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    By BEE RICHARDS, 2019-09-04


    The women of Wales have a gritty and courageous story to tell.  Expressed in terms of fashion the tale is outlined by the changing social and historical forces which influenced what they wore. And in turn influenced who they were and what they became.

    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 such as doctors, lawyers teachers and scientists etc., Then there were the working classes, manual and factory workers, miners, iron foundry workers, also dock workers, and those who maintained 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, mothers, and home makers.  Their role in society had not changed since Victorian times.  Once married they were expected to look after their husbands and sometimes very large families.  Birth control was not generally used, and these women often had very large families, some had a dozen or more children.  

    In the mining valleys of South Wales, as well as cooking and cleaning, women had to provide hot baths for their husbands and older sons who worked in the pits, and who came home at different times of the day. There were no pithead baths provided until the 1930’s.  Sometimes women worked almost 24 hours a day!

    From the early part of the 20th century, there was controversy over pithead baths which would enable the miners to bathe and wear clean clothes at the end of their shift.  This would take a great deal of strain off women who provided this facility at home.

    Some companies did not want to install them.  Sometimes the miners paid for them out of small weekly donations from their wages.  Gradually during the twenties and thirties pit head baths were installed. Thus relieving the heavy chores housewives had to undertake to provide daily bathing for sons and husbands using zinc baths and lifting gallons of hot water which had been heated over the kitchen fire. The majority of miner’s cottages had no hot water and no bathrooms.

    There were some young middle class women who had gained entrance to University but this was a very rare occurrence.  It was practically unheard of, and very controversial in the male dominated society of the time.  Middle class educated women usually who wished to work outside the home used their talents in charitable works, or the church, and were considered 'suitable' for these purposes, by their fathers and husbands.

    Working class women were mainly employed in 'service' in the great houses and as maids working in middle class houses.  Many young Welsh women and girls migrated all over England to serve in menial domestic capacities.  Some were treated well others just used as family drudges, washing cooking and cleaning for sometimes quite a number of people of the household. 

    Women were also employed as seamstresses, and some young women were 'mobile' who would take their sewing machines and work wherever needed, becoming very early female business owners.  Others were employed as shop assistants, or worked on farms as dairy maids and farm servants.  A lot of these jobs were very poorly paid.

    Women could not own property in their own right.  


    There was some movement however to improve the lot of women.  During the 1800's laws were passed that made it possible for married women to own property in their own right the same as unmarried women and widows.


    One of the prominent women’s movements was the Women's Social and Political Union known as the WSUP formed to campaign for Votes for Women, which originated in England in 1903.

    This was a highly controversial movement, because the women took the view that the Suffragist movement who campaigned through peaceful means and through their male dominated Parliament were ineffective. The WSUP in 1906 start to used violence to advance their cause.  The majority of the Suffragettes who formed the WSUP were mainly educated upper middle class women.

    Many of them were arrested and jailed for their activities.  They went on hunger strikes in prison, and a cruel method called force feeding was employed, whereby a tube was forced down the throat and food and liquid poured directly into the digestive system.  

    Women had to be held down in order for this process to be carried out.  In certain instances their health was badly affected, and they were released from prison only to recover and be re-imprisoned.  This process was made legal under legislations which came to be called The Cat and Mouse Act passed in 1913.

    Some very wealthy Welsh women were involved in the Suffragette Movement.


    Significantly, with the advent of WW1 in 1914 Suffragette activities were curtailed.  After the first draft of Volunteers to France there was suddenly a shortage of labour in areas which men had been traditionally employed. i.e.,  farming, industrial work, manufacturing even the Post Office.

    Miners were, for a time in a ‘protected’ occupation, but as the war advanced conscription was brought in, and some of the soldiers who were conscripted were taken from the mines.  It was the unpleasant duty of the Lodge Secretary to name the men selected for active service.

    Initially there was some prejudice to women being employed in jobs which men had traditionally held. The fact that the war machine took millions of volunteers to France left Britain without enough labour to maintain Great Britain.


    During the month of March 1915 women were called to register for employment at their local Labour Exchanges.  Within a short time women were filling jobs traditionally occupied by men in the clerical, shop work even bus conductresses and taxi and vehicle drivers.  Nurses were employed in hospitals and many went out to France to serve in hospitals close to the Western Front.  The casualties were enormous, 20,000 were killed or wounded in ONE DAY, during the battle of the Somme.

    Women were needed in factories and industry.  In Wales where munitions factories were established. Thousands of women were employed producing shell casings.  There were three factories in Wales which produced high explosives.   Young women were employed in filling the manufactured shell casings with highly dangerous and volatile material which caused accidents.  In one case in Swansea a fatality occurred where the young woman had a funeral with her coffin draped in the Union Jack, accompanied by and escort of munitionettes clad in their working gear.

    The emancipation of women had begun.  Through employment and higher wages (although still not equal with men).  Women began to find a life outside the home.  They took responsibility, gained independence and above all realised that they could do almost anything that men could!

    WOMEN’S FASHION 1914 -1918

    Because of the variety of jobs which women were called upon to perform, a radical change came about in the lives of millions of women, and the way they dressed.   The constricting long skirts and elaborate gowns of the Edwardian era were replaced with more practical clothes.  

    Women needed garments which were suitable and safe for their employment.  Sometimes Breeches were used in conjunction with an overall with a skirt which was knee length and heavy duty boots were worn completing the uniform.  This was a great departure for the female workforce who worked in the farming and munitions areas of work.  

    Every day wear also became more practical with a variety of working ‘suits’ being worn which comprised of a straight skirt, fitted jacket and a blouse, often cut on very masculine lines. The necessary alterations in fashion began to reflect in the increasing independence and self reliance of the female population. 

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  • bee richards.JPG

    Beryl Richards
    is a Welsh author and historian.

    Beryl (Bee) Richards earned degrees in art, human resources and career guidance and retired from a career in human resources and education to pursue interests in writing and historical research. She is the author of 'Nantybar - A Vanished Village in the Afan Valley' and 'Golconda' a novel on the South Sea Bubble. Bee was born in Port Talbot, on the South Welsh coast, and came back to live there after traveling extensively. She quotes a familiar saying, "You can take the girl out of Port Talbot, but not Port Talbot out of the girl."

  • Golconda by Bee Richards