When the First World War began, fashion was very predictable. Men wore trousers, woman wore dresses. But the start of the war, life for women got turned completely on its head, and as men left their farms and jobs to go and fight in the war, the women stepped into their shoes. They were given two weeks of training at an agricultural college and then set loose to learn ‘on the job’. Whilst a few of the girl were homesick (and probably a long way from home) a lot of them relished the independence and freedom.
When the Women’s Land Army was set up in 1915, the uniform included breeches as being far more practical for women working on farm. Reactions ran the range of shock, disbelief and disapproval, that a woman would be seen in man’s apparel
To the women trousers became symbolic of liberation, and emancipation for many women who for the first time ever earned their own wage packet and were independent. They would have earned about eighteen shillings and a pound after their training. An article by Boudicca Fox-Leanard (30/01/2016) talks about how women embraced the new freedom, ‘throwing off their tight corsets and putting on uniforms and overalls.’ A lot of men disliked seeing women in feeling they were taking over their trousers, jobs and identities. Women were becoming more confident and assertive in finding they could do the job just as well as the men. She goes on to say that some women ‘took up drinking, smoking and, heaven forbid, riding bicycles.’
An exhibition held in 2016 was opened at Manchester Art Gallery, entitled Fashion and Freedom, and portrayed how the four years of the First World War changed women forever, exploring the difference of how they dressed to how they felt about themselves. Creative director Darre Vydeingum said ‘it was really frowned upon (wearing trousers), there is a letter from a solder writing back to his wife saying words to the effect of, I hope you’re not wearing trousers.’
The women found breeches much easier to work in than the long dresses they had worn before, as a poem written for the Landswoman magazine talks about ‘work in a skirt, is to gather up masses of dirt/ But the leggings and breeches/ And smock that just reaches to knee why/ no wearer can hurt.’ Scott.C (2017).
This photo shows an example of the kind of breeches that Land Girls in the First World War would have worn. Rather different from the kind we would wear today!
Costume historian Lucy Adlington, is quoted as saying ‘the changing fashion over the four years of war is arguably one of the most significant reflectors happening in women’s lives’ (11/05/2017). As the sight of women in trousers became more common place, ladies were starting to design and wear ‘billowing harem pants and tailored uniforms’ as fashion items.
When the war ended and men returned to their homes and jobs, many of the women did not want to give up their jobs and independence and go back to be ordinary housewives. War had changed life in every conceivable way.
An article written by Professor Joanna Burke (03/03/2011) believes that the most valuable legacy that the First World War gave women was that they knew their real worth now to their employers, and set up unions to make sure they got what they were entitled to.
In the words of Mrs Millicent Fawcett, leading feminist and President of the Union of Suffragettes societies said in 1918, ‘The War revolutionised the industrial position of women – it found them serfs and left them free.’