Today is Remembrance Day — Veteran’s Day for my American readers — a day that marks the end of the first World War, dedicated to the memory of all of our servicemen and -women who lost their lives in the line of duty.
The first World War lasted from July of 1914 to November of 1918. With 32 countries brought into the conflict, and over 65 million active combatants, it was one of the deadliest conflicts in history, inspiring not only great political change, but great technological advancement as well.
The Great War also brought about about huge changes in clothing styles, not through aesthetic, but through necessity.
Also known as la belle epoque, the Edwardian style of the early 1900’s was marked by a particular extravagance in women’s clothing, inspired by the lifestyle of then-king Edward VII (for more on him, see my article on Dandyism). It was a time of lighthearted freedom of movement, where the bustle was banished and lightweight fabrics and slimmer silhouettes became more popular. Society bid farewell to inconveniently gigantic hats that had marked the beginning of the period and turned towards closer-fitting head wear. Tailored suits for women also became common, giving women classy, comfortable options to wear about town.
The start of the first World War in July of 1914 marked the end of the Edwardian Era, and a turning point for the world as we know it.
In the first months of the war, food prices soared due to agricultural loss and trade barriers in the European continent. Fuel sources once dedicated to lighting people’s homes were limited and redirected to the war effort. Windows were shuttered to keep in the heat — a precaution the English were glad of when zeppelins began dropping bombs on British cities. Any kind of extravagance was seen as unpatriotic, and it was heavily implied that buying new things needlessly would only help the enemy.
Practicality became the byword. Over 65 million soldiers were deployed to fight in the first World War. Their uniforms had to be tailored for freedom of movement so they could work and fight without restriction. Jackets were cut shorter, high-collared shirts were replaced by turn-down collars that did not impede the wearer’s ability to check the safety of their surroundings. Watches that strapped about the wrist were invented to replace the easily-lost and -damaged pocket-watch.
The first World War also saw the advent of the trench coat. The desperate need for all-weather outerwear became paramount on the front. London fashion house Burberry developed a chemically processed cotton gabardine that was breathable and durable enough for the battlefield, and was quickly approved for military use. The coats developed for the soldiers featured extra fabric at the top of the back for ease of movement, wide collars and epaulets, and cinched at the waist with a belt.
It also became quickly evident that the original uniforms intended for women were inconvenient at best and dangerous at worst, so they did away with the long skirts, shortening them to mid-calf. One group, called the Women’s Land Army, did away with skirts altogether and just wore pants like all of the other soldiers.
As the war continued, the rationing and repurposing of resources became all the more vital. The war-crinoline, a full-skirted style popular during the early days of the war, quickly fell out of favor as a waste of badly needed resources. The silks that once might have made a wealthy woman’s gown were instead used to make parachutes. Other factories were repurposed to produce munitions. This reassigning of materials also meant a firm end to the Edwardian corset, as the rubberized elastic and metal boning that were a large part of their construction were needed for the war effort. This decision redirected over 28,000 tonnes of metal. Tonnes.
Though resources and manpower were limited, the people of England and France had the advantage of being able to import food and textiles from the United States and Canada. Germany, however, was left completely on its own. The naval blockade set in place by the Allied forces in November of 1914 cut Germany off completely from its usual food and textile suppliers.While the German textile and clothing industries tanked, their advanced chemical sector worked overtime in attempts to produce substitutes. One such product was a durable, paper-like cloth that was used to make everything from clothing to children’s toys.
Practical clothing was as much a necessity on the home front as it was in the trenches. More women than ever were entering the workforce, taking over the positions of those who had been sent overseas. They needed clothing that was better suited to their new positions, styles that allowed more freedom of movement than the long, tight hobble-skirts that had come into popularity in the early nineteen-teens. Because of the there was a great deal of menswear inspiration in women’s wartime clothing. Clothing became more muted, almost monochromatic, as the war continued, a reflection of the great losses that the families endured.
This simplicity was reflected in women’s hairstyles as well. Long hair had been the norm for women for centuries. It had been seen as a mark of wealth and stature, but also as an unspoken symbol of beauty, femininity, and sexuality. Unfortunately during wartime, it often got in the way in the workplace, and could be quite dangerous for women working in the factories. Short, bobbed hair had been introduced as a very extreme and avant-garde fashion statement in Paris in 1909, but during wartime it became seen as a practical decision, and many women not only in England, but in North America, began cutting their hair short as well. Bobbed hair became especially common for women on the front, as it was easier to keep clean and free of lice.
With the shortening of skirts came particular attention to the issue of body hair. In the days of floor-length skirts it had never been a problem, and in fact had been seen as a mark of sensuality, as in general the only one who might see those area of the body was a woman’s lover. Now that those areas were more plainly visible, body hair became something unsightly. Gillette introduce razor’s for ladies in 1915, and from that point on shaving the legs became a common part of women’s hygienic routines.
Another style innovation brought on by the war was the idea of “costume” jewelry. With majority of people’s funds being dedicated to the war effort, people were dressing far more simply than they had in past decades. Designer and fashion icon Coco Chanel took particular note of this and started replacing expensive jeweled necklaces with simpler pieces set with glass or crystal beads.
The Great War was a turning point for the world as a whole, not only in politics and technological innovation, but in style. The end of the war left a shadow over the world, a feeling of freedom mixed with a mournful disillusionment. People were left feeling that nothing was a certainty, leading to a live-for-today attitude that was the hallmark of the roaring 20’s.