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Women's Fashion During WWI: 1914–1920

Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.

Women and Fashion 1919

Women and Fashion 1919

Women's fashions of 1914–1920 were heavily influenced by World War I (The Great War) as well as the women's suffrage movement. 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 influences from Turkey, the Middle East, and Asia with soft drapery and bold prints. The lines of Russian peasant costumes 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.

1914 Woman in Sailor Blouse

1914 Woman in Sailor Blouse

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 of 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, and 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.

1914 Poiret Gray Suit

1914 Poiret Gray Suit

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. The tunic, 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), Poiret introduced the jupe culotte 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 over-skirt. 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 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.
1914 Barbier Sketch

1914 Barbier Sketch

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 for 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 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.

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).

1916 - War Crinolines

1916 - War Crinolines

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.

Bathing Suit - 1916

Bathing Suit - 1916

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 short knee-length skirts 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.

1917 Spirella Corset

1917 Spirella Corset

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.


Beautiful small-sized handbags for dress were made of metal mesh, including silver, and hung from a metal frame. Other dress purses were heavily decorated with tiny beads featuring landscape scenes, flowers, or Art Nouveau style motifs.

  • Small tapestry bags, stamped velvet, or embroidered fabric were also popular.
  • The Dorothy bag featured a drawstring closure at the top with a tassel hung from the bottom.
  • Boxy tooled leather bags came in exotic skins like alligator, crocodile, or ostrich hide.
  • Messenger bags made of cloth or leather featured long shoulder straps.
  • Baskets with leather handles were used for marketing.
Young Gloria Swanson

Young Gloria Swanson

Hair and Hats

Hair was loosely pulled into a soft roll at the back or on top of the head. The smooth sides with gentle waves resembled a bob haircut. During the war, women began to wear their hair a bit shorter though not as short as during the 1920s. The horizontal hairband that became so popular in the 1920s was worn for dress occasions as well as for work.

Hats grew smaller than the outrageous styles of earlier. Some wide-brimmed hats in the gaucho style featured a wide band decorated with artificial flowers.

Some wartime hats took on a military style. Tams were also popular.

As hat brims shrunk during the war, crowns rose. Some featured asymmetrical brims turned up on one side. Many hats featured attached veils.

WWI 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.

Further Reading

Books for further reading:

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

Fashion Women in World War One by Lucy Adlington

Great War Fashion Tales From the History Wardrobe by Lucy Adlington

Dressed for War Uniform, Civilian Clothing and Trappings 1914 -1918 by Nina Edwards

Russel's Standard Fashions 1915 - 1919 by Phillip Lavoni

Gimbel's Illustrated 1915 Fashion Catalog by Gimbel Brothers

Questions & Answers

Question: Can you tell me if a women's suit from the 1915 era would have been lined or unlined? It would seem that if women were needing to cut back on finances lining of a suit would be a logical place. Also, were they substituting a more affordable alternative such as cotton?

Answer: Women's garments of 1915 were constructed with or without lining. You can check out actual patterns of the day by searching online for historic patterns. Past Patterns, for instance, sells patterns of actual period garments. Ageless Patterns is another such site. Older patterns were not as informative as modern ones but some suggest linings.

Before the outbreak of World War I, women's clothing was already becoming more simplified, with looser construction and less embellishment than during the Edwardian Era. Coco Chanel's suits of 1917 were made of jersey, a comfortable fabric most often used in the production of men's under garments.

Cotton was used in clothing construction at the time. Fabrics made of cotton included poplin, gabardine, flannel, muslin, lawn, and batiste.

To learn more about how women's garments were constructed in the early 1900s, check out some books including:

"Costume Detail: Women's Dress 1730 - 1930" by Janet Arnold

"Everyday Fashions 1909 - 1920" by Joanne Olian

"Dressed for War: Uniform, Civilian Clothing and Trapping 1914 - 1918" by Nina Edwards.

Question: What should I wear for a WWI commemoration tea dance?

Answer: As you did not specify your gender, I will assume that you are female due to the title of this article.

Look for images of women during that time. Study styles that focus on hemlines, hats, and styles that you may find today in thrift shops. Do a Google image search for "Word War I styles." When I did that, I saw a lot of WWII stuff, and it may just confuse you.

Do an image search of women's fashions from 1914 - 1918, then check out the sites offered for inspiration. There are a lot of sites that feature women's fashions on Downton Abbey's first and second seasons. Though the first season began in 1912, it goes on to 1914. Season two features the World War I years.

Once you get an idea of what kind of clothing women wore, go to a thrift store and concentrate on those hemlines. As tunics are widely available these days, you may find a skirt and tunic that will work. If you sew, you can always alter a dress or skirt so that the hemline is slightly above the ankles.

You can also check out books like:

Fashion Women in World War I by Lucy Adlington

Great War Fashion: Tales from the History Wardrobe also by Lucy Adlington

Russell's Standard Fashions 1915-1919 by Philip Livoni

With a bit of creativity, you can put together a lovely costume. This project sounds like so much fun! Good luck!

Question: Where do I buy early 1900's inspired clothing?

Answer: ModCloth online offers many styles similar to what women wore in the 1940's, but my go-to place for building a creative or retro costume would be a thrift store. You may want to visit several. Thrift stores offer a wide array of garments in many styles.

When you shop, keep 1940s images in mind. Look for :

Shirt dress with belt

Knee length hemline

Slim or A-line

Piping around collar or cuffs (you can add this yourself)

Avoid bright or pastel colors. Some florals work as well as polka dots.

Try a button-down blouse with a knee-length skirt

Wear gloves - wrist length works well

Hair should be rolled around the face

Bright red lipstick

Simple jewelry

Wedgies or shoes with slightly chunky heels

You can consider dressing in a factory worker style ala Rosie the Riveter. Wear dark blue work pant or jeans rolled at the cuff. Wear dark blue work shirt with rolled sleeves. Top it off with a polka dot bandana.

Spend some time looking at images of women of that period so you have a good mental image of what will work for you.

Question: Were shampoos in use in the early 1900s and if so, what brands?

Answer: Shampoo as we know it was not introduced until the 1930s. Earlier shampoo consisted of soap, often shaved and melted with the addition of herbs and essential oils. Products offered as shampoo often came in powder from in the early 1900s. In those days people did not wash their hair as frequently as they do today. In 1908, a New York Times article claimed that washing the hair every few weeks was a safe and newly popular practice.

I can't give you exact dates for brands, but several were produced around that time including:

Wella in 1880

Canthrox in 1914

Harmony was sold by Rexall Drug Stores in 1914

C. L. Hamilton produced Cocoanut Shampoo in 1909

Mulsified Cocoanut Oil for Shampooing was available in 1918

Hans Schwartzkopf offered a powdered shampoo in Germany between 1914 - 1920. In 1927 he offered a liquid shampoo

Lustre Creme was available in the 1920s

You can learn more about the history of hair care products in "The Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History" by Victoria Sherrow or in "The American Beauty Industry Encyclopedia" by Julie A. Willett.


Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on November 08, 2013:

Julie that sounds so interesting! I once found a WWI nurses uniform at an antique shop. Perhaps you could find some original clothing on ebay. If that proves too expensive or difficult, there are many sites that offer historic clothing patterns. You could find someone who can sew and create some garments. Be sure to use the appropriate fabrics!

People often enjoy "living history" so you could even have a few models wearing the costumes! Good luck and thanks for reading!

Julie BC on November 06, 2013:

We are arranging an event for Mousehold Heath in Norwich to raise money for St Williams Chapel Interpretation Boards and our theme is 100th year of World War I any ideas anyone on fashion or what we could have on the site that would be unusual and stand out.

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on August 20, 2013:

Karen - here are a few titles that may interest you. (I should add them to this article for further reading)

"Women in the Great War" from the National Library of Scotland includes info and pix of the lives of women during that time.

"The Great War: Styles & Patterns of the 1910s" by R. L. Shepp.

"Great War Fashion: Tales from the History Wardrobe " by Lucy Adlington.

KAREN on August 18, 2013:

Dear Dolores, which books you can suggest me to read to have great vision on the fashion during the first World War.