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 Illustration by Annie Fish in The Tatler (The Letters of Eve), 6 January 1915

“Oh! what a change is there; The tango nut wears a martial air, And Eve is dressed a la militaire” Cartoon by Annie Fish, 1915

The advent of war, and its impact on women’s roles, was to alter fashion in all kinds of novel ways, a transformation that was recorded with interest by the ladies’ columnists writing in the ILN magazines. Pre-war styles had revolved around the impractical hobble skirt but war activities called for an altogether less restrictive shape and within less than a year, skirt lengths had shortened and hem circumferences increased significantly to create the new wartime silhouette. Extravagance in dress was officially discouraged and taxes on imported luxury goods including hats were introduced, though magazines such as The Tatler, for whom fashion was its lifeblood, insisted that, ‘it is foolish to do without new clothes or the like this autumn, since the materials to make these are fairly plentiful, and the factories must be kept going.’ Accustomed to dressing stylishly, it is unlikely readers of The Sketch would have embraced the ‘National Dress’. Invented by Mrs Allan Hawkey, it was based on a simple pattern, could be sewn easily and dressed up with a variety of embellishments.

Wartime advertisements reflect the changing requirements of clothing companies’ customers and sturdy, practical coats and uniforms for war workers, corsets promising the new military curve and breeches or smocks for female land workers far outnumber those for fur coats or evening dresses. High fashion instead took refuge on the stage where nobody questioned the lavish extravagance of costumes and everybody enjoyed seeing popular actresses sporting the latest styles. The French actress Gaby Deslys wore flamboyant headdresses and was dressed by Maison Callot Soeurs, whereas the exquisite style of American dancer Irene Castle, ‘an absolute arbiter of fashion in New York,’ was given plentiful space in The Tatler and The Sketch. For ordinary women, these kind of fashions were unattainable but provided escapism.

The military mood soon came to influence women’s fashions with frogging, gilt buttons, military colours, smart tailoring, aigrettes and plumes all echoing some romantic notion of soldierly style. As for men, khaki was the only acceptable colour to be wearing between 1914 and 1918. Termed the ‘only wear’, officers with the financial means to do so could visit one of the high-end clothing establishments such as Burberry, Harrods or Turnbull and Asser in order to kit themselves out with the very best tailored uniform and trench coat.