Women's Fashion During WWI: 1914 - 1920
Fashions of Downton Abbey's Season 2
Women's fashions of 1914-1920 were heavily influenced by World War I (the Great War) as well as the women's suffrage movement. These are the fashions featured in the second season of the popular PBS drama Downton Abbey which is set in the years 1916 - 1919. Though clothing of this time is often referred to as Edwardian, in the strictest sense it is not, as King Edward VII died in 1910.
Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, fashion had taken on a whole new look based on Orientalism with its soft drapery and bold prints. The lines of Russian peasant costume appeared in hip-length tunics, a style that lasted through the war years.
By 1914, women's clothing had lost the rigid, tailored lines of the Edwardian period, and the styles of fashion's first great design genius, Paul Poiret, obliterated the need for tight-fitting corsets.
World War I and Women
Before the war, Paris led the world of fashion. But due to the privations of war and loss of communication between the US and Europe, New York emerged as a fashion leader with new designs based on a combination or femininity and practicality.
During WWI, as men went off to fight, women took on jobs formerly filled by men. Women and girls who previously worked as domestic servants took jobs in munitions factories, performed administrative work, worked as drivers, nurses, and on farms. They volunteered for organizations like the Red Cross and joined the military. A new image of freedom and self respect led women away from traditional gender roles. They drove cars and demanded the right to vote.
Many of the occupations demanded the wearing of uniforms, including trousers. A military look crept into fashion designs as well, bringing military-style tunic jackets, belts, and epaulets. During World War I, people took to a plainer lifestyle. Women wore less jewelry, and the lavish clothing of the Edwardian period fell by the wayside.
As women dressed for new roles, gender-dictated dress codes relaxed. Skirts became shorter, as they often do during wartime, and colors became sober and muted.
Dating the Clothing Styles of the World War I Era
1914 began with a strong Edwardian silhouette. Women wore lacy shirtwaists and long, narrow skirts that fell to the top of the foot. But the tunic effect— introduced by Paul Poiret, based on a Russian peasant look— came to blend with the military-style tunic worn during the Great War.
At the end of the Edwardian period (around 1910), Paul Poiret introduced the jupe colotte for evening wear— a high waisted tunic style dress worn with harem pants. As the world entered war in 1914, women were offered more tailored versions of the look which included military details along with checks and stripes.
Jeanne Paquin, the first woman to gain international fame in the world of fashion, created garments for the new, more active woman. Her version of the hobble skirt (a narrow skirt that restricted a woman's stride) included pleats for ease of movement. Her designs mixed tailoring with feminine drapery.
The spring of 1914 brought a new fashion trend called the "war crinoline" which featured a bell-shaped skirt and a wide overskirt. The season also featured sloped shoulders and wide collars, but the use of so much fabric was soon viewed as wasteful during wartime and critics called for a more conservative use of cloth.
In 1915, hemlines rose to mid-calf and traditionalists complained of immodesty.
By 1918, skirts grew narrow again and hemlines fell to below the calf.
1919 saw longer dresses with clean lines and a natural waist.
Fashion Shows 1911 - 1918
In 1911, the fashion show was a new phenomenon. Previously, designers had worked with individual clients to create new combinations of style, cut, and fabric for a more personalized look.
Paul Poiret's 1911 traveling fashion show appeared at charity benefits, theaters, and department stores in Europe. He took his show to the US in 1913. Soon, other designers followed suit.
In 1913, a New York film company documented a twice yearly show, offering a look at couture to the masses. Before the advent of fashion models, actresses, singers, and dancers modeled the clothing.
During World War I, fashion shows were organized to help raise funds for the war effort. In 1914, Edna Woolman Chase, the editor of Vogue, put on a fashion show to display the work of New York designers.
Led by Paul Poiret, French couture houses banded together to form a syndicate to thwart design piracy. Customers and businesses who wanted to reproduce couture designs were charged a copyright fee and fashion shows were invitation-only.
Fashion Show circa 1917
1914 - 1920 in Shoes
During the Great War, higher hemlines exposed a gap between the tip of the boot and a skirt hem. The look distracted from the overall appearance of an outfit, so the high button boots of the past were abandoned, and women wore shoes with heels that featured a slight curve (as you can see in the illustration here).
Outerwear: The Birth of the Trench Coat
The Great War introduced a new coat style that became a classic for the rest of the century and beyond: the trench coat.
A need for all-weather coats inspired a new style and fabric. In London, Burberry patented an all-weather, breathable fabric, a chemically processed fine cotton gabardine that was approved for military use. The new military style coat featured a wide collar, extra fabric at the top of the back, epaulettes, and a belt. The trench coat became a fashion staple for both men and women for the next 100 years.
World War I Era and Sportswear
The more relaxed attitude towards gender-specific clothing combined with women's more active lifestyles inspired what we now call sportswear.
Skiing, for instance, went from a practical activity to a popular sport. As long skirts were unsuitable for skiing as well as many other activities, women began to wear a short knee-length skirt over knickerbockers.
Burberry produced jackets and pants an all-weather gabardine that protected the wearer from wind and snow.
Bathing costumes became less about modesty and more about the ability to actually swim. The one-piece bathing suit was born, offering women greater freedom of movement in the water. Smaller suits were generally worn by competitive swimmers, however many swim costumes remained long and dress-like.
Women's Underwear Circa 1914 - 1920: The Introduction of the Modern Bra
A key development in women's undergarments was introduced by a new York debutante named Mary Phelps Jacob. Working under the name Caresse Crosby, Jacobs designed one of the first modern bras. Previously, breasts had been pushed up by corsets. The new design was soft and boneless with shoulder straps that suspended the breasts from above.
Corsets were not totally abandoned but given greater flexibility for comfort. The Spirella corset offered a greater range of movement than the old fashioned type and purported to improve posture to benefit overall health. The makers of these corsets would send a representative to your home to measure you for a personal fit.
WWI's Influence on Fashion and Culture
The hard war years, combined with the devastating effects of the 1918 flu pandemic, brought the world to its knees. After Armistice, recovery was difficult. People felt crushed and cynical as they moved into peacetime.
A new feeling of freedom mixed with disillusionment created a new kind of culture, a live-for-today, devil-may-care society that led to the roaring 20s and the distinctive look, sound, and fashion of the Jazz Age.
The Silent Screen Star, Lillian Gish
1917: Irene Castle
Dorothy Gish & Women in Uniform (1918)
Day Dresses (1919)
Irene Castle in a Summer Dress
Costume and Styles - the Evolution of Fashion From Early Egypt to the Present by Henny Harold Hansen; E P Dutton & Co.
The Great Silence Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson; John Murray Publishers
Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, edited by Valerie Steele; Scribner Library
Some of My Other Fashion History Articles
- Ladies' Fashion Designs of the 1930s, With Pictures
The Great Depression of the 1930s ushered in fashions that were simple yet elegant. Gone were the beads and bangles of the 1920s, as the new austerity demanded sleeker lines based on the diagonal, as illustrated in a 1932 magazine.
- Edwardian Fashion Designs of Late 1890s - 1914, With Pictures
Edwardian fashion refers to the clothing worn in the early 20th century and features an elegant, mature look for women, based on the S curve. The Gibson Girl was a fictional icon of the day, symbolizing the new woman of the new century.