A little over a week and a half ago, on June 28, my internet feeds were flooded with World War I articles. That was because June 28 was the centennial anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive in 1914 to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This year is the centennial year of the start of that conflict, and so in addition to the articles recapitulating the details of the Archduke’s assassination, of the war itself, and its major battles – and probably a dramatic increase in Downton Abbey sales and merchandise – the Kent State University Museum is honoring the event with what looks to be a truly wonderful exhibition.
They have a tradition of doing such exhibitions, having done On the Home Front: Civil War Fashions and Domestic Life in 2012 in honor of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. They also have an advantage in that this particular time period is a specialty of curator Sara Hume’s, her dissertation examines “the development and preservation of traditional or folk dress practices in Alsace in the face of pressure both from political conflict and mainstream fashion,” Alsace-Lorraine was one of the most contested regions between Germany and France during World War I. Sara was kind enough to take the time to speak with me about the exhibition, its focus and its challenges.
As with On the Home Front, this exhibition focuses on the women of World War I. However, instead of being left behind these women were the first to not only be allowed, but actually encouraged to actively participate in the war effort – not just as nurses but as enlisted personnel. This is just one of many changes society experienced across the board: this was the first war to employ airplanes, automobiles and tanks, and the last in which cavalry would play a major role. “Back home,” there were movies, and fashion was undergoing a whirlwind revolution from the traditional Edwardian silhouette to the boxy, “liberated” shapes of the 1920s. As Sara explained to me, the 1920s were the result of all the shifts and changes that happened between 1912 and 1918, largely as a result of the war and the changes it brought to women’s lives. The true revelation of The Great War: Women and Fashion in a World at War is how this change happened both so quickly, and yet incrementally when you look at it year by year.
In one of the first sections, “women at work” is the key theme. The exhibition focuses on the American war, which was far different from the European experience, but still had quite an impact. Despite joining the war so “late” in 1917, America would lose approximately 100,000 men to the point that in the 1920s young women outnumbered young men three to one. Using mixed media of clothing and ephemera, the exhibition places recruitment posters – including those by Howard Chandler Christy featuring his famous “Christy” girl wishing she was a man so she could join the Navy, or encouraging men to sign up – alongside a woman’s Naval uniform (above), showing that for the first time in American history, women could enlist for active duty, as this young yeoman had. The uniform is displayed next to a man’s army uniform for contrast, and also with uniforms for other women’s occupations, such as a nurse and a maid. These are all interspersed with suits for women, since the period of focus was a big time for women’s tailoring, since women were out working and taking a much more active role in society – something they couldn’t do in the elaborate costumes of the Edwardian era. Also in contrast to their immediate predecessors, the recruitment posters are not aimed exclusively at men. The exhibition features posters appealing directly to women to join as either nurses or enlisted personnel, or to join the “land army” to take up the farm work the men would vacate when they enlisted. All of this establishes the unique experience of American women during the war.
Another section of the exhibition focuses on athletic wear, play in contrast to the work. This is actually in keeping with the popularity of the “Christy” girl, who was seen as wholesomely athletic – which made her uniquely American in the minds of consumers at the time – she was also a young woman who had been to college, because educated women made the best wives and mothers. In this section of the exhibition, two gym uniforms and two bathing suits (one above) are featured, both of which foreshadow coming changes in fashion through a shift in emphasis on muscularity and exercise to maintain fashionable body shapes rather than on corsetry and petticoats. According to Sara the uniforms and swimsuits have a distinctly nautical style – a feature we both remarked as fascinating since the usurpation of distinctly masculine dress seems to be only acceptable in activewear and when it is imitating naval uniforms; a tradition I believe was established in the eighteenth century by women who borrowed naval details for their riding habits, considered scandalous then, but apparently completely accepted by 1912.
To contrast with the emerging world of women’s sports, corsetry is also on display in The Great War. Ranging from 1912 until about 1918 or 1920, the corsetry shows as much as the clothing does the shift in silhouettes from the tubular Edwardian pieces to the girdles we typically associate with the Jazz Age. This segues nicely into what is the major feature of the exhibition: several pieces contrasting fashion at the beginning of the war (circa 1912 – 1914) with fashion at the end of it (circa 1918 – 1920).
One such comparison involves two dresses of a remarkably similar purple hue (above), which were both made no doubt for similar occasions and use, but that is where the similarities end. The shapes, skirt lengths, etc., are all radically different pre-war and post-war, showing the shift in women’s lives as much as the shift in the fashions they wore, and proving the underlying thesis of the exhibition – that what we see in the 1920s is the end result, the aftermath not the revolution itself which took place during the three-year period between 1914 and 1917. There are also four wedding gowns, two from the pre-war period and two from the end of the war to illustrate this change. One wedding gown from 1918 (below), Sara tells me, is so completely different from its 1912 – 1914 counterpart and features so many style details we associate with the Jazz Age – bell skirts, dropped waist, etc. – that without the provenance anyone looking at it would date it to the 1920s. But, it was definitely made for a bride in 1918.
A revelation of the exhibition for the museum staff was that while the styles and fashion drastically simplified over the decade under examination, it took a long time for ideas about clothing construction to change with the fashions – they simply couldn’t imagine just pulling a gown on over their heads. In a post for the museum’s blog, curatorial assistant Joanne Arnett discusses the difficulties in dressing the mannequins in the garments due to the complicated construction and seemingly endless little snap closures.
Another challenge faced by the museum is the fact that the fashions of the time preferred fabrics that are delicate and a test of conservation: sheer fabrics, netting, tulle, delicate silks and satins which don’t stand up well over time and are tricky to display for long periods of time. There was also the problem of mannequins – those for the late-nineteenth century were too narrow due to the Edwardian love of corsetry, but those for later in the twentieth century didn’t have the proper posture, or came in strange, awkward poses that mimic fashion photography of later periods. It’s rather impractical for most museums to purchase all-new mannequins for one exhibition. Kent State rather masterfully created custom mounts on their existing mannequins, a process Sara wrote about for the museum’s blog, and which is well worth the read.
As my own research has moved progressively forward from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into the nineteenth and early twentieth, I have found it very hard to overemphasize the importance of World War I in the creation of what we think of as the modern world. From my discussion with Sara, my reading of the museum’s blog posts, and through the information and photos she has shared with me I think it is impossible to overemphasize the war’s affect on women’s fashion. It is the Teens, not the Twenties where the revolution took place; the “Flappers and Philosophers” of the post-war were merely finishing something what their older sisters and brothers had started. What I feel Sara and the rest of the museum staff have done is to masterfully place the fashion in a proper socio-historical context: giving a perspective of the whole war, and of the American experience of the war, while still focusing on women, how their lives were changing and the war accelerated that change, and how fashion reflected that.
The exhibition opens on July 24, and will be open until July 5, 2015. Quite long enough for me to be actively considering a cross-country trip just to see it. I think it is worth it.
If you are anticipating going to the exhibition, or as always, if there is an exhibition or event you know of and would like to share, please do not hesitate to share either in the comments or by emailing me.