I suspected that Great War Fashion might be aimed at the crowd who watch Downton Abbey for the costumes. It is that and so much more. Lucy Adlington pads a lot of serious history around the clothes women wore from 1910 to 1920. We readers step into their lives.
Each chapter explores a different aspect of women’s fashion of the time, looking at class (comparing couture and status accessories for the few to everyday clothes for ordinary women), occupation (suffragettes, maids, nurses, munitionettes, textile workers, knitting and sewing club members, land workers, women in uniform) and occasion (weddings, pregnancy, air raids, mourning). In each case, fashion is a jumping off point to describe how real women lived their lives … and how clothing helped, hindered or evolved.
The book starts with underwear (making this a sensible book to follow Unmentionables). Adlington describes the many layers and how to don them. Somehow, I can’t imagine “begin(ning) to feel a ceaseless stream of Magnetic Power permeating the whole body from head to heal” as claimed in the ads for the Superb Magneto corset. I doubt “the joy of New Life, of New Health, and New Vigour” would “thrill through every nerve.” (p 13) Corsets were marketed as essential back support for war workers. Their construction changed as metal became scarce. Besides, wearing any metal was dangerous in munitions work, as sparks could ignite the explosives.
Adlington connects extensive research from varied sources and uses lots of period photos and illustrations to exhibit the points.
Edith Cavell, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, and other nurses and VAD recruits make an appearance in the chapter on Angels in Hell. The Pankhursts and others pushing for women’s suffrage balance respectability and rebellion. Vera Brittain (author of Testament of Youth) shows up in several chapters. (One weakness of the book is its lack of an index to facilitate any cross-references. The bibliography does not help on that count.)
Even though women moved from the domestic sphere into essential jobs during the war, their wages were still below those of men. At the same time, inflation was shocking. The UK Working Classes Cost of Living Committee reported that the annual cost of women’s clothing ordinarily purchased by the working class rose 90% from 1914 to 1918. (p 8) Making do was essential. After the war, many women were put out of work in favour of returning soldiers. Yet a 1918 report by Fabian Society leader Beatrice Webb calling for equal pay notes that only 50% of men working in industry had dependent children and one-quarter of all adult women supported dependents with only their own incomes. But the unequal wage structure assumed a male breadwinner. (p 237) Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
While equal pay is still an issue, some other things should never change. The clothes dryer and airer – complete with rope and pulleys – pictured on p 123 looks exactly like mine. Design perfectly suited to the task.
Comparing before and after the war, clothing became much less cumbersome. Corsets were looser as tiny waists went out of style. Skirts had risen to mid-calf. Hats were lighter. Synthetic fabrics made laundry easier.
The History Wardrobe gives costumes-in-context presentations about women’s history through fashion across the UK. I wish I could attend one … they sound like a hoot! Reading Great War Fashion is a good alternative for those who cannot.