The First World War was the start of rapidly changing styles usually counted down in decades. Just hearing someone say the ‘20s or ‘30s, ‘40s or ‘50s conjures up mental pictures of the iconic fashions from each decade.
At the beginning of WWI, men of all stripes wore three piece suits, hard-wearing boots and hats or flat caps. At that time, women wore high-waisted styles with skirts down to the ankle and large hats. As the war dragged on, hats became smaller and skirts rose to the calf. Dress became much more practical as both men and women had work to do and, in many cases, uniforms became the order of the day.
After the new found freedom women had discovered when they were needed while the men were away fighting, many women were not content to step back into their old niche. Fashion reflected the new attitude and short skirts and straight boyish silhouettes are synonymous with the Roaring Twenties; an age of Flappers and Jazz.
The thirties ushered in a return to elegance. This time is remembered for dresses with long flowing bias-cut skirts and tops that revealed shoulders or backs. This was fashion popularized by Hollywood pictures as many could not afford to cut a fashionable figure in the decade after the Wall Street crash.
With the forties it was back to war, back to uniformed armed forces and women once again performing jobs to take up the slack while the men were away. In Britain there was also clothes rationing. Garments were restricted in the amount of fabric, buttons and other embellishments that could be used. A more tailored look with shoulder pads became popular as shoulder pads could be fashioned from scrap material. With a motto of “Make do and mend” there were few fashion statements that could be made by the average civilian.
When the war was over, women needed a change and Christian Dior’s New Look caught on like wildfire when it was introduced in 1947. Its full skirts were not only feminine but signaled an opulence that was not rationed.
During the war years, man or woman power was needed. There was no mention of discrimination against the aged in the literature that I studied. I believe that many of the Home Guard in WWII were men that were too old to join the regular forces but whose dedication to their duty was sorely needed during the blitz. In the years between the war, women of a ‘certain age’ may have found the new styles challenging to wear but they must have worn them or they would have appeared out of style. Or did they? The fifties idealized the family with male breadwinner, a home in the ‘burbs and wife as homemaker. Perhaps it was this limited vision of ‘normal life’, that caused society of this decade to still cling to the notion of age related dress.
Futura. Working Life in Britain 1900 to 1950. Little, Brown Book Group, London, 2007
Godfrey, Ottilie Vintage Fashion: Classic 20th-century styles and designs. Arcturus Publishing Limited. London. 2013
Lofts, Norah. Domestic Life in England. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1976
Thane, Pat. A History of Old Age. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 2005