Not to diminish the nightmare of mortars and shrapnel, but as evidenced by Crow’s Eye Productions’ period accurate dressing video above, one of the greatest horrors of WWI was wet wool.
Decades before the invention of Gore-Tex, Polar Fleece and other high performance, all weather gear, British soldiers relied on their woolies from head to toe.
An army of female knitters sent gloves, scarves, balaclavas and other such “comforts” to the front, in addition to seamless socks designed to last their boys three whole marching days inside their ankle high leather boots.
Alas, no amount of waxing and oiling could keep the trenches’ freezing cold puddles from seeping through those boots.
Nothing’s worse than the scent of three layers of wet wool when you’re catching your death in sodden puttees.
The regiments whose uniform bottoms consisted of kilts had it particularly rough, as the wet material would freeze, cutting across the wearers’ legs like knives.
Prevented from joining the combat on the frontlines, British women helped out where they could, achieving a more comfortable level of dress than they’d known before the war.
Torso-smashing corsets were scrapped to preserve steel for the war effort, though decorum decreed that British Red Cross Society Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses, such as Downton Abbey’s fictional Lady Sybil Crawley, maintain a tidy figure with lighter, front-fastening corsets from hips to just below the bust.
Many of the upper class women swelling the volunteer nursing ranks were unaccustomed to dressing in such utilitarian fashion—cotton dresses, black flat rubber-soled shoes, aprons and sleeve protectors.
Their figures found comparative liberation, while their vanity found humbler outlets in dusting powder and the flattering army-style professional nursing veils they preferred to The Handmaid’s Tale-ish Sister Dora caps.
The greater physical freedom of the nurses’ uniforms extended to ordinary young women as well. Their underwear—a midriff baring chemise, knickers and petticoat—allowed for easier movement, as shorter skirts led to glamorous stockings and—gasp!—shaved legs!
Trendy cardigans, jumpers and waistcoats weren’t just cute, they helped make up for the lost warmth of those oh-so-restrictive corsets.
View more of Crow’s Eye Productions’ short films on the history of dress here.
Knitters, you can find over 70 patterns for WW1 comforts and necessities in the book Centenary Stitches: Telling the Story of One WW1 Family Through Vintage Knitting and Crochet.
How Women Got Dressed in the 14th & 18th Centuries: Watch the Very Painstaking Process Get Cinematically Recreated
The Dresser: The Contraption That Makes Getting Dressed an Adventure
How to Make and Wear Medieval Armor: An In-Depth Primer
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. See her onstage in New York City this January as host of Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.
Better to have the aroma of wet wool than to have your Helly-Hansens melt to your skin.