At the start of the First World War in 1914, society in Britain remained much as it had always been since the beginning of the twentieth century. Britain was rigidly class ridden, between the aristocracy. The middle classes who formed the professional and blue collar workers, doctors, lawyers teachers and scientists etc.
Then there were the working classes – manual and factory workers, miners iron foundry workers, dock workers and those who maintained the roads and the railways. Generally, these were the men who maintained the fabric of society. Skilled and semi-skilled workers who earned a living in the heavy industries with their hands and their strength.
Working class women and girls were mainly wives and mothers. Young, single women were employed in a selection of menial low paid work, in service working in middle class homes, dressmaking or shop work. Once married they were expected to look after their husbands and large families. Birth control was not generally used. It was common for families of ten or more children to live in one very small terraced house.
The practice of providing hot baths for husbands and sons who would be coated in coal dust at the end of their shift a few times a day affected the health of many women who also cooked and cleaned and provided for the poor quality of life lived by thousands of women and their families who lived in the South Wales valleys.
From the early part of the 20th century there was controversy over the provision on pithead baths which would enable the miners to bathe and wear clean clothes at the end of their shift. This would alleviate some of the strain on the women at home who daily provided this facilty.
Some companies did not wish to install bathing facilities. Sometimes the miners paid for them out of small weekly donations from their wages. Gradually throughout the twenties and thirties pithead baths became almost universal.
Nationally the self confidence of the female population expressed itself through the fashions they wore. Gone were the elaborate dresses of the Edwardian era. Clothes became more functional and practical as can be seen in this illustration of 1914.
Skirts were ankle length matched with jackets which reflected a more tailored style. Hats were still popular some were trimmed with feathers but a plainer, brimmed style was also popular.
The outbreak of war in 1914 meant that the demand for female labour to fill the millions of jobs left vacant by men joining the military forces finally forced the government to consider women for jobs traditionally filled by men. This became a national necessity which affected professional and working class women. Posters illustrating the recruitment of female labour became a commonplace feature of life.
Such posters appealing to recruit women into the nursing professions into the Land Army encouraged thousands of women to leave a very stifled domestic influence and seek jobs in the professions, factories, agriculture and every job filled by a man, with the exception of mining and active military service. They started find their independence!
Slowly fashionable women’s clothes also mirrored the practical uniforms which women were forced to wear in jobs such as the munitions factories in which thousands of them were conscripted to work in providing explosives for the military efforts of WW1 along the Western front and other theatres of war.
The Women’s Land Army recruited 23,000 women to work agriculture, in order to provide the country with food and look after the land in the absence of male labour.
Women were encouraged to join the land army in order to keep agriculture going. The need to feed the military and the civilian population and to fill the jobs that millions of men had left in order to volunteer or later to be conscripted for the military was vital for the survival of the country.
Drawing at the top of this page by John Peacock from his book Fashion Since 1900: The Complete Sourcebook (Thames & Hudson 2007).