#CSFashionhour, Costume Society  |  August 5, 2015

#CSFashionHour: Working Class Dress - part 2

In this month’s #CSFashionHour we will be looking at the discourses concerning working class women’s interaction with fashion, their alleged transgressing of class boundaries and the ways in which working class women experienced fashion during the early-mid twentieth century. Our hosts, Jen Evans and Jenny Roberts, are both PhD candidates with an interest in working class clothing – an area of dress history that is often overlooked in favour of the spectacle of elite, high fashion. During #CSFashionHour on August 7th, they plan to discuss the following themes:

  • Attitudes towards working class women and fashion
  • The realities of working class women’s experiences of fashion
  • The development and distribution of mass produced clothing, 1900-1950
  • Shopping for clothing

Munitions Women Workers’ Experience of Fashion during WW1

Jennifer Roberts is a PhD candidate researching the uniforms of the muniotinettes workers of the First World War, and the legacy of the images of these women in historical discourse.

By 1917 there was a great deal of misplaced public derision and criticism of what was seen as excessive frivolous spending by women munitions workers. This derision would have been extremely frustrating and insulting to these workers, particularly those who were injured, disfigured or suffering from the effects of working with the chemicals in the factories. These physical side effects of the work, like skin discolouration due to the exposure to T.N.T, identified these women publicly and instead of being admired they were looked down upon. These Canary Girls, as the women became known, were ‘danger money’, as their higher wages became known, and this was seen as a means of chasing financial gain and unseemly.

Anecdotes reveal that, although the women may well have been buying furs and silk stockings, it was imitation fur and the silk stockings were part silk, part wool. During the War it was deemed extremely unpatriotic to wear new fashionable items and while the rich dressed down the working class were believed to be dressing above their station. Boots became a very emotive part of this public discourse, as they were extremely expensive items for the working class. Maud Pember Reeves wrote that it was quite common for the women to pad holes in the soles of her boots with newspaper, being unable to afford either the repairs or a new pair. In the cartoon (above) from Punch we see the young boy being barred from playing football because of the boots purchased by his munitions making mother; the implication that Munitionettes had become synonymous with tasteless extravagance challenging the class system.

So what was the reality for these women? Were they able to consume the latest fashion?

Many of the Munitionettes had families or lived in rented accommodation so their disposable income was small. Peggy Hamilton, a middle class Munitionette, writes of her struggles with money in her autobiography.

Contemporary commentators suggested that these women were aping their superiors in their choice of clothes and make-up, and their true position in society was revealed only when they spoke (as demonstrated in the second cartoon, above). They were heavily criticised for their appearance and anything deemed ostentatious was interpreted as not respectable. The reality was for many of these women, working under very dangerous conditions, that for the first time they were able to buy clothing to replace items that had simply worn out.
Jenny will be hosting this month’s #CSFashionHour along with Jen Evans, also a specialist in working class fashion, on Friday August 7th at 1-2pm GMT. The Costume Society #CSFashionHour is a monthly Twitter discussion that takes place on the first Friday of every month, covering different subjects from the world of costume. We invite all to join in and ask questions, just follow us – and our hosts – on Twitter (@costume_society @Jenny_C_Roberts @JenElizaEvans) and use our hashtag – #CSFashionHour – to join in!

(1) Anne Bettenson. "Industrial Protective Clothing and Equipment." Costume 1974; 8(1), 46-50. (2) Hamilton, Peggy, Lady. Three Years Or the Duration: The Memoirs of a Munition Worker, 1914-1918. London: Owen, 1978.(3) Woollacott, Angela, Dressed to Kill: Clothes, Cultural Meaning and First World War Women Munitions Workers, pp198-217 in Donald, Moira and Hurcombe, Linda (eds), Representations of Gender from Prehistory to the Present. London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 2000. Print

Jenny Roberts, Guest contributor / #CSFashionHour host

  • Pair of silk stockings, with wool toes and tops, c.1910-15. Worthing Museum.
  • Silk stocking, with wool toes and top, c.1910-15. Worthing Museum.
  • © Punch Magazine
  • © Punch Magazine