History / Nina Edwards

Was fashion responsible for the outbreak of the First World War?

Was fashion responsible for the outbreak of the First World War

When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot on 28 June 1914, on a visit to Sarajevo, attempts to tend the wounds were impeded by his layers of clothing, which he liked to be sewn into in order to ensure a perfect fit. By the time they’d managed to cut through his clothes, the Duke had died, and so the First World War began.

Dressed for War: Uniform, Civilian Clothing and Trappings 1914-1918Out today, Nina Edwards’ Dressed for War reveals fresh aspects of the First World War through the prism of personal dress. Exploring how, during a period of extraordinary upheaval, a particular preference for a type of perfume, or the just-so adjustment to the tilt of a hat, Nina Edwards offers another dimension into the individual experience of men, women and children during the course of the war.

Here are some more clothing-related facts about First World War you may not be aware of:

• Women began to shave their legs for the first time as skirts became shorter in order to conserve fabric needed for the War effort. The reveal of a bit of leg was part of the change in perception of body hair, from something erotic to something unsightly. Gilette introduced Milady Decolletee razors in 1915.

• German service underwear was rumoured to be better made and of more serviceable quality than Allied. The British government was determined to discover exactly what it was that they were wearing. It was not only a question of keeping the men warm, but of finding clothing that would not chafe in damp conditions. British officers were ordered to collect samples of enemy underwear from the dead, to be assessed for quality and design in the freezing winter of 1914. From Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War:

“We were requested to send back specimens of German army under-clothing. Paige and Babbage, most mild of garden-loving men, have to cut the clothing off with jack-knives. The frost has made it particularly difficult.”

• The First World War introduced the wrist watch for men (previously worn by women only) as pocket watches were impractical in the trenches.

• African American soldiers were often given old American Civil War uniforms to further their segregation.

• Given the embargo on foreign trade, American designers sold under French labels and the United States, relatively untouched by the War compared to Paris, became a competing fashion hub.

• Jewellery during wartime had to be creative. Marcel Proust noticed a fashion in Paris for rings and bracelets made from fragments of shells or ammunition.

• Makeup became more established during the war. Rimmel and Maybelline started during the war, coinciding with makeup becoming more acceptable, particularly as working-class women who could now afford it.

• A number of well-known phrases we use today such as ‘To declare one’s colours’; ‘Glad-rags’; ‘Toe-rag’ originated from clothing trends started during the First World War

• Modern classics such as the ‘little black dress’ and Burberry trench coat were invented during the First World War as wartime alternatives to elaborate dresses and heavy military greatcoats.

• For the children of the upper classes, fancy dress parties were the rage in London. Columbines and harlequins, elves and fairies – popular in peaectime – were replaced by fleets of juvenile sailors and batallions of small soldiers carrying toy rifles. For the less well-to-do, scaled-down children’s field service uniforms were available ‘for as little as 5 shillings and 11 pence’ 47 from the London store Gamages. ■

Nina Edwards is a writer and cultural critic, whose books include On the Button: The Significance of an Ordinary Item. More details about Dressed for War can be found on our website.


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