Home Front Fashion

Home Front Fashion

Jayne Shrimpton stitches together a seamless history of fashion economies during WW1

Jayne Shrimpton, Professional dress historian and picture specialist

Jayne Shrimpton

Professional dress historian and picture specialist

We all know something of the rationing, Make Do and Mend and Utility initiatives that shaped dress and many facets of everyday life throughout and after the Second World War, but what of Home Front fashion during the Great War? While the British government did not directly intervene to control civilian clothing production and purchases as it did in the 1940s, throughout the First World War many of our female ancestors struggling without male support endured not only reduced incomes, but also escalating prices, dwindling clothing supplies, and often longer working hours. Making ends meet and keeping up appearances while facing increasing challenges were vital for maintaining standards and presenting a respectable, capable image.

Vogue magazine
Vogue magazine, which enjoyed an affluent, fashion-conscious readership, showcased novel flared frocks and skirts as early as the winter of 1914/15, this new style being dubbed the ‘war crinoline’

In 1914 the nation’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of around 20% of the population, while the lower-middle and working classes comprised roughly 80%. This huge disparity was reflected powerfully in dress, for while an affluent minority patronised exclusive couture houses in London and Paris, the working masses could not hope to emulate their luxurious style. Privileged ladies might parade sensuous silks and satins, soft, fine woollen materials and sumptuous sable furs, but ordinary women favoured washable cotton frocks and blouses and serviceable tailored skirts, teamed with a jacket or coat for outdoors. Meanwhile working women from remote rural areas and deprived urban communities still habitually wore worn clothes and workaday shawls and aprons, with hob-nailed boots or clogs. The genuine shock at the sight of the shabbily-dressed poor of London’s East End experienced by stylish West End sightseers viewing the capital’s bomb damage (from airships) was doubtless mirrored by the longing of slum dwellers on glimpsing the visitors’ exquisite, ladylike costumes.

Even before the war, our working-class forebears aspired to dress well, despite limited financial resources, using whatever means at their disposal to create a neat, respectable appearance. Until mass-produced, economical, ready-to-wear garments became widely available in the inter-war era, disposable fashion was not a widely-held concept; people generally valued and looked after their clothes and accessories, for precious materials and dress items were viewed as an investment. During the war fashion inspiration was gained from black and white photographs in popular weekly magazines such as Home Chat and Woman’s Weekly demonstrating new modes that could be copied at home. Further ideas could be gleaned from department store and dress-making establishment shop windows, even if the merchandise itself was unaffordable.

Debenhams advertisement from 1916 for ‘strong silk’ blouses in ‘practical colours’
The front-fastening blouse was an essential element of the WW1 female wardrobe, as seen in this Debenhams advertisement from 1916 for ‘strong silk’ blouses in ‘practical colours’, ideal for the woman war worker Jayne Shrimpton

Unlike during the 1939-45 war, when fashion in Britain effectively stood still, dress trends evolved during the Great War, most notably the major shift in the female silhouette from a narrow-moderate ankle-length skirt in 1914 to a shorter, wider hemline from 1915 onwards. Nonetheless, a century ago fashion in general changed comparatively subtly and most of our younger female predecessors aimed for a smart but modest, relatively conventional appearance.

advertisement for Beehive wools, 1915
This advertisement for Beehive wools, 1915, demonstrates the rising popularity of knitting during the war, not only ‘comforts’ for the troops, but a growing range of women’s and infants’ garments , Jayne Shrimpton

The basis of many daytime wardrobes was a plain ‘costume’ (as the female co-ordinated suit was then called), comprising a comfortable, loosely-belted jacket and sensible calf-length skirt. In this respect civilian daytime dress was similar to the official uniforms being provided for many female war workers, from transport staff to postal workers. A neat blouse accompanied the skirt, the new front fastening with an open collar most convenient when a woman needed to dress quickly and efficiently, without assistance. Meanwhile older ladies often favoured black and sombre colours and flattering floor-length garments of a timeless style throughout the war: some conservative elderly ‘matrons’ even retained the ornate white lace or frilled caps and heavy beaded black capes of the Victorian era, as seen in many family photographs.

postcard photograph, c1914/15
Many women struggled to clothe themselves and their families during the war, as seen in this postcard photograph, c1914/15, in which the mother wears outmoded clothes while her children are dressed in fashionable ‘Sunday best’ outfits ,Kat Williams

Something that we don’t always appreciate when viewing old WW1-era photographs is just how much effort was involved in assembling a sufficiently decent outfit in which to pose before the camera. During the war inflation soared and this had a monumental impact on most households’ clothing expenditure. The Working Classes, Cost of Living Committee, 1918 report revealed that the average cost of the items usually purchased by working-class women rose by an astounding 90% or more between June 1914 and November 1918: for example, an apron costing 1s 4d in mid-1914 escalated to 2s 3d by late-1918; similarly, a pair of shoes worth 9s 6d before the war cost 21s 9d at the end. Yet most wages and pensions did not increase in line with inflation and so individuals and families had to budget ever more carefully. When children needed food, the rent was due, fuel was low and fares had to be found for work, clothes were simply not a priority. The women of a family were often the last to acquire new garments, for it mattered little how a mother and housewife appeared behind closed doors, but men in civilian jobs had to look decent for work and children must be neatly turned-out for school.

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While the rising cost of living may not have impacted significantly on the more affluent classes, many ladies who habitually patronised upmarket dressmakers and milliners consciously reined in their expenditure, managing with fewer new clothes – although the marked decline in dressmaking orders had the unintended tragic consequence of rendering redundant many poorer women who earned a living working in these traditional trades. During the war, ladies’ magazines and fashion commentators modified their content, recommending less luxury and instead an emphasis on neatness and functionality. Their suggestions were inspired by the need to make certain economies and also by a growing sense that, as various forms of war work brought together women from diverse social backgrounds, it was inappropriate for privileged ladies to flaunt their finery when interacting with humbly-dressed women.

McCall pattern for a fashionable flared coat dress and suits, 1915
This McCall pattern for a fashionable flared coat dress and suits, 1915, demonstrates the prevalence of sombre, functional colours during the war, especially grey, brown and dark blue Jayne Shrimpton

Making clothes at home, rather than paying for professionally-tailored garments, was an economical way of assembling a decent wardrobe. Knitting, knotting and crocheting were needlecrafts practised by many women, who knitted primarily for the troops – socks, gloves, mufflers, body-warmers, jerseys and balaclavas – but also turned their hand to producing infants’ clothes and soft knitted caps and jackets for themselves. Casual knitted sweaters and cardigan-like ‘Spencers’ and ‘raglan jackets’ had formerly been worn mainly as leisure wear and for sports including golf, walking and tennis, but now came into their own as warm, relaxed garments well-suited to wartime conditions.

snapshot of c1917/18 show the wartime fashion for knitted cardigan coats with large pockets
Family photographs like this snapshot of c1917/18 show the wartime fashion for knitted cardigan coats with large pockets as warm, practical and comfortable garments, Kat Williams

Sewing was another traditional female skill and an accomplished dressmaker could fashion a whole outfit from scratch, aided by a paper pattern and a sewing machine. Paper patterns were supplied free in some of the popular magazines, although layouts and cutting instructions varied widely in quality, until garment patterns became more standardised and user-friendly in the 1920s. Singer was the favoured brand of sewing machine during the First World War, most models featuring a foot treadle beneath the ornate wrought iron stand; however, even second-hand machines cost up to £6 (too much for many households) and some companies offered machines that could be paid for in instalments. Fabric could be obtained at any price level, with cheaper material available from market stalls or the more economical high street drapery shops. Most wartime fabrics derived from natural fibres – cotton, linen, wool and silk – although synthetic textiles based on rayon threads were coming onto the market; often called ‘art silks’ (artificial silks), these would become more widely available after the war.

As the war advanced, the production of women’s wear declined, as resources were directed increasingly towards military requirements. By 1916 limited colours of fabric were available for civilian garments – chiefly shades of grey, brown and navy blue – and women had to draw on their ingenuity to extend the life of their clothes and accessories. The closest equivalent to the Second World War’s ‘Mrs Sew-and-Sew’ during the Great War was a character in Woman’s Life magazine called Penniless Prue, who set an example by giving most of her money to war charities, spending virtually nothing on herself. Various advice books were also available such as Swan & Edgar’s How to Dress with Good Taste and Economy while magazine tips included sensible shopping advice. Department stores even assumed a pragmatic stance at Christmas – usually a time of unbridled expenditure: at Peter Robinson’s Grand Christmas Bazaar, shoppers were advised to seek out useful gifts.

‘The Home-Dressmaker’ in Woman’s Own magazine
A series of practical articles entitled ‘The Home-Dressmaker’ in Woman’s Own magazine included this pattern and instructions for making a plain, ‘useful’ costume (suit), 7 November, 1914, Jayne Shrimpton

Many women had to make the most of the clothes that they already possessed. Outmoded clothes could be unpicked and re-fashioned, or generously-proportioned adult garments cut down and re-made into smaller articles for children. Torn clothes were patched using fabric oddments or repaired with needle and thread; socks and stockings were darned, a darning mushroom indispensable to the wartime housewife. Worn and stained dress items could be revitalised with dyes and stain-removers, either using domestic recipes or ‘miraculous’ shop-bought preparations such as Movol. When carrying out domestic chores or working in messy environments, clothes were protected with aprons, detachable sleeve covers or overalls – newly-acceptable indoor garments resembling the overalls worn by many female wartime industrial workers. Informal ‘knockabout’ washing frocks, conveniently laundered, also grew popular during the war and large useful pockets became a significant feature on dresses, overalls and jackets. Over-the-head frocks were another practical innovation: easily made and slipped on simply without complex fastenings, these were also well-suited to mass production within the burgeoning ready-to-wear clothing industry.

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illustration from Punch, 1 December 1915
This humorous illustration from Punch, 1 December 1915 suggests that a fashionable mother might make new clothes for all of her daughters from one of her own complex outfits and fur accessories, Jayne Shrimpton

Certain events required special garments, particularly weddings. By 1914 white was widely established as the favoured bridal choice, pre-war wedding outfits ranging from a simple white blouse, skirt and ornate hat, to a luxurious ivory trained bridal gown and veil. During the war the romantic ideal was often impossible to attain, especially if the event was planned at short notice to fit around the prospective groom’s departure for war or a brief period of leave. Many wartime brides had to quickly assemble a suitable outfit, perhaps choosing a classic suit accessorised with a fashionable blouse, contemporary wide-brimmed hat and good leather gloves. Those lucky to wear a fine white frock often chose a mid-calf afternoon-length dress with fashionable V-shaped neckline or ‘Medici’ collar, although with many prospective bridegrooms serving in France and Belgium where fine handmade lace could be bought, lengths of beautiful Bruges or Valenciennes lace were often posted to British fiancées as intimate gifts, in time to make a wedding veil or delicate honeymoon lingerie.

family mourning portrait from c1915-16
Formal studio mourning photographs are fairly rare by the First World War, although this image of a mother and daughter dressed in fashionable all black garments is a family mourning portrait from c1915-16 Kat Williams

Traditionally death also inspired the wearing of specific clothes, although by the First World War the strict social etiquette that had dictated Victorian mourning attire following bereavement was already declining. by the First World War the strict social etiquette that had dictated Victorian mourning attire following bereavement was already declining. And yet now death was ever present and scarcely a household did not suffer the loss of a relative, neighbour or close friend between 1914 and 1918. Shops and suppliers of dull black fabrics, the prescribed mourning accessories and special jewellery naturally encouraged the custom, but for people already on a limited budget the prospect of going into formal mourning was daunting. Consequently, many women simply adopted black armbands, these being particularly convenient for females in occupational uniform. For ladies of means who wanted to wear traditional full mourning, a more relaxed approach during the war permitted various fashionable fabrics, including black panne velvet, chiffon and georgette, even black furs, while some companies offered ready-made black clothes for those in immediate need of a mourning wardrobe. Otherwise, many distraught, impoverished widows or bereaved mothers improvised: some women dyed existing clothes black using a home dye or a professional dyeing service, while others sold their regular coloured clothes via newspaper advertisements, raising enough money to purchase new mourning requisites.

A family wedding portrait from September 1917
A family wedding portrait from September 1917 demonstrates how many wartime brides had to make do with a stylish regular daytime suit and fashionable accessories Kat Williams

While most ordinary women were used to making do and economising in matters of dress for themselves and their families long before 1914, these fundamental skills – previously largely overlooked due to their homely, mundane nature – were elevated by the special circumstances of war, raising the status of ‘women’s work’. In addition, much wartime employment offered an unprecedented opportunity for ordinary young women to break away from traditional female domestic and servile occupations and to earn decent wages for their own enjoyment. Reports abound of relatively well-paid munitions factory workers treating themselves to fur collars and muffs, even full-length coney or musquash fur coats. These personal purchases not only provided welcome luxuries in an otherwise largely functional wardrobe, but also afforded a new sense of independence. In turn, such developments signified the weakening of traditional class barriers, now that a working girl could buy herself high fashion items once reserved for her social superiors. Far from standing still, dress in its broadest sense progressed significantly during the First World War, fuelling trends that would continue to advance during the 1920s, leading our post-war family members into a new world of convenience and modernity

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