“The war is usually seen through military eyes. However, it could not have been won without the efforts of millions of women. They proved what they could do – what took a great deal longer was to convince everyone that they should do it.”
‘Fighting on the Home Front: The Legacy of Women in World War One’ by Kate Adie, (Hodder & Stoughton)
There are some amazing displays, exhibitions and events all over the country at the moment to mark this year’s centenary of the outbreak of World War One in August 1914. As one might expect, the exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath takes a rather more sartorial approach to the centenary than most, with a fascinating look at the role of women during the conflict and in particular the clothes that they wore during those harrowing four years.
‘World War I changed women’s life forever; in terms of status, class, position and what was acceptable for a woman to wear. Fashion changed with the innovation of women being required to do men’s work. The corset disappeared and trousers became a norm.
This exhibition traces women’s lives and roles during this savage conflict; their work on the home front and how that influenced the dress that they adopted.‘
Upon arrival in the beautiful Georgian ballroom of the former Assembly Rooms where the museum is housed, the visitor is greeted by a wonderful Suffragette outfit, complete with white, green and purple sash and a display of memorabilia relating to the Suffragette movement. It serves as a reminder of the changing face of society at the time and especially with regard to the role of women and their rights – something that would change almost beyond recognition by the end of the second decade of the twentieth century in the face of both enhanced political involvement, increased opportunities and the enormous loss of life during the war which left countless women without husbands and with no choice but to make their own lives for themselves without male support – a frightening but also perhaps ultimately liberating prospect.
The rest of the exhibition was made up of several costumes showing how clothes worn during the Great War would have looked, with a particular emphasis on those worn by women engaged in working on the land or with the army. There were very few actual original pieces on display (as far as I could tell anyway) but that in no way detracted from the significance of what we were being invited to look at. If anything, it’s a reminder of how arduous life must have been, particularly for women nursing on the front, if so few original pieces exist.
Costumes from Downton Abbey. Photo: Melanie Clegg.
The highlight of the display though would definitely have to be a group of costumes from the ITV series Downton Abbey, which included Lady Mary’s beautiful crimson evening gown, Lady Edith’s outfit for working on a farm (remember how THAT ended up? Oops!), Lady Sybil’s nurse’s uniform, some of the Dowager Lady Grantham’s walking dresses (wonderfully out of step with current trends and not giving a damn about it, just like her) and some rather dashing uniforms, as well as that worn by poor William, whose death bed wedding to poor little Daisy had me SOBBING. It was a great display though that managed to incorporate so many different ends of the social spectrum via just a relatively few costumes and also showed just how wide the series’ breadth actually is. I can’t wait for it to come back.
Of course, as soon as my friend and I saw that there were dressing up clothes for children in the corner, we were in there like a shot to put things on our heads and take ridiculous photos of ourselves. I was really hoping for adult sized nurse outfits but alas was thwarted in this respect so consoled myself by putting goggles on my head and pretending to be a WWI flying ace.
Overall, I really enjoyed my flying (ace) visit to the exhibition – the costumes were wonderful and the displays were brilliantly laid out and very evocative of the lives of women during the Great War – pitching in to help, often at great risk to themselves and keeping the proverbial home fires burning.
Costumes from Downton Abbey. Photo: Melanie Clegg.
I got a sense of their frustration too. It must have been so hard to throw themselves into jobs and in many cases feel actually USEFUL for the first time in their lives only to have to take a step back again when the men (the fortunate ones who actually survived unmaimed) returned and expected life to go on as it always had. I often think of the post war period as being an especially dark one for women, once the euphoria of the war ending had worn off and they realised just how much they had lost – not just the menfolk who would never return or had come back shellshocked, blind, completely maimed but also the loss of that tantalising sense of freedom and purpose that so many women must have enjoyed during those arduous four years of working together towards a common goal.
Some might say that illustrating this period via the medium of the clothes that women wore is perhaps rather frivolous, but I think the exhibition at Bath Fashion Museum is a perfect way to engage modern visitors with a short but very intense period of time, which engendered so many social changes that were, naturally, reflected in more sartorial matters also. And perhaps the middle aged British woman standing near me who had to ask her husband was a Suffragette was and then said that she thought they were all men, might have gone away feeling a bit more aware of how much she owes to women who struggled over a hundred years ago for her right to vote.
The Great War in Costume is on until the end of this month so you’ll have to hurry if you want to catch it!
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