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World War One and Women's Fashion

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This week, we marked 100 years since the outbreak of World War One. The consequences continued to be felt long after the fighting ended in 1918, and had a profound impact on cultural attitudes – not least of which was a changing view of women’s roles in society following four years of warfare. Here, in honour of the centenary of WW1, we look at just some of the ways in which the effects of war on women’s lives can be traced through the fashions of the time, and even in the clothes we wear today.

La Belle Époque:

To get an idea of just how much the First World War changed the face of fashion, it is important to bear in mind how different things were in the years before 1914. This era, coined La Belle Époque by the French, ran from 1895 to 1914 and was a time of luxury, prosperity and an age of beautiful clothes. Corsets were still a necessity to achieve the ‘S’ silhouette in trend at the time – a narrow waist, voluptuous chest and hips exaggerated with padded undergarments – which, although considered desirable, was no friend to comfort or movement and did nothing to change ideas that women were not capable of physical ‘masculine’ tasks.

Workwear for women:

One of the key changes that occurred during the war was that women began to enter the workplace to take on traditionally male roles while men were away with the armed forces. Of course, the fashionably narrow skirts of previous years were simply unsuitable for manual work or popular physical activities such as motoring and tennis, and so from 1915 styles changed to include more practical cotton trousers, fuller skirts and hemlines raised about 8 inches from the ground.

These shorter hemlines, although a long way from the miniskirts that would arrive in the 1960s, were considered immoral and, as essentials such as cloth and food were being rationed across the country, fuller skirts were seen as a waste of material. Nevertheless, this was the archetypal female silhouette of WW1, and representative of imminent change in how society viewed women’s roles and capabilities.

Fashion on rations:

While some considered the fuller skirts introduced to womenswear during WW1 to be unnecessarily wasteful, overall fashion became plainer and far less lavish than during the years of La Belle Époque. Dresses were far less ornamented and, in an effort to make manual labour easier, corsets were soon discarded by young women in favour of brassieres, which used far less material than complex crinolines and corsetry required in order to achieve a fashionably curved silhouette.

Women also wore little or no jewellery, while shortages of fabric and dye meant that clothing became less formal and instead took on a more practical utilitarian style, made with typically ‘poor’ fabrics in drab, dull hues. Military influences also became apparent, as tunics, belts and details such as jacket epaulets appeared across women’s fashions, further indicative of women’s changing roles during the war period.

After the war:

1918 marked the end of World War 1, but it also marked the beginning of a new era for women’s rights as British women finally won the right to vote. Suffragette campaigns and the work undertaken by women during the war had shown that women were not fragile creatures, but that they were perfectly able to use their brains and to undertake physical work just as well as men.

Fashion continued to be more casual leading into the 1920s, following the introduction of more informal, practical workwear for women during the years of war. This progressive new era for women, and indeed for fashion, is what we generally term ‘Art Deco’ – the time of the flapper girl or ‘New Woman’. Women were now far more at liberty to pursue careers and take part in sports; a societal change that was reflected in more androgynous clothing styles with dropped waists in light, loose fabrics, and straighter silhouettes free from restrictive corsets.

These changes may seem small in a modern world of choice and diversity, but they represent the start of a significant journey towards the freedom and fashion that women now, 100 years later, can enjoy. 

 




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