04/03/2014 09:03 am ET Updated Apr 03, 2014

Women's Fashion During Wartime (NEW BOOK)

The History Press

The following is an excerpt from Great War Fashion: Tales from the History Wardrobe [The History Press, $39.95]

When war broke out, it was seen as man’s work. Newspapers filled with reports of mobilization, diplomacy, military engagements... and fashion pages for women showing clothes some of them were suddenly afraid to buy because of war economies. Suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett helped to open workshops to employ women thrown out of work by the war. She noticed how upset many young women were, writing in The Woman’s Part, her account of war work: "when they saw the advertisements everywhere displayed calling upon young men to join the colors, announcing in huge letters YOUR COUNTRY WANTS YOU, and reflected that their country did not want them".

In 1915, the militant branch of the Pankhurst family organized a mass rally demanding that women be given the right to serve. Meanwhile, fashion showed its military affiliations by adopting uniform design details. There was an attack of ‘khakiitis’ in tailor-made suits, some with frogging, some with bold military buttons, and some even with tiny gold stripes on the sleeves to mimic those awarded to wounded soldiers. Not everyone approved of this homage to military honors: "after all," rasped a correspondent in the Daily Graphic, "they’ve won them hard, our lads have – why on earth should we go and imitate them and wear decorations we aren’t entitled to?"

That women could be entitled to uniforms and decorations of their own took some time to filter up to the highest levels of the armed services, and down to the widest reaches of public opinion. It was understandable. Women had barely been seen in uniforms before, save for religious habits, Nightingale’s nurses and the sprightly bonnets of the Salvation Army. Girls at private schools and grammars had to wear uniform, and there was the smart get-up of the new Girl Guides, but the rash of new organizations that sprang up with war all jostled to create their identity through uniform. From the beginning of the war, organizations such as the Women’s Legion fell back on quasi-military styles as they designed uniforms. The next four years saw an unprecedented opportunity for women to adopt some of the status, duty and sense of belonging represented by uniforms.

Check out these amazing photos of women's donning menswear during WWI:

  • It was the bus conductors, or ‘clippies’ who truly won the public’s admiration for their cheerful spirits and smart turnout.
  • A portrait of Annie Cragg, postwoman in Rochdale in 1916. Shortly after the picture was taken Annie confessed she couldn’t smile for the photographer because she’d just been to the dentist to have some teeth out, and her cheeks were padded out with cotton wool.
  • "A Splendid Coat for War Work" boasts that Aquascutum advert. Companies were not shy of using the war to promote their goods, and the well-off woman was happy to wear good quality clothes. Aquascutum deserved their reputation for excellent light-weight waterproofs.
  • A Land Army worker from 1917. Woman’s Life magazine offered patterns for making your own smock and breeches for work on the land.
  • There were attempts to promote the Land Army uniform’s attractions, from statements that it "sets off a woman’s shape as no other costume has done yet," to coy articles in fashion magazines that declared "breeches are awfully becoming!"
  • This Land Army girl wears her green wool WLA arm band over a roomy smock. The caption notes the pig’s striking resemblance to one of Germany’s most distinguished generals.
  • A startling image of a smart WRN officer at shooting practice. Officers’ uniforms were made to a very high standard with silk lining to the double-breasted jackets, stitched seams on the white shirt and perfect skirt hems.
  • Appearing immaculately turned out for a WRAF (The Women's Royal Air Force) inspections was a struggle against the odds. There was only a small mirror to assess results. One of Gertrude George’s delightful sketches of life in the WRAF. Here, the dreaded Inspection.
  • A studio photograph simply entitled "Cousin Connie Ford 1917" shows a WAAC in her greatcoat and hat, as comfortable in her uniform as any male soldier.
  • There were more allegations of impropriety than proven cases. The slanders infuriated WAACs of every rank, who found army life a far cry from the flirting shown in this type of cheeky postcard.
  • WAAC (Women's Army Auxiliary Corps) group photo. Men and women were not on equal footing in the Services but uniform gave a sense of belonging. Here, smart WAACs take their place in a group photograph.
  • This dainty ‘onesie’ with a ribbon sash, ruffled cuffs and ankle gathers was a far cry from the Winston Churchill style siren suits of the next World War.