How fashion changed during the First and the Second World Wars — history, pictures

Before the war, womenʼs clothing in Europe and America was an indicator of social status, age and gender. Wealthy women changed their dresses at least 4-5 times a day.

The First World War radically changed the role of women in society, and now — her wardrobe. While men were at the front, women mastered their professions — they worked in construction, in factories and military plants, were conductors and bus drivers, and even managers of some enterprises (yes, for those times this is strange).

Luxurious clothing with lace, embroidery and jewelry took a back seat. The entire textile industry now worked for war needs. And for a womenʼs suit, practicality and convenience became the main criteria.

Womenʼs fashion of Britain in the Edwardian era, that is, the period of the reign of King Edward VII from 1901 to 1910.

A shortage of fabric and new dress requirements led to the first revolutionary change in womenʼs fashion—shorter skirts. The heavy skirt, which completely covered the legs, did not suit the new realities at all. So in 1915 the hemline went up to mid-calf. Conservatives immediately called it debauchery, but few listened to them.

Women say goodbye to soldiers before the departure of a train, USA, 1918.

A popular womenʼs suit during the First World War consisted of a wide skirt that did not restrict movement and a jacket with patch pockets and a stand-up collar. Dresses made of practical fabric in black, gray, brown or blue were also in fashion. Such an outfit could be worn all day without changing clothes, without the risk of noticeable stains. If earlier a woman could not change her clothes without help, now the fasteners in womenʼs clothes began to be made from the front.

British women at the pavilion during a sea regatta near the Isle of Wight, 1923.

After short skirts, itʼs time for pants. They were often part of a professional uniform. So, no matter how strange a woman wearing pants seemed at the time, they quickly became part of her everyday wardrobe.

Women in Workwear in Maryland during World War I.

A woman in a sailor-style white linen trouser suit with wide legs and a matching jacket, 1920s.

The First World War freed women from the corset as well — and that too “not out of good will.” All because the metal from which solid corset ribs were usually made was used for the needs of the war. “American womenʼs refusal of rigid corsets during the war released 28,000 tons of steel — enough to build two battleships,” wrote one of the members of the American War Industry Commission in his report. The corset was replaced by a bra with straps without a back, which was patented by the American Mary Phelps in the fall of 1914.

During this period, female couturiers first appeared in the world of high fashion. The most striking examples are Coco Chanel, the author of the legendary little black dress, and Elsa Schiaparelli, one of the creators of the “pret-a-porte”; concept. And the fashion shows themselves, started in 1911, were now organized to raise funds for war needs.

Getty Images / «Babel’»

Men were much less affected by the fashion revolution — they wore uniforms during the war. However, during the First World War, approaches to the design of military uniforms changed. Prior to this, different types of troops had uniforms of different colors — to distinguish their own from those of others during hand-to-hand combat, as well as for commanders to distinguish infantry, cavalry and artillery by color. The development of small arms and artillery has radically changed the tactics of warfare and the requirements for unity. Now the uniform was to be less bright, invisible to the enemy and more practical for life in the trenches. Therefore, during the First World War, uniforms that met these requirements were introduced in all combatant armies. At first, only the French with their blue jackets and red trousers stood out in terms of color. But the British switched to the “protective” color of khaki at the beginning of the 20th century. Later, other armies began to follow their example.

New Year postcard of 1915. A British soldier (right) shakes hands with a French soldier (left), a German soldier lies below.

The practical military uniform came in handy in civilian life as well. In the first postwar years in Europe, there was an acute shortage of clothing, then stocks of military equipment came to the rescue. Overstitched uniforms were worn not only by men, but also by women, adjusting the size and often changing the design. This is how the prototype of the future military style was born — khaki color, rigid straight line of shoulders with linings, metal buttons.

Women practice with rifles at the San Francisco Naval Base during World War I.

Some elements of military clothing were transferred to peaceful life without a change in design. For example, a trench coat model with a wide collar, an additional fabric insert in the upper back, shoulder straps and a belt.

British soldiers in trench coats on the front line, 1914.

A British woman in a trench coat sends a letter, 1930s.

The Second World War continued the trend towards uniformity and practicality of clothing. If during the First World War restrictions on fabrics were introduced at the end of the war, then during the Second World War they began to economize from the very beginning.

In Britain from 1941 to 1949 there were cards for buying clothes. In addition, the government has introduced strict norms for the tailoring of civilian clothes. Some of the strictest austerity rules applied to menswear — single-breasted suits instead of double-breasted, no lapels on trousers, limited pockets, adjustable length shirts with no double cuffs. They even saved on snake fasteners. An exception was made for two vital elements of civilian clothing — menʼs suspenders and womenʼs underwear.

A man tries on clothes of the new Utility design, 1942.


In 1942, utility clothing for civilians went on sale in Britain. It was manufactured according to special government standards, which were developed taking into account the limited range of fabrics. Time was to be spent on the production of such clothes, but quality control was maintained.

A woman inspects a collection of Utility-design suits in a London store, 1942.

In order for people in such universal clothes not to look like soldiers, well-known fashion designers were involved in the development of the Utility design. They were given the task of creating economical, but at the same time attractive, stylish and diverse clothes — and they did a good job. Utility-design dresses, coats, jackets, trousers, shirts with simple lines and minimal decoration quickly became popular outside of Britain.

Getty Images / «Babel’»

Real design know-how also appeared under the conditions of total economy. For example, in Britain, so-called “siren suits” were invented — stylish overalls that could be quickly put on to get to a bomb shelter during an air raid. The womenʼs models had a special panel at the back that could be unbuttoned to go to the toilet without removing the overalls. And in the USA, restrictions on fabrics led to the appearance of a separate womenʼs bathing suit — bikini.

British nurses in “siren suits” and protective headgear during an air raid drill, February 1940.

The civilian population also resorted to creativity. Old menʼs suits and shirts, pillowcases and blankets were remade into womenʼs blouses and suits, childrenʼs dresses and coats, and wedding dresses were made from curtains.

Stockings were the scarcest commodity then. Especially thin ones made of silk and nylon, which appeared shortly after the start of the war in 1939. It was during the Second World War that the manner of wearing summer shoes “barefoot” spread. Here, trousers, which were already not only work clothes, but also everyday clothes, came in handy for women. But some creative people imitated stockings with the help of an eyebrow pencil, which was used to draw a “seam” on the back of the leg.

A woman demonstrates how to imitate a stocking seam on her leg with an eyebrow pencil, London, 1940.

As for military uniforms, the trend for convenience and practicality continued here. More pockets appeared in the uniform, which allowed soldiers to carry more equipment. Some experts still insist that the Nazi uniform was the best in terms of design and practicality. It was sewn at the factory of Hugo Ferdinand Boss, the founder of Hugo Boss fashion.

The head of the SS Heinrich Himmler (in the first row, third from the right) together with officers in black uniforms made at the Hugo Boss factory, 1932.

During the Second World War, military uniforms were finally made for women in various armies. A blue military uniform was developed for the British Womenʼs Royal Naval Service and Womenʼs Auxiliary Air Force. Military personnel of the US Womenʼs Auxiliary Army Corps wore a beige summer uniform with maroon trim, to emphasize which a special lipstick color was developed. And the winter uniform was olive-gray and yellowish-brown in color. In Germany, womenʼs staff uniforms were gray, military uniforms were brown. In the Soviet Union, women who served in the army wore the same protective color uniform as men.

US military Womenʼs Auxiliary Army Corps unveil new uniform, 1942.

Getty Images / «Babel’»

Elements of military clothing also became popular among civilians. For example, a leather bomber flight jacket with an insulated collar, designed for pilots, so that it is more convenient to cope with weather conditions. Or the American military jacket model M41, developed during the Second World War.

The crew of a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber arrives at a US Air Force base, December 1942.

During the world wars, not only womenʼs skirts became shorter, but also hairstyles. And instead of not too comfortable hats, turbans and scarves were in fashion. Under them, it was possible to hide stale hair or the lack of a hairstyle without any problems.

Workers at the Royal Munitions Works, England, November 1943.

Getty Images / «Babel’»

During the Second World War, a special design of womenʼs handbags with a compartment for a gas mask appeared in Britain. In the country, the lights were often turned off due to the threat of airstrikes, then various accessories that reflected light or glowed in the dark became fashionable.

Womenʼs handbag with a compartment for a gas mask from the Second World War.


In addition to the flight jacket, special sunglasses for pilots have also become fashionable. They were developed in 1936 by the American company Bausch & Lomb, which specialized in various, including military, optics. Glasses made of light metal had a special shape that covered the eyes from the sunʼs rays as much as possible. Aviator glasses became so popular that the company specifically registered the Ray-Ban trademark for them. Now it is one of the most popular models of glasses in the world.

American pilot in aviator glasses, 1942.

Standard decorations were not encouraged in society during the wars and were considered frivolous. Instead, even during the First World War, creative rings and bracelets made from fragments of shells or ammunition came into fashion. During the Second World War, the assortment only expanded, for example, a plastic bracelet made of the windshield of a downed German plane.

WWII plastic snake bracelet made from the windshield of a downed German plane.


TrendsCHK is formed by a group of editors of different ages, ethnicities and countries that seek every day to bring relevant information about fashion, beauty, behavior, experiences, news, technology, finance, travel and wellness.

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