wwi fashion


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!


Australia. An AIF soldier gets an exuberant welcome home in Sydney in 1919, after WWI. by Miguel Catalan

The Tacoma Times, Washington, August 3, 1917

This is the way the new idea works out. Take a piece of court plaster. Cut out the initials and design you with to register on your arm. Paste them on te arm and the sun does the rest.

You must wear your sleeveless bathing suit, of course. The sun tans your arm a fine brown color. The court plaster is then taken off, leaving the initials and design neatly engraved in white flesh.

Animated stereoscopic portrait of Emilienne Gosse and French soldier Raoul Berthelé in Fublaines, France, September 4, 1918. Attributed to Raoul Berthelé.

17 May 1917 - Letter to Fred FROM Edith - “3rd floor back”, 112 Royal St., Winnipeg, Manitoba

Edith writes this brief letter, for which we only have a transcript, the evening of 17 May. It includes anecdotes regarding her graduation not included in her previous lengthy letter. She begins with a story about curling her hair for graduation with a fireplace poker, and goes on to relate a tale of sharing her white gloves with a classmate at the graduation reception. 

Edith then goes on to share a “tragical” story, in which her diploma is made out as Edith Annie Robertson rather than Edith Anne. She is clearly disappointed, but makes light of the situation, writing, “I’m inclined to be Presbyterianistic and blame pre-destination.” Following a postscript regarding the family’s cat having kittens on graduation day, she signs off, “Edith Annie (formerly Edith Anne).”

James Dunsmuir and two girls, Victoria BC, ca. 1905

James “Boy” Dunsmuir died in 1915 aboard the Lusitania, when it was sunk by German torpedoes. He was only 21. Boy was crossing to join the British army, the Royal Scots Greys specifically.

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.

Portrait of the Perrin family in their house in Bossey, France, during World War 1, 1916. By Raoul Berthelé.

Source: City Archives of Toulouse.


It’s FRIDAY FASHION FACT time! Last week I gave an overview of the history of trousers (read here.) Today I’m going to talk about how pants became womenswear in the western world. While there were rare cases of  women wearing trousers in the ancient world, it was not until relatively recently that women wearing trousers became an acceptable fashion.

In the early 1850s, there was a very small group of women who advocated for a bifurcated (aka, divided in two) garment for women. This was  during the early days of the crinoline trend, when layers of petticoats made skirts extremely heavy and restricting.  Activist Libby Miller promoted wearing full, loose trousers cinched at the ankles, similar to the Turkish style. She introduced the garment to Amelia Bloomer, editor of the first women’s newspaper, The Lily. Bloomer loved the garment, wore it often, and advocated for it in her newspaper. Thus, these loose trousers were dubbed “bloomers.” However, once the cage crinoline was created, Bloomer declared that was change enough, and so abandoned the bloomer trouser. The garment did not disappear completely, though. A modified version became a popular undergarment, allowing women to adopt reform without shocking polite society.

As technology and society developed towards the end of the 19th Century, there were many who recognized that women’s fashion needed to shift along with it. In the early 1890s, the bicycle became extremely popular, as the “safety bicycle” was invented, and costs came down. It allowed women an independence and freedom they had yet to possess. Yet cycling in a long skirt was extremely difficult, and so the newly formed Lady Cyclists’ Association promoted the Bicycle Suit, a menswear inspired garment with full, knee-length trousers. They became very popular, yet were still considered shocking by many, and scandalous when worn outside of cycling.

It wasn’t until the 1910s that it became somewhat acceptable for women to wear trousers outside of active wear. During World War I, when nearly all the working-age men were off fighting, women took their place in the working world. Those who had jobs in factories, and other such hard labor positions, altered their husbands trousers to wear while working. This was both for the
freedom of movement trousers allowed, as well as to save money and preserve their skirts for social situations. Even during this time, a woman wearing trousers in public was still considered scandalous. When the war ended, there were a bold few who were not so quick to give up the freedom which trousers allowed.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, it became increasingly common for a woman to wear trousers for leisure. Women more commonly participated in sports, and the rise of the aviator meant an increasing number of female celebrities seen wearing trousers. This was also the case with the rise of the Hollywood Movie
Star, with actresses such as Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn frequently photographed in trousers.

When World War II hit, the situation from WWI repeated itself, with women entering the workforce and wearing their husband’s altered clothing. This time, however, it occurred to an even greater extent, with vast material shortages and clothing rations. This solidified trousers’ position in women’s wardrobes. Though they were still only accepted in casual situations, they continued to increase in popularity throughout the next several decades. There was an additional boost in the 1960s when Yves Saint Laurent introduced the formal trouser. Despite the development, though, women’s trousers are still mainly acceptable only in more casual situations to this day. As we know, though, fashion is constantly

Want to learn more about the history of women wearing pants? Check out these books:

Women in Pants, by Catherine Smith and Cynthia Greig

100 Years of Fashion, by Cally Blackman

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!