The fashion for war: women and language 1914-1915

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 10122)

‘There are certain garbs and modes of speaking, which vary with the times; the fashion of our clothes being not more subject to alteration than that of our speech’. This quotation from John Denham was  used by Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century as he gathered up his own collection of words for the Dictionary.  Nevertheless, while written long before WWI, Denham;’s words remain interestingly resonant for the Words in War-Time archive in 1914-15. As Andrew Clark noted in the archive, ‘mode’ as seen terms of war-time fashion could display a striking consonance with war itself. Language moreover acted as a ready conduit for such ideas, revealing the new – and highly fashionable — prominence of items such as cartridge buttons or colours such as Joffre blue for the new season.

As Clark explored, diction of this kind easily testified to the popularity of war, offering other forms of allegiance and patriotic display.  Patriotism, as the archive confirms, was particularly productive in late 1914-early 1915. Being anti-patriotic had gained markedly negative connotations. Manifestations of behaviour of this kind, as the Daily Express indicated in April 1915, could merit legal reprisal —  in meanings which moved towards criminality and ideological transgression. ‘Anti-Patriot Imprisoned’, the  Express stated, adding that: ‘Michael Fennell was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment … for unpatriotic remarks’ (Daily Express 29 April 1915). Hyperpatriotism — another word which remains unrecorded in the Oxford English Dictionary — existed at the other extreme as Clark verified against another extract from  the Daily Express in February 1915. Whether a preoccupation with fashion was unpatriotic (as the war poster reproduced above suggested) or whether it could, conversely, function as a further aspect of hyperpatriotism clearly puzzled Clark. As he noted, fashion seemed to occupy disproportionate amounts of space (and attention) in ways which seemed remote from the anxieties and grief, as well as economic pressures, which war brought in its wake.

As another register of war (and with precedents in the diction of balaclavas and cardigans which English retained from earlier conflicts), words of this kind, and relevant evidence, were carefully recorded. The sense of potential dissonance is nevertheless often perceptible in reading the Words in War-time archive. ‘The war has had a striking effect on women’s fashions’, the Daily Express announced, for example, in December 1914: ‘All [the fashions] reflect the martial spirit prevailing’. The article was headed ‘The Military Touch in Winter Fashion’, and it extolled the virtues of both cartridge buttons and bayonet belts. The former, it declared, were so popular that they ‘already threaten to replace all the present variety of buttons’. Described as being ‘oblong in shape, and about two inches long’, cartridge buttons were given as ‘the most striking war inspiration of the dress creators’. Similar was bayonet belt, here in another example of the kind of cultural convergence which could occur between Home and Western Front. Bayonet belt, in its more conventional sense, had been included in the OED since 1885 when the relevant section was published, ‘There are in the stores at Lisbon Bayonet belts for infantry’,  the Duke of Wellington had stated in his Dispatches in 1812, providing entirely appropriate illustration.  Bayonet belts in the female fashions of WWI were very different. Decorative rather than functional, they comprised, as the Daily Express noted:

a sash which is wound round the waist and has a piece of silk of which it is made hanging at the side, in imitation of the soldier’s sheath for carrying the bayonet.

Joffre blue emerged as another prominent form, named after Joseph Joffre, the French general who had become a national hero after the Battle of the Marne in 1914. The term referred to the distinctive blue of the French military uniform, and it attracted conspicuous hyperbole in the Evening News in April 1915:

One of the most becoming colours ever introduced into the world of fashion is “Joffre” blue. It is a fascinating tone; immensely flattering to fair women and capable of making brilliant brunettes look like little goddesses.

Hyperbole apart, the article usefully confirmed the status of Joffre blue as another lexical phenomenon of war,  A year later, war enthusiasm would, in this respect, still remain in evidence. ‘”Joffre blue” is to be the fashionable shade this Easter. This clear, bright shade was introduced last year, but apparently has only just become acclimatised’, as the Daily Express confirmed on April 14th 1916.

Features this kind, as the Scotsman stressed in March 1915, were part of the ‘march of fashion’ — a means  by which, as the archive variously explores, war was commodified and assimilated while patriotism and purchasing assumed new and distinctively feminine forms. Military, as Clark noted, was, in fact, widely used as a persuasive term in dressmaking in and millinery in 1914-18. The exclusively male terms of reference, used by the OED in defining this word  a few years earlier, sat uneasily with the forms Clark now documented. Military, it stated, meant ‘Pertaining to soldiers; used, performed, or brought about by soldiers; befitting a soldier’; other senses included ‘Engaged in the life of a soldier; belonging to the army’ and ‘Having the characteristics of a soldier; soldierly’. OED2, published in 1989, retained these same divisions. Yet, as the Words in War-Time archive confirmed,  Jenner’s in Edinburgh was advertising the ‘new full-skirted military coats, which fashion has approved’ in early April 1915 while, among many other examples, a ‘traveling frock of military design; was advertised in the Evening News on April 10th. Fashion and war were yoked together in ways removed from active service, and male identity.

Later revision of the OED for the third edition, here in 2002, would offer improved readings of the past in this respect .** Military, as it now states, includes ‘Of fashion, colours, etc.: resembling the clothes worn by soldiers’; relevant forms are traced back to 1817.  It remains striking, however, that no examples in the revised entry derive from the fashion for war in 1914-18. Clark’s interest in ephemera, and in war as a phenomenon that affected culture and society in wide-ranging ways, here proves its value. In the OED,  conversely, a conspicuous silence still attends cartridge buttons, bayonet belts, and Joffre blue (among a range of other forms).

**See military, adj. and n., OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 22 April 2015.

One thought on “The fashion for war: women and language 1914-1915

  1. An interesting development from relatively early in the war is the discouragement of women from wearing formal mourning. One result of this is that the piles of surplus black material are utilized in the home manufacturing of early anti-gas respirators in April 1915. ( Got this from Sue Grayzel)


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