# Fashion in wartime: to be and to be seen

Fashion didn't stop with the coming of the war. Here, hat collections in 1918  - (c) Old Magazine Articles.com ©

Fashion didn't stop with the coming of the war. Here, hat collections in 1918 - (c) Old Magazine Articles.com ©

When we look around, we realise that fashion is everywhere. In magazines, on television, in the newspapers and, especially, in the so-called "feminine" press. Things are quite different in 1914. As a subject of interest, fashion is a concern for women of a social certain class. As for the newspapers typically intended to present collections and sewing patterns, they are also intended for a social elite and in the great majority of cases available abroad. Most women are therefore happy to "dress themselves" with items that they have made themselves, whereas the women in a higher social class can afford to have their outfits made for them. In addition to its primary (dressing) and secondary (appearing and conveying a message regarding one's social condition) functions, clothing in wartime is also a way to "show your colours" by means of models and accessories, discreet or more visible, depending on where you live. In occupied Belgium, fashion is also dependent on the limited material resources. Despite this shortage organised by the occupier, fashion will be adapted and convey a message intended to thumb one's nose at the Germans.

Fashion before 1914

The period at the start of the 20th century, referred to as the “Belle époque”, sees fashion taking a step in its development with new means of communication and sales. The fashion and clothing industry is expanding strongly. The centre of fashion is quite naturally France and especially Paris, which sets the rules of the game, notably through paper presentations that benefit from recent technical progress. The Gazette du Bon Ton, a luxury magazine presenting the latest French creations, starts publication in 1912 but is interrupted by the war, except for one issue in 1915.

Belgium, especially women of high society, follow the movements in France: progressive disappearance of corsets, more flowing but still covering clothing, long dresses for official outings and soirées, blouses and skirts entirely covering the legs for more relaxed moments. The sleeves are long, and women go out wearing gloves and hats. The grooming is careful, adapted to all circumstances: evening, daytime, private or public activity.

The middle classes copy the fashion models of the higher classes, while the popular classes have a limited wardrobe based on resistant fabrics, and often include, alongside "work" clothing (for men) or "housework" clothing for women, outfits described as the "Sunday best". This population category, in any event, has more important concerns and does not necessarily have access to the information or means that would allow them to dress like high society women.

Whether following it strictly or unable to follow it at all, fashion is therefore a way of declaring one's membership in a certain social class. In the eyes of some women, it's also a way of existing within society. But modern fashion does not please everyone: abbot Nysens, in the Liège region, harshly criticizes “the mothers and young ladies who like flared dresses, wide-brimmed hats and all such inventions that transform a woman into a ridiculous being, at the risk of greatly annoying and at some point shocking the husband who has the pleasure and honour of accompanying these fashion followers.”

Belgium, especially women of high society, follow the movements in France: progressive disappearance of corsets, more flowing but still covering clothing, long dresses for official outings and soirées, blouses and skirts entirely covering the legs for more relaxed moments. The sleeves are long, and women go out wearing gloves and hats. The grooming is careful, adapted to all circumstances: evening, daytime, private or public activity.

Fashion under occupation: we'll manage!

However superficial it may appear, fashion will also be a collateral victim of the war. Present within the territory since 1914, the German occupier requisitions raw materials: ribbons, wool, accessories and fabrics. Fashion has to adapt: the models are (slightly) shortened in order to use less fabric, while being less demanding with regard to the trim. Male and female inhabitants, but especially female, experience problems with the procurement of raw materials (fabrics, buttons…) and stock shortages in the stores, as direct consequences of the occupier's decisions.

The CNSA (National Relief and Food Committee) will play a major role in the actions intended to overcome the clothing shortages. It organises a section in charge of supervising the various clothing distributions for men, women and children. For the needy, these charitable works organise clothing centres to distribute – especially to children – trousers and shoes. For this purpose, it counts on imports from the United States, including finished clothing items or fabrics, as well as on the mediation efforts of the Spanish ambassador, the very present Marquis de Villalobar. Thanks to the cumulative intervention efforts, the imports of clothing and fabrics are not requisitioned, under the exclusive condition that they will only be used for needy civilians.

To give an example, we note that solely for the period from January to June 1918, as the needs grow increasingly demanding in what is already the fourth year of the occupation, 15,000 tonnes of clothing and shoes are imported, representing 274,374 outfits for children, 170,342 outfits for men, 86,991 outfits for women as well as footwear totaling more than 300,000 items, without counting the fabrics that would be used to create hundreds of thousands of clothing items.

In Belgium, fashion is also a means for discreetly thumbing one's nose at the occupier. Of course, the latter will quickly prohibit excessively flashy displays of ribbons or clothing portraying a patriotic message.

In the Allied countries, where merchandise circulates freely, there's obviously a greater choice and, if dresses are slightly shorter, it is undoubtedly less for the sake of savings, though this element may also contribute, than it is due to the evolution of fashion. In fact, both of these factors must certainly be part of the explanation. For women who can afford a varied wardrobe, the models are obviously always adapted to the social activity. The models carry on from the pre-war trends: lots of blouses and collared bustiers separating the upper part of the body from long skirts. And the chic magazines promote straight dresses that elicit comparisons of society women with vines, with or without gathering or strips of fabric over-sewn on the front. Of course, these dresses and skirts are long and the arms are most often covered. It is impossible to quickly break with a long period of moral and sartorial austerity. In terms of fabrics, some of the preferences include tulle, silk (or imitations) and serge, but once again, this depends on the social conditions and means of the client in question. In the winter, the preference is for velour and visible heavy fur linings. The collars and jackets are reminiscent of those of soldiers. In all cases, the colours are darker and can be described as "military" tones: burgundy, brown, taupe, water green. In the Allied countries, for women taking the place of men in industry, the outfits are more practical: skirts and trousers begin to make their appearance. Hats range from graphic creations for social occasions, to short simple hats.

To give an example, we note that solely for the period from January to June 1918, as the needs grow increasingly demanding in what is already the fourth year of the occupation, 15,000 tonnes of clothing and shoes are imported, representing 274,374 outfits for children, 170,342 outfits for men, 86,991 outfits for women as well as footwear totaling more than 300,000 items, without counting the fabrics that would be used to create hundreds of thousands of clothing items.

Military-inspired fashion

The conflict situation provides some with inspiration, and fashion takes on certain colours as direct references to the armies on the battlefields. It's also a way for the Allied countries to support occupied Belgium even in terms of wardrobe. One of the greatest "successes", if it can be described that way, of this appropriation is the return of headdresses: the Belgian police cap experiences a viral and significant success, especially in Great Britain and the United States.

In England, women are inspired by police caps and start wearing them in turn. The outfits are also imitated. Cloaks make a comeback, with a higher collar, and buttons are added. These buttons and other accessories are all the rage, and make it possible to show support for the Allied armies. Fashion therefore truly becomes a propaganda instrument.

"Fashion" for soldiers

In the armies, while one can't really speak of fashion in the usual sense of the word, uniform changes are seen in several armies. This primarily involved the armies that hadn't made major changes to their outfits at the start of the 20th century, and that still had "very 19th-century" clothing that was not at all suited to the new way of waging war.

In an effort to keep more pragmatically to the field requirements, the French very quickly abandon their excessively visible madder trousers in favour of blue, and the Belgians progressively move to khaki, but not without logistical problems (some soldiers will complete their outfits as the conflict progresses, picking up different pieces here and there). The headgear also adapts to a conflict that is bogging down in the field.

In the armies, while one can't really speak of fashion in the usual sense of the word, uniform changes are seen in several armies. This primarily involved the armies that hadn't made major changes to their outfits at the start of the 20th century, and that still had "very 19th-century" clothing that was not at all suited to the new way of waging war.

Widows: fashionable despite themselves

Almost everywhere, there is a "trend" to wear a bit of black with one's outfit. This can take the shape of a bit of gathering, or a strip of black cloth sewn onto a blouse or dress. Black is "fashionable" but only symbolically, but by necessity, black also reappears… if one can say "reappears", given that it is already used to express mourning. The difference is in the fact that this colour is now linked to the loss of a loved one due to the war, and even though there are fewer war widows in Belgium than in France, for example, there will be many "women in black" in our country as well.

End of the war

With the armistice, the national colours can finally be let out, and from head to foot, there's a flood of black, yellow and red. This joy is expressed in ribbons and cockades. Vendors offer black-yellow-red items in the colours of a country that is finally once again visible, along with much advertisement in the daily papers that gradually reappear.

A word in conclusion

During the war, fashion suffered from the consequences of the occupation, but was still able to adapt and to get around the material constraints related to the German occupation. In fact, fashion in wartime did what it's famous for: adapting clothing to current times. In turn, it was therefore subject to modifications relating to the direct economic consequences of the war, it provided discreet or visible support for the resistance and the Allied troops according to one's residence and status, and it was a means for society women to think about something else in a context of war that in some ways affected all social classes. But the war, and especially the feeling of relief and relative freedom of the after-war period, a kind of a prism for the war, especially opened the door to the fashion of the 1920s that will be more contrasting and audacious than before the war, certainly in terms of the hairstyles of women, i.e. the famous "tomboy look", and dress models.

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