How WWI changed fashion history

The fashion history legacy of WWI – and why it’s so important

It’s 100 years since the end of WWI and it’s hard to imagine that my grandparents (and probably yours) were part of a generation that sacrificed so much. But apart from the social challenges that they faced, the women of WWI were also part of a huge shift in attitudes which make this a WWI one of the most important eras in the history of fashion.

Changing the landscape for women

As a woman, I wonder how I would have coped if my father, husband, brother or son had been facing death on the front line. How would we all have coped with the lack of food, the fear, the omnipresent danger, and the years of deprivation?

WWI fashion - nurse WWI was undoubtedly an extraordinary time for women for many reasons. The emotionally charged atmosphere of war and loss juxtaposed with the fact that many women gained new independence, income and social freedom as a result of taking on men’s work for the first time. Less chaperoning, and the intensity of separation often led to greater sexual freedoms too.

The underlying current of the suffragette movement and the possibilities that could bring, were exciting for many. Cheaper and more widely available and acceptable products (such as cosmetics – Maybelline launched in 1915, Rimmel a few years earlier) sat uncomfortably with austerity, shortages of fabrics and the rising cost of clothing.

And whatever your take on fashion and female style, there is no doubt that these complex and intense few years, left us with an extraordinary and long-lasting legacy.

Best foot forward

Keeping morale high played an important part of the war effort. The stiff upper lift, and “keep the home fires burning” approach. Indeed, at the outset of war, it was considered a woman’s duty to keep up appearances and be well dressed (even if simultaneously you had to respect and reflect the darker mood of the times in your styles).

As a designer, I can’t help but feel how appearance – looking and feeling as good as you possibly could – even as the world disintegrated around you, must have played an important role in keeping up those spirits. And perhaps that in part explains the advent of the fashion show during WWI –  pioneered by leading designer Paul Poiret but adopted by many as a means of raising funds for the front.

And whereas today, we’re often left with the challenge and desire to express our femininity in a world of fashion that can still often be inherently masculine, the women of WWI had a chance for the first time, to adopt a more masculine, understated style.

Pre-war fashion history

Pre-WWI fashion had been opulent and elaborate. The influences of elite European and Russian society meant that orientalism was popular, and this included bold prints, bright greens and blues, draping fabrics, harem trousers, tunics and turbans. I suspect I would have loved wearing these styles and you’ll find them reflected in some of the silks and brocades that I use.

haute couture evening dress

But on the whole, women’s fashion was not meant for comfort. Corsets, complicated dress design which required a lady’s maid to help you dress and “hobble skirts” (widest at the hip and tight at the ankle) were all about silhouette, statements and style. But they lacked functionality.

Other styles that marked the pre-war era were long, shoe length skirts, elaborate blouses with full sleeves and even more elaborate headwear. They certainly didn’t survive long in the war years.

Accelerating change

Change would inevitably have come but war is a great accelerator. The first and most obvious shift was the need for practicality – women were taking jobs on farms, in munitions factories and on buses. Or they were joining the Red Cross and the military. Skirt lengths shortened and with the advent of a women’s razor, women began to shave their legs!

Shirts too needed to be more practical and extravagant use of fabric or bright colours was frowned upon. It just didn’t match the mood. Out went soft, impractical pastels and in came more muted blues, browns, mahoganies and greens.

And you can’t spend 4 years at war, without military style influencing fashion. Cavalier capes, Russian style soldier coats, the indomitable trench coat, belted waists and epaulettes all seeped into popular fashion and it’s hard to imagine today’s trends without their enduring influence.

Coco Chanel played her part

Coco Chanel Coco Chanel was a rising star during WWI who believed that women could be “active as well as elegant” and that “luxury must be comfortable”. These two concepts are very much the driving force behind the Anderson Club. But at times during the last 100 years, it seems fashion might have lost sight of that simple combination.

Whilst trousers for women (still a novelty at the outset of war) became a necessity during the war, without a doubt, Chanel’s endorsement of them during and after the war helped give them momentum as a wardrobe staple in subsequent years.

In 1916 Chanel also designed a revolutionary outfit – the iconic Chanel suit that many women still wear today. The neat, fitted cut, knee length skirt and boxy jacket was unmistakeably in part a reflection of military style. But it also embraced the need for both functionality and femininity for the modern working woman!

With wool and other fabrics in short supply (but at the time purely for comfort), another Chanel legacy was the introduction of jersey into women’s wardrobe – underlining the message that clothing could be stylish but lose fitting, comfortable and practical too.

Costume jewellery and the trench influence

Jewellery too was part of the fashion history that was influenced by war. Extravagant and expensive jewellery didn’t reflect the national mood and was often replaced by “sweetheart items”, sometimes with a trench art influence. Military pins, lockets, and even items made out of military shells symbolised the connection with those at the front.

Mend and make do and the onesie!

A mend and make do attitude was inevitable. A lack of matching buttons meant covered buttons instead. Recycling of wool and fabric from the front line resulted in the Pure New Wool label (so that you knew whether an item was associated with the horror of war where military uniforms of the deceased were recycled into new woollen products)!WWI fashions

There was even such a thing as a slumber suit, the original onesie you might say, so ‘one could look glamorous’ in the event that you had run to escape a Zeppelin strike during the night!

The end of the war and the 1920s

By the end of the war, a lower waistline had been adopted (dropped from the very high, just under the bust fashion of earlier years). Corsets had gone and hair was shorter.

The crazed, devil may care opulence of the 1920s, that followed less than a decade later is widely regarded as a backlash against the horror of WWI. But in its turn, it pioneered new trends and left its mark.

haute couture black satin dress As a designer with Russian roots, there’s no mistaking the orientalism influence in my choice of fabrics, colours and the cuts of my collections. But having grown up in 1980s Russia, the need to be functional and the difficulties of expressing yourself in times of austerity also resonates with me.

It all goes to show that both the haute couture design of the past and wartime fashion still carry considerable influence when it comes to 21st century fashion. We have much that we owe to the women of our past, their resilience, their courage and their ability to adapt. The challenges that they faced, the changes that resulted and the fashions and styles that emerged from WWI are still relevant today. You can see the influence of WWI fashion in most modern wardrobes and you’ll certainly find it in the Anderson Club collections.


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