An 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. Its use was, for instance, closely linked to yet another change in fashion, the language of which was carefully gathered in Words in War-Time during 1915. As the Evening News declared in April of that year, for instance:
With the return of the flare skirt to Fashion’s favour women are also going back to all kinds of styles associated with the days of wider dress. It is whispered that the full sleeve is on its way to make a bid for favour, the petticoat has made a triumphal return, the waistbelt is back again, and the fashion of the high collar is maturing on all kinds of dresses and blouses for the new season.
Writing war in news discourse could therefore regularly be undercut by advice on how to achieve this new style. “The fashionable “flare” effect can be successfully achieved by wearing our new petticoats’, as readers of the Daily Express were informed in May 1915; here, the scare quotes around flare usefully drew attention to another unfamiliar shift in sense. Flared was similar. An adjective recorded in the OED from 1928 (added in the Supplement of 1933 with evidence form the Daily Mail: ‘Delightful Lace Tunic with the new Flared Skirt’), this had, in fact, formed another object of lexical scrutiny in the Words in War-Time archive. ‘The short, “flared” skirt has made its influence felt to a marked degree in the new corsets designed by the manufacturers and now shown for the spring’, as an article from early 1916 headed ‘New Curve in Corsets’ explained, Dressing with flare – in 1915 and 1916 – was to be a prominent topos.
If corsetieres were declared taboo in Germany (on account of their French derivation; native equivalents were proposed instead), corsets — and their makers –can raise, however, other aspects of interest when we consider gender identity and the role of women in war. As the article above makes plain, for example, the new military curve in corsets also represented a shift away from the incapacitating hobble-skirt as an item of female clothing, offering an image of freedom which was – in a range of ways – linked to a changing sense of female participation, and endeavour, in the cause of war. Articles of this kind – and this is by no means a lone example – hence usefully linked clothing and the ability of women too to “do one’s bit”:
The female form divine gets back more and more to the natural contour as the hobble skirt and the host of tight-fitting imitations recede into the background. Corsets are no longer constructed on the assumption that woman is a wilted flower
Seen in this light, the military curve operated on two levels – first, and most obviously, as a descriptor of a specific item of clothing, and a specific cut (equally manifest in, say, advertising for ‘the new full skirted semi–MILITARY COATS, which fashion has approved’ (here, as advertised in the Scotsman in April 1915). But, as other articles in the archive confirm, the curve can also be seen to represent a radical change in the kinds of constriction – physical and metaphorical – which had earlier impacted on female existence. Across 1915 and 1916, the Words in war-Time archive documents the changing language of identity by which women could be lady vets or farmerettes, munitionettes or conductorettes (among a range of other forms). Fashioning identity was a matter of more than clothes alone. Instead, as the Express emphasized above, being a ‘wilted flower’ was, in WW1, also to be seen as distinctly outmoded. Corsets, as well as other aspects of clothing, could, in this light, also image new forms of liberation alongside the potential for wider change.
© Lynda Mugglestone 2015.
The revised entry for military which appeared in OED Online in 2003 extended its use to matters of fashion, with the earliest examples of such use coming in the military heel in the 19th century. This was, however, almost a century after Clark’s investigation in the Words in War-Time archive.