wwi fashion

An American soldier of the 71st New York Infantry Regiment saying goodbye to his sweetheart as his regiment leaves for training at Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina, 1917.

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The Tale of Thomas Burberry

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Time for FRIDAY FASHION FACT! Today’s topic is a bit more conceptual than the Facts I’ve done in the past, but I think it is very important to recognize the over-arching factors that influence fashion in order to fully understand how fashion has developed. This is a bit difficult to explain in such a small space, so bear with me, and remember that this is all much more complex than I lay it out to be.

Throughout history, the biggest influence on fashion has clearly been technology. The next biggest influence, though, has been war. War causes huge divisions between people. It drains resources. It pits agenda versus agenda, ideology versus ideology. It has the ability to effect every aspect of life. It can change the world, so it should come as no surprise that it changes fashion.

In several of my past posts, I have mentioned specific wars being an influence on fashion- most commonly the French Revolution, World War I, and World War II. While most wars have an impact on fashion, these three have had a significantly bigger impact that the rest. The reason for the World War’s having such a large impact is obvious- it’s right there in the name. These wars spanned the globe, and wider geography means wider impact.

The French Revolution, however, theoretically seems as though it would effect only France. Yet the effect of war is rarely contained only to the country in which the war takes place. In terms of fashion, during the era of the French Revolution, France was the epicenter of fashion. There are still many people who would debate that France is still the fashion capitol of the world, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was no debate. France reigned supreme on the style front. If the French wore a style, the rest of the western world quickly followed suit.

So why do wars have such a strong impact on fashion? Well, every war is different, so it varies from war to war. Overall, though, is due to two factors. One is because war tends to be a huge strain on resources, with vast amounts of funds and materials donated to the military effort. Secondly, war pits (at least) two groups against each other, groups with different values and goals. A person’s value system, lifestyle, etc. is often reflected in their clothing. The values of the prevailing side often seeps into the fashion of the people. Between these two factors, war often means a dramatic lifestyle change not only for the soldiers off fighting, but for those they leave at home. A change in lifestyle results in a change of dress. This is why changes in fashion that may take decades or more during peaceful times can occur over the course of just a few years during wartime.

An important thing to keep in mind, though, is that fashion does not change overnight, just like the wars that influence it do not happen overnight. As the world starts to shift, conflict rises, and war is imminent, fashion reflects the changing world. People often think that women went straight from wearing elaborate rococo gowns, complete with wide panniers, to simple cylindrical muslin dresses. Or they seem to ignore the era between structured Edwardian dresses and the untailored flapper look (though to be fair, Downton Abby has had a huge impact in changing that.) The reality is that aspects of the new styles are evident in fashion in the years leading up to the wars.

Of course, there are countless factors which have contributed to the development of fashion throughout the centuries (and don’t worry, I will cover as many as possible in upcoming Facts! Plus I’ll be sure to go into more detail about the wars I talked about in this post.) Just remember, the next time you’re looking at historical fashion and see a dramatic shift, take a look at what was happening in the world at that time!

Want to learn more about war and fashion? Check out these books:

Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, by Laver, de la Haye, and Tucker

History of World Costume and Fashion, by Daniel Delis Hill

Have a question about fashion history that you want answered in the next FRIDAY FASHION FACT? Just click the ASK button at the top of the page!

Animated stereoscopic portrait of French soldier and photographer Raoul Berthelé posing in a forest in Behonne, France, 1916.