HomeHistoryWas 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 assassinated on June 28, 1914, during a visit to Sarajevo, efforts to administer aid were hindered by his insistence on wearing multiple layers of clothing meticulously tailored to achieve a perfect fit.

By the time they managed to cut through his attire, the Duke had succumbed to his wounds, precipitating the onset of the First World War.

Released today, Nina Edwards’ book Dressed for War: Uniform, Civilian Clothing and Trappings 1914-1918 unveils new perspectives on the First World War through the lens of personal attire.

Delving into how, amidst extraordinary tumult, individual preferences such as a particular perfume or the precise adjustment of a hat offered insights into the experiences of men, women, and children throughout the conflict.

dressed for war cover

Here are some more clothing-related facts about the 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 the 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’s razors in 1915.

• German service underwear was rumored 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 a question of keeping the men warm and 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 wristwatch 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 became a competing fashion hub relatively untouched by the War compared to Paris.

• 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 for 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’; and ‘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 peacetime – were replaced by fleets of juvenile sailors and battalions 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.

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