Getting Dressed During World War I: A Fascinating Look at How Soldiers, Nursers & Others Dressed During the Great War

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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.

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