Women through the War

The Impact of the first world war on how Women DresseD

The years surrounding the First World War saw significant changes to many women’s lives, which were reflected in the clothes they wore. From restrictive, if beautiful, dresses of the Edwardian Era to the more emancipated styles of the early 1920s, a social revolution was being set in motion, initially voiced by the suffragettes, and then accelerated during the war as women took over what had been traditionally men’s roles in munitions factories, in non-combatant roles in the military, notable as nurses, and elsewhere. Finally, the Representation of the People Act in 1918 gave the vote to some 8.4 million women aged over 30 who met minimum property qualifications.

A skilled cyclist could serve as a bicycle delivery person (post, telegrams etc.).

A skilled cyclist could serve as a bicycle delivery person (post, telegrams etc.).

To mark this anniversary, the Totnes Fashion and Textile Museum is mounting a small exhibition of clothes which represent these changes, from an elegant ensemble from the early years of the 20th Century, to the much looser and freer dress styles which emerged in the 1920s. Highlights include an extravagant hat decorated in suffragette colours (see the image at the top of this page) and an eye-catching cycling outfit, which stands in contrast to the more severe ensembles worn by working women during the war years, including a nurse’s uniform of the time.

The Museum is not without its own challenges, however. Our lovely grade 1 listed home is undergoing essential renovation work which restricts our ability to mount the customary full-scale exhibition. Instead, in just one large room until the end of September, the special exhibition features 14 ensembles with supporting accessories, and a display of photographs from the period, provided by the Totnes Image Bank.

Entry to the exhibition is by donation rather than a set charge, with all the money raised going to help keep this little gem of an organisation going, and the Museum’s shop will be open as usual. Additionally, there are plans for a series of talks on different aspects of fashion and clothing through the years, which will be open to all.

Only a woman of some means could become a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse, as they had to buy their own uniform and pay all their own expenses.

Only a woman of some means could become a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse, as they had to buy their own uniform and pay all their own expenses.