealised stereotype. Seeing women in modern styles normalised their new roles… at least for the duration. While the Armistice slammed the door on many wartime opportunities for women, new clothing styles had shown that they could move more freely in a modern world.