Thursday, 18 December 2014

World War Wardrobes

It's often exceedingly difficult to get to many of the fashion exhibitions that sporadically grace the museums around the world. As I mentioned earlier, there was a Charles James exhibition in New York that was impossible to get to, and years ago  it was not my trip to Paris but my sister's that coincided with a Second Empire fashion exhibition (she was kind enough to get me the book).
In addition there are several museums that only ever host temporary exhibitions and so remain closed between exhibitions, often over the winter months when I happen to be traveling.
As a result, being in Berlin when the Kreig und Kleider: Modegrafik zur Zeit des Ersten Weltkriegs (War and Clothing: Fashion Illustrations at the time of the First World War) exhibition was on, I treated myself to a visit.
Then, given it was also my birthday (the perfect excuse) I also treated myself to the book.

While World War One fashion is not my favourite era, it is an interesting time that is rarely covered in detail. This is because it falls between the opulence of Belle Epoque which simmered down after the death of Edward VII of England in1910, and the Twenties where fashions were so dramatically different as to shock. It was also interesting to view as the exhibition focused solely on the representation of fashion be they through photographs or fashion illustrations, the later of which I focused my Honours thesis on.

This particular exhibition was looking not only at the changes to fashion from 1913 through the War, but also the differences between the fashion centres of Paris, Berlin and Vienna as Berlin particularly found itself on the other side of the War from Paris and subsequently turned inwards to promote its own designers and manufacturers.

I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition in its own right as it contained a sizable range of documents which were beautifully displayed around the room. Saying that, a few of the illustrations inspired me to look at the exhibition from a wider viewpoint, comparing the fashions illustrated within with the fashions of the Second World War and after. Differences and similarities seemed to imply that the role of fashion differed in each War.

Before World War One, fashions still bore strong similarities to those of the Belle Epoque; skirts skimmed the ground though they were long and narrow; exaggerated form of the style were referred to as hobble skirts. The bust was still the most emphasised part of the silhouette though, like the skirts it had been exaggerated, and with the streamlined corsets would have been uncomfortable and movement would have been considerably restricted.

With the onset of World War One, several elements changed dramatically. Skirts shortened as much as possible to allow for some element of practicality. Women occupied a greater role in a country's economy than they had previously and this increased movement combined decreased time and manpower within the home would have made the maintenance of  floor length skirts an imposition. This meant skirts became ankle length or at the most 'ballerina' length; however at the same time  they increased in volume. This was possibly to retain an element of modesty so the ankles and suggestion of the shape of the female body weren't being displayed at the same time.


In another move towards increased practicality, the exaggerated bosom of the pre-war years was lost with a more natural bodice coming into effect. Underneath this, corsets started to become softer and more natural allowing for increased natural flexibility and movement.

In this time of war, the military element of life was reflected in the fashion of women. Outerwear became less streamlined and draped but  more severe in its cut, taking on the style and simplicity of military great coats.

When decorations were in order, they took two forms, one being as tassels and frogging, elements that also reference the dress uniforms of the military. This decoration was also evident in the day wear.


The military influence is also noted in the change in head wear. Prior to the war the hats were influenced by the costumes of The Merry Widow, wide enough to cover the wearer's whole body. While this fashion shrunk slightly immediately before the war, there was still a tendency for wide shallow hats.
With the War these became smaller, and more compact, but at the same time taller, with feathers and stiff embellishments that stuck straight up.

What is interesting to note is that were was still a sizable element of frivolity to womens fashion. Skirts had a notably exaggerated volume when compared with those of former years while other elements of an outfit often contained more fabric in the form of layers and pleats. While this softened and padded out the female form, it may also have been encouraged in support of the fledgling local textile industries.

This softness  and fullness was enhanced further by the continued use of laces and embroidery as decoration.


It was as though the delicate softness of female fashion added an element of frivolity and lightness, something that would have assisted to counteract the severity, darkness and depressive outcomes of war. Although the War affected everyone in some form, this was a means to momentarily escape from the horrors that surrounded everyone.

What is most interesting is the comparison of the impact World War I had on fashion with the impact World War II had.  During the Second World War, fashion and more importantly fabrics became incorporated into the home front effort. Fabrics were rationed to the general population and styles controlled to limit the amount of unnecessary usage. For examples, pocket flaps and double breasted jackets were banned, as was a certain amount of volume to skirts (even in the form of gathers and pleats) and the number of buttons used on each outfit. As a result, fashions took a more streamlined appearance, and with women playing a greater role in the workforce, were more practical and 'business-like'. 
In fact, some of the fashions of World War I look remarkably similar to the full skirts of the ''New Look' as opposed to the fashions of World War II itself. The 'New Look' referred to the long full skirts that Christian Dior popularised in the 1950s, a style that marked the end of World War II and rationing and a return to prosperity and an improved economic outlook.

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