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Civilian Dress in Wartime


World War I (191418) brought many changes to the countries involved. Whether they suffered direct warfare on their soil or simply sent troops to fight in faraway lands, Germany, Austria, France, Great Britain, Russia, the United States, and other countries saw many changes in their daily life, including the way that people dressed. Jobs and leisure time become filled with war-related activities, and different clothing was needed for those activities. Politics inspired citizens to wear certain items of clothing to show agreement or disagreement with their government, while hardship dictated that certain materials were unavailable to make clothes. The clothing of civilians, or non-soldiers, during World War I reflected not only the effects of the war itself, but also the influence of an era of great social change.

Dressing for War

As the warring countries prepared to battle, large numbers of men joined the military, and women all over Europe and the United States began to work in public jobs, such as drivers and conductors on streetcars, postal workers, secretaries, lamplighters, and chimney sweeps. In Britain, "land girls" worked on farms, and over 700,000 women worked in military equipment factories. Even upper-class women who did not need paying jobs often did war-related volunteer work. These workers complained that the heavy, bulky skirts and underclothes that they wore were too bulky for their new active lives. They soon wore loose blouses over trousers or overalls, which were often the most practical working clothes.

Another factor that changed the way people dressed was the need to restrict certain materials to military uses. Long, flowing skirts used too much fabric and corsets used steel, so these garments quickly went out of fashion. Women wore the new style of soft elastic corsets, called girdles, and skirts hemmed to mid-calf to show support for the war effort. These clothes were also much easier to move around in.

National Standard Dress

In 1918 the British government introduced a new garment called a "National Standard Dress," a simple loose, mid-calf dress made with no hooks and eyes. Because cotton and wool were needed for the war effort, the National Standard Dress was made from silk and was intended to be an all-purpose dress that could be worn for any occasion, any time of day or evening. Though the National Standard Dress was never universally popular, it did point out a general trend towards less formal dress. During the war both men and women began to dress less formally than before and to wear the same clothes for different purposes. Men, for example, first began wearing a simply designed suit for many occasions, rather than different kinds of suits for morning, dinner, and evening.

Because of the patriotic atmosphere encouraged by the war, it became fashionable to wear clothes that looked military. Both women and men wore bits of military trim, such as braid and belts with buckles. Other items were adapted from military wear, such as trench coats, which were designed with many similarities to uniforms, such as epaulets, straps on the shoulders, and metal rings for attaching weapons. German air force pilots started a fashion by cutting off the tails of their long leather coats so they would fit more easily into an airplane cockpit, and thousands began copying the new "bomber jackets."

Once the war ended in 1918 a wider variety of fashions became available again. However, the more practical clothing worn by women during the war and the dashing style adopted by many men carried over into the next decade.

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