15 things you didn’t know about fashion in the First World War

It was a period of extraordinary upheaval, yet on both sides of the First World War – at home and on the front line – people gave consideration to the clothes they wore

Fashionable young woman on postcard, c1914. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

In her new book, writer and cultural critic Nina Edwards reveals the stories behind what people wore during the seismic years of the conflict: from the craze surrounding a new razor blade or perfume, to the enjoyment of knickers worn for the very first time.

Here, writing for History Extra, Edwards brings you 15 things you (probably) didn’t know about fashion in the First World War

 

1) Vast fields of washing lines followed both sides in the Service Corps’ attempts to keep uniforms clean

Clothes often needed to be disinfected and deloused, and negotiations had to be made to use hotel washing machines, but the biggest problem was getting clothes dry in the winter months. Various drying rooms were attempted, with cables and cross wires, and later with fans.

Moreover, each time a company moved, advancing and retreating over the same terrain, new arrangements had to be made.

 

2) Rimmel and later Maybelline, which started up in 1915, were affordable make-up brands, within the reach of women of all classes

Cosmetics had been worn on the quiet by many since well before the war, but now extra and unmonitored income meant that many could enjoy the luxury of lipstick and mascara.

However, British women on frontline duties received strict orders to avoid ‘all powder, paint, scent, earrings or other jewellery etc,’ but such regulations often held little sway when a dab of L’Heure Blue scent or smudge of rouge was capable of raising the spirits in the sometimes sordid conditions of tent and bivouac.

 

3) Local women were employed to sort through discarded clothing collected from the battlefields or hospital units

If in reasonable enough condition, this mended clothing was given to the various auxiliary Labour Corps. Meanwhile Allied woollen cloth, too damaged to be mended, was bundled up and sent home to be recycled. For this reason the label ‘Pure New Wool’ came to indicate that an item had been made from unrecycled fibre – and therefore harboured no possibly distressing history of the wounded and of the dead.

 

4) The majority of women did not shave their legs before the war, and indeed bodily hair was considered erotic

Armpit hair, in particular, suggested other, more hidden, parts.

Women began to shave their legs for the first time as skirts grew shorter and finer stockings became more generally available, and hairy legs began to be seen as unattractive.

Gillette introduced Milady Décolletée razors in 1915, prettily boxed for the fashion conscious: bodily hair for women in much of the west was beginning to be seen as both unhygienic and ultimately unfeminine.

 

5) Replica uniforms for dolls were fashionable on both sides of the conflict

For the well-to-do, perfectly scaled-down uniforms were available, and there was a surge in sales of toy soldiers: boys were given dolls in khaki, horizon bleu or field grey uniforms, while girls had replica nurses or child dolls to care for.

Jennie Lee, future British politician and 10 years old when the war broke out, played a ‘fascinating new game’ with her friends using their broken, limbless dolls to represent wounded soldiers. Paper cut-out dolls were the least expensive toy marketed, allowing a child to dress them in whatever belligerent uniform was in the news.

In Belgium and Northern France, children may not have been in a position to have toys and costumes bought for them, but they could still pick up discarded pieces of uniform and adapt them for their games.

 

6) The war introduced many to wider sexual experience

Brothels in Belgium, which featured women in flimsy dresses and lingerie, adapted in response to changes in occupying armies. Reputedly, German customers were preferred, since Allied troops earned less, and so had less to pay for their services. Officers’ brothels, or ‘Blue Lamp’ establishments, were kept separate from those serving the lower ranks, in their ‘Red Lamps’.

Earl Kitchener advised fighting men to be constantly on guard against temptation, and when the American government noted a rise in venereal disease, it tried to promote abstinence. But there was a need to escape from military life, and many, according to Robert Graves, preferred not to die a virgin.

For many the experience of women  “in the finest of flimsy silk dresses and… showing the daintiest of lingerie” was a revelation. Unlike the Allies, the German army had been issued with condoms since the end of the 19th century, and provided regular inspections and training on how to protect themselves against disease.


A vintage postcard featuring a soldier on leave kissing a young woman in lingerie during the First World War, published in Paris, c1918. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

 

7) As well as making trench art items from spent shells and fuse wire, men took up knitting and embroidery to distract from long periods of waiting for their turn to fight

Prisoners of war made handicrafts from whatever they could find, both to pass the time and also to sell for food. Knitting became a craze at home, with women and children encouraged to knit socks and scarves as a patriotic duty.

Knitted toys were sent into the lines to bring soldiers good luck. Fair Isle jumpers, for example, that had been briefly fashionable pre-war for the leisured class, now became sought after gifts in the trenches – not just for warmth, but for the colour they introduced, and perhaps the care they represented.

Before the war, knitted clothing was mainly associated with children, but by the 1920s jumpers were established as everyday clothing across the board.

 

8) One of the most common subjects in letters home was the longing to be clean

For men forced to endure long periods without washing facilities, even communal baths in tepid, filthy water could be welcome. A private, hot bath on leave, and the chance of a clean shave and fresh clothing, represented the height of luxury and indulgence. 

For nurses who, despite the fashion for bobs, mainly kept their hair long, the idea of sweet-smelling, clean lice-free tresses were the ultimate longed-for goal.

 

9) Many women started wearing knickers

In the Russian Battalion of Death, the poor girls who joined up were issued with warm woollen underwear for the first time in their lives. In the WAAC in Britain, which was intended to appeal to a broad class of women, the regulations stated that you had to provide your own underwear, but it was soon noticed that many poorer recruits came without any experience of such items, as ‘knickers were an upmarket item’.

Subsequently, knickers became standard issue for women’s service uniforms – though sometimes the appropriate size was not taken into account. One recruit found that “if they hadn’t got your size you were issued with whatever size they had. I had a pair of khaki silk bloomers that I could hold under my chin, and they reached below my knees”.

 

10) For many, war meant proper dentistry for the first time

Treatment in the lines may have been limited, but for many soldiers it was their first experience of dental care. Men could have their teeth filled and dead ones pulled out, so that food could be more easily eaten and digested.

Trench mouth (acute ulcerative gingivitis) was a common complaint, caused by the lack of hygiene, poor diet and heavy smoking, and in the worst cases could spread into the tissues of the face. Moreover, because of so many facial injuries, from bullet wounds in particular, and often involving damage to the jawbone, there were rapid advances in dental research.

 

11) New boots had to be painfully worn in, and men were often forced to wear pairs that simply did not fit

Footwear was a constant problem for armies. Many German troops faced Flanders’ mud in cardboard-soled boots, since the Allied blockade meant that there was insufficient sturdy leather available.

Leg bandages, or puttees, were often either too loose or too tight, which exacerbated trench foot and gangrene. When hip-length rubber boots were supplied to cope with the muddy conditions, they quickly became either full of the self same mud, or created a suction-effect so that each leg had to be hauled out.

On both sides, men were issued with only one spare pair of socks.

 

12) Romanian officers below a certain rank were forbidden to wear eye shadow

This proscription was among the first orders they received at the outset of the war, so one would assume the practice was common.

Senior officers clearly continued to enjoy the privilege – sky blue or lilac lids worn with a monocle, perhaps.

Historian Norman Stone describes the Romanian army as being particularly reluctant to adopt more practical uniforms suited to trench warfare, preferring to remain “smartly turned out, powdered and painted”.

 

13) Kilts worn by Scottish regiments represented a remaining element of sumptuous dress, and a proud history of battle prowess

It was said to be practical, keeping men warm in winter and cool in summer, yet in the trenches it became a liability. Kilts not only soaked up the mud, but mustard gas had a tendency to burn the sweatier parts of the body, with disastrous consequences.


A vintage postcard illustration featuring a soldier of the London Scottish regiment with two young ladies in France during the First World War, c1915. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

 

14) Men began to wear wristwatches (previously worn by women alone), as pocket watches were impractical in the trenches

They were a useful, if expensive present, worn on the inside of the wrist, to protect the glass face – a practice continued by some ex-military men today.

 

15) Trousers, shorter hair for women and generally less delineation between male and female dress led to many of the androgynous styles of today

The more the body was exposed, by both modern weaponry and new, more practical fashions, the more similar the male and female form seemed to become.

 

Dressed For War: Uniform, Civilian Clothing and Trappings, 1914 to 1918 (I.B.Tauris) by Nina Edwards is on sale now. To find out more, click here.

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