In the years leading up to the war, women’s fashion was brightly colored and ornate. Paul Poiret was the most prominent designer of the time, drawing his inspiration from many Eastern sources such as the Russian ballet and the Japanese kimono. Practical is the last word anyone would use to describe these styles; just consider hobble skirts and tunics. Hobble skirts were, as the name suggests, very narrow at the ankle forcing women to take tiny steps. Tunics were full, hip-length pieces worn over narrow skirts.
Le Dernier Tango by Xavier Nacer. Pre World War I dance. c.1910 Women with decorative feather in hair. Couples dancing.
Le Dernier Tango by.. Photograph. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016.
But of course, when the war began, everything changed. No longer could women afford to be impractical in their fashion choices. More women were entering the workforce, covering the jobs of the men that went off to war. They worked in all sectors of service from agricultural, industrial, health, transport and beyond. They needed clothing that better suited their needs, including the once unheard of trousers. Skirts became shorter out of necessity as long skirts were impractical at most work sites.
Fashions For Women In War Time. The taking on of men’s jobs by women in all classes of life just now ought to provide them with some useful and not unbecoming ideas for new fashions. 8th June 1915
Fashions For Women In War Time.. Photograph. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016.
Not only did needs change, but fabric was rationed, forcing clothing to become simpler and use less material. The gravity of the war meant social events were foregone and many women were wearing black while in mourning. The general anxiety of the war had an impact on all of society’s fashions, as evidenced through monochrome looks and simpler cuts.
The war era was a somber time for fashion, some fashion guides skipping the period entirely. “The war, in fact, as all wars do, had a deadening effect on fashion, and there is little of interest to record until the conflict was over.” (Laver, 1982) But, according to Ali Wells, keeper of the collections at Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, “If World War I hadn’t happened, women may never have experienced the glamour and decadence of the 1920’s.” (Hearon, n.d.)