Women, words, and war — the art of dressing with military flare in WW1.

military curveAn advertisement for corsets isn’t perhaps the most obvious place to find information on language change in a time of war. Nevertheless, in the Words in War-Time archive, history and history principles were regularly – and consciously – applied both to ephemera as well as a wide range of non-canonical sources. Source-selection – and historical evidence – could avoid the overly literary or poetical, focussing instead on resources which, even if closely embedded in the everyday, might, as Andrew Clark recognised in making these collections in 1914-19, all too easily be lost to ‘oblivion’ – with consequences for historians and historians alike.

Corsets, then, offer an intriguing reading of gender, history, and war. Clark, as earlier posts on this site have explored, regularly assembled evidence on the changing dynamics of fashion – and fashionable accessories – as indices of war and its varied manifestation on the Home Front. Colour (the popularity in 1915 of what was termed Joffre blue) or form (the modish appearance of the casquette, based on the patterns of French uniform) could easily align female clothing and the discourse of war, rendering military a term which was not only resonant of strategy and the intricacies of tactical engagement but of style. While the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary – still in progress when war broke out – defined military in exclusively male terms (‘Pertaining to soldiers; used, performed, or brought about by soldiers’; ‘befitting a soldier’), the military as illustrated in the Words in War-Time archive is therefore often far more wide-ranging. As Clark notes, for example, the OED’s entry was distinctly behind the times in this respect. Instead military was, as he confirmed, regularly used as ‘a persuasive in dressmaking & millinery’. Headlines such as military millinery (which appeared in the Daily Express in January 1915) was a case in point. The article announced the ways in which ‘The war has made itself felt in the millinery world in no small degree’ such that ‘the favourite hat for the spring is of a military type’. As it continued:

The military hat is especially suitable for morning wear, although its smartness makes it equally adaptable for dress occasions. A couple of rosettes are often rakishly poised at opposite ends of these close-fitting hats. One of the most notable of the military shapes is a striking reproduction of a field-marshal’s hat. It is carried out in soft pedal straw with the brim and crown faced with finest panne velvet, and is styled “Le General French”.

The military curve which appears in the advertisement above (as well as elsewhere in the archive) – in which military  functions  as a property of distinctly female underwear – offers further corroboration of this wider use.

As a collocation, military curve  is, of course, interesting in its own right – the concept of a military curve remains, for example, unrecorded, and undefined, in the modern OED. Its real value, however, can be located in the wider significance it could accrue in contemporary forms of discourse between 1914-18. Continue reading