Earlier this summer, I attended a superb illustrated talk on women’s fashion in World War One given by History Wardrobe’s Lucy Adlington and hosted by Lymington Library. Lucy is a writer, actress and costume historian with an insatiable appetite for bringing the past alive, making it accessible to a modern audience.
Lucy has written two marvellous books about ladies’ clothing during this period, Great War Fashion: Tales From The History Wardrobe (The History Press, 2013) and Fashion: Women In World War One (Pitkin Publishing, 2014).
Lucy also gives illustrated talks on many other aspects of fashion history, including: Gothic; Art Deco; 1700s and the Georgian era; swimwear; Jane Austen; silk; Titanic; suffragettes; 1950s; bridal; World War Two and the 1930s.
- Details of her wide range of presentations can be found here.
- Details of her 2014-2015 programme of talks can be found here.
Lucy delighted in showing us inside her impressive ‘history wardrobe’ packed full of original and replica clothing, accessories and printed ephemera. Her witty banter was peppered with plenty of fascinating anecdotes from contemporary sources. Lucy explained that it wasn’t only women’s clothing styles that changed between 1914 and 1918, their lives did too, as many embraced new roles in order to support the effort :
Leisured ladies stepped down from their privileged positions to volunteer in many demanding branches of work, as well as running committees and tirelessly fundraising. Titled ladies swapped their silks for flame-retardant overalls in munition factories. Society girls muffled up in furs and goggles as motorbike despatch riders or ambulance drivers.
- British Pathé, silent film, ‘Women Railway Workers’ (1914-1918). Published on You Tube: 13.4.14;
- Film clip (July, 2014), Lucy discusses with Michael Portillo, women’s role in the railway war effort in BBC2’s ‘Railways of The Great War’. Click here for clip.
Many of the items featured in Lucy’s collection are rare originals, others are high-quality reproductions. For example, a pair of replica khaki socks for soldiers has been made by World War One knitting expert, Melanie Towne. Melanie is adept at interpreting knitting patterns from this period, which are known for being rather tricky to follow.
One of the many unusual facts I learned from Lucy’s talk was that pyjamas, or ‘slumber suits’, for women, first appeared during this period. A precursor to the 1940’s ‘siren suit’ and modern-day ‘onesie’. Pyjamas became popular with a number of women in World War One because of their practicality (ease of movement and modesty) during the event of a night-time air raid. In her collection, Lucy has a charming pair of delicate, peach silk and lace pyjamas which would have been worn with a matching boudoir cap and wrapper. Apparently, there were reports of women willing a bombardment just to show off a new pair of pyjamas!
In Britain, aerial bombardments from German Zeppelins began on the 19th January, 1915. Parts of the Norfolk coastline were first to come under attack, followed by the south-east and the North Sea coast over the following months. By the end of the war, Britain had been subjected to fifty-one bombing raids, five hundred and fifty-seven people lost their lives and another one thousand three hundred and fifty-eight were injured.
A most noticeable feature of the new season’s suits is the preponderance of dressy, semi-tailored styles. These more frequently take the form of three-piece garments, and are particularly graceful and attractive in appearance. The skirts, as those of the dresses, are both short and voluminous, and present a great variety of style.
In many of the more extreme productions, flounced and draped effects, especially over the hips, are frequently shown, while in the simpler forms the desired fullness is obtained by circular and semicircular effects gathered to the waist, or by the employment of gores and sun-ray, knife and box pleatings either finished by a belt or mounted on a full gathered yoke.
A dainty finish is given to many of these garments by a narrow edging of white or light coloured silk showing just below the hem. Finely kilted white lace is employed by one of the leading designers for this purpose with marked effect. While a normal waistline may be said to be the general rule some models show a waist slightly above the natural line.
(All the above quotes are from Spring Fashions, 1916, Debenham & Company)
One positive aspect of the war was a tendency to be more tolerant of slightly shabby or out-of-date clothes. All classes and all ages were caught up in the daily struggle to make ends meet; to focus on war work before fashion.
Any woman who by working helps to release a man or to equip a man for fighting does national war service. Every woman should register who is able and willing to take employment….Every woman employed will be paid at the ordinary industrial rates. The pay ranges from 32s, a week including overtime in some of the munition factories to 8s. and 10s. a week in agriculture. There is immediate need for women workers in munition and other factories, in offices and shops, as drivers of commercial motor vehicles, as conductors of cars, and above all in agricultural employment….It is recognized that in many instances it will be desirable that women of the same class shall be employed together, and efforts will be made to organize ‘pals’ battalions’ of labour.
(Daily Mail, 18th March, 1915)
If the full fighting power of the nation is to be put forth on the battlefield, the full working power of the nation must be made available to carry on its essential trades at home…And this is where women who cannot fight in the trenches can do their country’s work, for every woman who takes up war service is as surely helping to the final victory as the man who handles a gun in Flanders. With a fortnight’s training women can fill thousands of existing vacancies, and also take the places of thousands of men anxious to join the fighting forces but at the moment compelled to keep in civil employment.
(Daily Mail, 18th March, 1915)
- I have curated a Pinterest board featuring ‘Women’s Fashion in World War One’, click here.
- British Pathé, silent film, ‘Women War Workers In A Piggery’ (1914-1918). Published on You Tube: 13.4.14.
- British Pathé, silent films, ‘Women Munitions Workers’ (1914-1918). Published on You Tube: 13.4.14.
- British Pathé, silent film, ‘Women’s Army’ (1914-1918). Published on You Tube: 13.4.14.
- British Pathé, silent film, ‘Women Agriculturalists’ (1914-1918). Published on You Tube: 13.4.14.
- British Pathé, silent film, ‘Glasgow’s Pageant of Women War Workers’ (1914-1918). Published on You Tube: 13.4.14.