How women wore the trousers in the Great War

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Far from being the decade that fashion forgot, clothing designers played a key role in rehaping society in Europe during the First World War says Chris Bond.

WHEN we think of the fashions of the first half of the 20th-century a number of images usually spring to mind.

There’s the elegant floor-length dresses of the Edwardian period and the short skirts and bobbed hair favoured by the “flappers” during the Roaring Twenties.

No one ever remembers what women wore during the First World War. It’s a period which has been routinely glossed over under the assumption that fashion disappeared and the only colour that mattered was khaki.

However, York-based fashion historian and writer Lucy Adlington says it was actually a period of dramatic change in the way people, particularly women, looked and dressed.

“There’s been a lot written about fashion from the Second World War but no one’s really done much on the First World War and I thought ‘why don’t I?’”

Her book Great War Fashion shows how women went from the stiff, mono-bosomed ideal of the society lady draped in gossamer gowns, to a new breed that donned trousers and overalls in munitions factories to make the weapons that fed the war effort.

Adlington, who is giving a talk about fashion and the Great War at York Castle Museum later this week, says it was a radical transformation.

“For the first time you had women wearing uniforms and clothes that men had worn. It was antithesis of femininity and it had never been seen before, but these were the foundations of the modern wardrobe.

“By 1915 it became clear the war wasn’t going to be over quickly and women had to start doing some of the men’s jobs and to do this they had to change what they wore.

“The Land Army first started in 1917 and women couldn’t be expected to work in the fields wearing long skirts.”

It was a similar story in factories up and down the country. “In the textile factories in Leeds the chaps had gone to war so the women took their place. There are stories of women who made uniforms slipping notes into the pockets to cheer the men on.”

But not everyone welcomed the change in the way women dressed. “People saw women wearing trousers and overalls, and while some thought they looked quite natty there were others who thought it was wrong and immoral.”

Materials were effectively rationed, too, which meant most people had to go without luxuries like silk and velvet. “All the wool was used for uniforms as well as most of the colours and dyes. So there was a lot of black and white clothes and muted colours. It’s said there was a tide of black across Europe by the end of the war as people went into mourning.”

Although there was a feeling that fashion was no longer important Adlington says magazines like Vogue still appealed to well-heeled women. “For some of them it was a bit of escapism and there were some startlingly flamboyant outfits and some that were quite bizarre and unusual.”

Despite all the privations and restrictions Adlington says it was an innovative era for fashion. “You started to see two piece suits for men and for women there were shorter hemlines and shorter hair. This is when we start to see the bob appearing which we all recognise today.”

But she feels this transformation is about more than just changing clothes and fashions – it’s a journey into the lives of the women who lived under the shadow of war and were irrevocably changed by it. “Clothes aren’t just about fashion they’re about technology, politics and morals and what they tell us about the past.”

Lucy Adlington is appearing at York Castle Museum on March 19, at 7pm to talk about her book Great War Fashion. Tickets cost £5. For more information call 01904 650333.