Women's Fashion During WWI: 1914 - 1920

Women and Fashion 1919
Women and Fashion 1919

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.

1914 Woman in Sailor Blouse
1914 Woman in Sailor Blouse | Source
British Women's Land Army Poster
British Women's Land Army Poster | Source

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.

1914 Poiret Gray Suit
1914 Poiret Gray Suit
1914 Barbier Sketch
1914 Barbier Sketch

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

1916 - War Crinolines
1916 - War Crinolines | Source

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.

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 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.

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.

Young Gloria Swanson
Young Gloria Swanson | Source

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.

1915 fashion plate from La Gazette du Bon Ton.
1915 fashion plate from La Gazette du Bon Ton. | Source
1916 - Dresses on the Beach
1916 - Dresses on the Beach

The Silent Screen Star, Lillian Gish


1917: Irene Castle


Dorothy Gish & Women in Uniform (1918)

Day Dresses (1919)

Irene Castle in a Summer Dress

Books consulted:

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

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Comments 13 comments

Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 5 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

Wonderful illustrations and information! Voted up and awesome.

Did you know...another of the reasons women's skirts shortened in the teens was because of public awareness campaigns about how tuberculosis is transmitted in spittle. Once the transmission method was understood, ladies didn't want their skirts bringing the bacteria home.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

DeBorrah - thank you! I love these styles and think that this is my favorite fashion period.

vocalcoach - thank you! I think I have several photos of my grandmother and great aunt dressed in these styles but I am afraid to scan them - don't want to expose the old pix to that flash of bright light.

drjb - not me, baby! I am going to run out and find one of these for next summer and am sure to create a sensation on the beach, haha! thank you!

dallas - thank you!

Sally - interesting! Did not know that. My own great grandfather and great aunt died of TB. The trains of past fashions during other periods sure seem filthy, dragging through the streets as they did. Thank you for your input!

crystolite - My own advise? Ha! Actually, I think it best to go for classic styles because they last. Thank you for your confidence, perhaps misplaced.

CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

Interesting hub on early 20th century fashion Dolores. Its a shame though that it took something as horrific as the First World War to free us women from restrictive clothes such as corsets

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

CM - I was just thinking about WWI and how they were so blithe and happy during the Edwardian period. WWI had such devastating effects on the world. And throw in the flu pandemic, it must have been a terrible time. Thanks.

Moore - thank you.

Edna and Earl profile image

Edna and Earl 5 years ago from The Cliffs of Insanity

Love the old photos! Great hub, such an interesting fasion area.

ethansgirl123 5 years ago

writing a reseach paper on how the fashions of the early 20th century have changed to today's fashions, and this is very helpful!! got a good laugh out of the 1917 fashion show, it was very different from today's awful fashion shows.. i love the modesty and self respect these outfits display.. im 17, and i wonder why we cant take these modest outfits, and add a little modern touch to them and make that the fashion of today... if women would just realize that if they dressed a little more modest, men would show us a little more respect.. just a thiught... this hub is super helpful:)

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Edna and Earl - thank you!

ethansgirl - thank you very much! Actually, I see some very similar outfits today, quite a few longer skirts. And I wore an outfit recently that looks very close to the photo labeled ' women and fashion 1919.' While a lot of young gals wear skimpy clothing, I see many women, including young women, who do not wear tight, short skirts, and low cut tops.

New styles often seem shocking. In 1934, Cole Porter wrote in one of his songs "...a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, but now, Heaven knows, anything goes!"

Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 4 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

As someone interested in history I found this article of some interest. I suppose those large 'wedding cake' hats worn by women in during WW1 at the docks of Sydney as they waved the soldiers goodbye were a remnant of an earlier age. They never looked very practical and no doubt were a strain on the neck. But fashion isn't always practical but, as you have shown, it had to become more practical as materials for making clothes came to be in shorter supply. Also women had to dress practical if required to do practical things outside the home.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Rod - well who said that fashion has (or had) to make sense? Ha, ha. Thanks for stopping by and reading!

KAREN 3 years ago

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

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 3 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

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.

Julie BC 2 years ago

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 profile image

Dolores Monet 2 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

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!

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