Looking back, one can say that the Great War merely accelerated an ongoing trend in female fashion. Women, particularly younger women, were rejecting the constraining clothing that prevented them from playing tennis with comfort, going swimming without being drowned by the weight of a bathing costume or even not being allowed to breathe easily. It was the well to do woman who suffered the most from society’s dictates that women be subjected to physically torturous clothing that impacted their health, while lower class women could wear more comfortable clothes to work in the fields and clean the homes of the rich and powerful. Combine the discomfort of suffering the socially required clothing with the fifty years long suffrage campaign in Europe and America and the opportunities to work like men often in trousers, by the end of the War, a large population of women wanted to be liberated—freed from their confining clothes and from limiting political restraints. For over fifty years, design movements in Europe and American had attempted to “reform” dress and women had demanded the right to wear comfortable pants, so they could do simple activities that men took for granted, like riding a bicycle. 

Before the Great War, some designers created fashions that covered the women’s body but freed her from the weight of twenty-five pounds of hot undergarments. French designer, Paul Poiret tantalized wealthy and fashionable women with soft and loose harem pants, and the Austrian artist, Gustave Klimt (1862-1918), working with designer, Emile Flöge (1874-1952), created soft and loose dresses that flowed without internal construction. But these were gradual and gentle changes, worn only by the most fashion forward and avant-garde women. However, after the War, women, who had tasted freedom and mobility of movement in the service of their countries, refused to go back in time. They wanted to vote and they wanted clothes that referenced their new-found freedoms. The future had arrived and the New Woman, as she was called, had also arrived. The New Woman, a new version of the feminine, a fashion-conscious icon sometimes termed a “flapper,” is famous even today, but it is important to recognize how radical this new human design was: The New Woman had to be created from top to bottom and from head to toe. 

Four years later after Villemard’s fancifully futuristically 1910 illustrative excursion into the twenty-first century, the Great War changed the world. Everything had to be transformed into the modern. Architects and designers rose to the challenge, but becoming modern meant more than merely redesigning old objects or re-imaging the new home. Being “modern” had to extend to people was well, after all the war had changed people too, no least of all women. But becoming “modern” was a process, a new whole that consisted of multiple parts. Each change demanded another alteration, no detail was too small to be overlooked. Incrementally, during a four-year period, women were inextricably altered, one adjustment after another, one change at a time. Their lives were transformed when men left home and hearth and job sites for military service and women capably occupied the emptied spaces. Joining the Women’s Land Army, adult women became “Land Girls,” who toiled in agricultural positions, women made bombs in factories, women went down into the mines. In none of these jobs were long skirts, big hair and tight corsets even remotely useful. These women were, for the most part, lower class women, but even the upper-class women who flocked into nursing positions to care for the wounded had to shorten their skirts so they could move swiftly and cleanly from patient to patient. 

These new roles and occupations for women, however temporary their wartime jobs, wrought a profound change in British, French and American societies. But no matter how novel it was to become a bus conductor during the Great  War or to pull on trousers to dig coal the gender changes that manifested themselves by 1918 cannot all be credited to the necessity of war. In fact, as was pointed out in the case of dress reform in the fin-de-siècle period—for men and women—was a symptom of larger and slower changes that were gradually emancipating women before 1914. The War merely but crucially gave these behavioral and cognitive differences an impetus and perhaps a more radical direction. During the War, the freeing of women from their domestic duties became a matter of national security and survival and the governments pushed women (and men) towards new positions in the public sectors for the good of the country. To their collective dismay, these nations, on both sides, found that the “genie,” so to speak would not be put back in the bottle of home and hearth. In writing of the Women’s Land Army, Bonnie White said, “This history of the Women’s Land Army is therefore positioned at the crossroads of various histories and illustrates the organisation’s social, economic, and cultural importance in the shaping of identities in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Over the course of the war, the women of the Land Army, and organisers in particular, used the new organisation and its wartime importance to make statement about the way in which women saw their role in agriculture and in the war itself. In turn, the Land Army’s interactions with the government and the farming commuity made an equally important impression on the organisation. Land Girls not only provided necessary labour, but the process of promoting women’s place and space on the land intersected with both national and local historical interests…” White noted that the male farmers and laborers, still at home, were so unhappy with the female presence on their presence in the fields and in the barns that a propaganda campaign had to be launched in support of the women. The campaign pictured the farmers who were displeased with the Land Girls in a negative light. White explained, “The farmers’s self-interests were juxtaposed with propaganda and imagery that focused on the government’s attempt to cultivate a national identity based on a willingness among the populace to make the necessary sacrifices and to exercise an unrelenting resolve to nobly bear the burdens of war. The cultivation of the land was essential to victory and the return of women to the land was a character-building exercise that demonstrated many women’s eagerness to support the war in any way they could. As such, the Land Army became connected to a national campaign that aimed to affirmed British identity and the role of women in the nation’s future.” And most importantly, the Land Girls had distinctive attire that created a specific identity for them. These women were part of an “Army,” after all, with all the rules and regulations that a military unit would have. The requirements for clothing, as White described were strict:

“Land Girls were expected to wear a uniform, which was to be treated with respect at all times. A visual symbol of the organisation and the women’s participation in the war, the uniform was emblematic of the group overall, diminishing the role of the individual in favour of the collective. The importance placed on the uniform by organisers reflected the uniform’s value as a unifying protective garment..Recruits were encouraged to look ‘workmanlike’ but not to wear jewelry or lace or other frivolous accessories. As women were doing men’s work, they were expected to be ‘dressed rather like a man..’ The uniform was a safe option that refused to challenge the myth of traditional womanhood; while including breeches, the uniform was actually quite feminine–a hat reminiscent of a sunbonnet was worn, the long smocks/coats vaguely resembled a dress, and the synched waist accentuated Land Girls’ female features and served to highlight their femininity. The uniform was conservative, modes, yet masculine, but was feminized by its hosts.”

The English “Land Girls” of the Women’s Land Army are an interesting case study of an how some women transitioned from their traditional roles to a somewhat less traditional space—taking the place of absent men—to their post war lives. The prejudice that met these women, no matter how feminized these bulky outfits, was matched by the government protocols that paternalistically controlled these women.  During the War women worked in factories, sometimes wearing shortened loose skirts, sometimes the outfit was a pair of long baggy trousers, fitted at the ankles. After the War, their service, their numbers in the factories, were as suppressed as their wages. Lacking the appropriate protective clothing, many of these women were exposed to dangerous and deadly chemicals and did not survive the War. Elsewhere women joined the armed services and wore military uniforms adapted from those worn by the male. For example, in America, even before the nation entered the War, the military services began to expand and to recruit men to join the ranks. The Navy expanded so quickly, it had more ships than men and in 1916 began to open the doors to women. The women would serve at home and become part of the coastal defense, while the men were freed up to serve at sea. As Nathaniel Patch reported in his article “The Story of the Female Yeomen during the First World War,” On March 19, 1917, the Bureau of Navigation sent letters to the commanders of the naval districts informing them they could recruit women into the Naval Coast Defense Reserve to be “utilized as radio operators, stenographers, nurses, messengers, chauffeurs, etc. and in many other capacities in the industrial line.” The new enlisted women were able to become yeomen, electricians (radio operators), or any other ratings necessary to the naval district operations. The majority became yeomen and were designated as yeomen (F) for female yeomen.”

A year later the Navy would stop recruiting women and after the Armistice, the remaining women served out their time. But during their brief year in active service on duty, the women, as Patch described, got their own uniform: “Standard Navy uniforms were tailored for men, but the Navy had no provision to supply women’s clothing. At the time, it was still considered improper for women to wear anything but a dress or skirt. The solution was to lay down guidelines on what was to be considered regulation dress, and the yeomen (F) were given additional money to purchase what they needed. The uniforms of the yeomen (F) varied because they were either homemade or purchased outfits. Navy regulations later stated that uniforms had to be either white or blue. A single-breasted jacket topped a skirt whose hem had to be four inches above the ankle. Hats tended to be a brimmed hat made of a stiff felt. By the end of the war, the Navy had made changes to the regulations that governed gloves, hats, jackets, skirts, and handkerchiefs.”

The uniform for female yeomen/yeowomen, who served during the Great War can serve as a signifier for a social phenomenon that impacted women. Women were called upon to serve their country, as if they were citizens equal to the men. In that capacity, as patriots, women elevated their public presence and placed the nations in their debt. It is no coincidence that after the War, in many nations, women were “given” the right to vote and other civil rights. The “uniforms” these women wore, whether they were clothes adopted from males or adapted for men’s jobs, were more than mere changes of custumes. The military uniforms–and there were many—worn by women in the Great War—were signs that a mental landscape about “women’s place” was changing. Despite prejudice and bigotry from males, women resisted the campaigns of intimidation, whether on the factory floor or the fields of the farms or the deck of a ship, and stood their ground and did their part. Society was slower to absorb this sea change in group thinking but women would not forget their independence and their sudden agency in the absence of men. Interestingly, neither the return of the veterans nor the tide of time would push the women back again and women faced a new question: who are we now that the twentieth century is here?

After the Great War the project of remaking the nineteenth century woman into the twentieth century woman was undertaken mainly by women themselves and by their need to re-create themselves as “Modern Women.” This total make-over from old to new unfolded in two parts and in two places. Without minimizing important efforts in Germany and England, it can be said that the Parisian designers, often following the lead of Coco Chanel, designed the new clothes for the new woman, while it was the endlessly inventive Americans who engineered the modifications necessary for the modern female to wear innovative French fashions. New Woman had to be redesigned from top to bottom, from side to side. She needed new hair, makeup, different clothes and shoes and she had to reshape her body, even acquire new habits of grooming to achieve this new look of the modern. All the elements had to go together, each change tripped another alteration, leading to yet another difference until finally She emerged, like a butterfly from a very old and pointless cocoon. 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

Get in Touch!

9 + 3 =