Artifacts from American Fashion: The Great War

By Heather Vaughan Lee

In the coming weeks and months, I’m planning to give you a sneak-peek into my new book Artifacts from American Fashion (Available November 30), as well as the research behind it. Some of you might recognize some of the research and topics from my #52weeksoffashion tag on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The book offers readers a unique look at daily life in twentieth-century America through the lens of fashion and clothing. The book covers forty-five essential articles of fashion or accessories, chosen to illuminate significant areas of twentieth-century American daily life and history, including Politics, World Events, and War; Transportation and Technology; Home and Work Life; Art and Entertainment; Health, Sport, and Leisure; and Alternative Cultures, Youth, Ethnic, Queer, and Counter Culture. Through these artifacts, readers can follow the major events, social movements, cultural shifts, and technological developments that shaped our daily life in the U.S.

World War I, originally known as the Great War, was the defining event of the early twentieth century. Primarily a European conflict, it was fought between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) and the Allied forces (Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, and Japan). United States President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) did his best to keep America out of the war until 1917.

The end of this War to end all Wars” falls on November 11, 1918 (originally known as Armistice Day) and it is why we have Veterans Day as a Federal Holiday on November 11 each year.

American Red Cross Uniform consisting of a dress, apron, and a cap that date to 1917-18.
Daughter’s of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum.
“Brodie” style World War I combat helmet, 93rd Infantry Division of the United States Army, active between 1917-1918. (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture).

In Artifacts from American Fashion, several of the entries discuss the impact of WWI on the daily lives of Americans. The World War I Combat Helmet (see above) not only explores the development of the “Brodie” style helmet, American wartime economy and culture, but also highlights what returning soldiers experienced at the end of the war. By the time the war ended in 1918, the United States had solidified its role as a world power. Many citizens wanted to return to the peaceful years of isolation before the war, but that was not to be. The returning soldiers had seen parts of the world that most Americans had never visited. Women who had taken on traditionally male tasks and jobs during the war were not interested in returning to a role that limited them to the kitchen and soon would gain the right to vote.

More significantly, the entry takes a deep dive into the experiences of the 93rd Infantry Division of the United States Army, a segregated African American Division comprised of four infantry regiments active between 1917-1918. Despite Jim Crow segregation, and their initial assignment to menial labor duties, the 369th Division of the 93rd earned the nickname, “Harlem Hellfighters.” They were awarded medals by the French, but their own American government failed to acknowledge their sacrifices. The 93rd Division began the journey home in late January 1919, arriving back to the United States in mid-February. The 369th Infantry had the honor of marching down Fifth Avenue in New York City before being demobilized on February 28 at Camp Upton, New York.

Another entry focuses on women’s experiences of World War I by taking a closer look at an American Red Cross Uniform. Although the early war years in Europe affected the United States and its industries, its own declaration of war began a major shift in women’s daily lives. Filling jobs left vacant by men serving on the front lines, many women began working outside the home for the first time. The idea of patriotism also grew tremendously, and women’s humanitarian efforts increased dramatically in support of the boys ‘over there’ (Benton 1994, 56-57).

American Red Cross Uniform consisting of a dress, apron, and a cap that date to 1917-18.
Daughter’s of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum.

Recognizing that patriotism was high, President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) asked his fellow Americans to contribute their time and energy to the Red Cross relief effort. Millions responded by offering their voluntary support.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the American Red Cross had 8,000 trained nurses ready for duty. Its Nursing Program had produced 20,000 registered nurses by 1918. World War I and its demands helped the fledgling organization grow. After the United States declared war demands flooded the still-small organization.

If a woman wasn’t out working, it was her duty to economize in her household. Excess expenditure was considered unpatriotic. Patriotism was even exhibited in the details of women’s clothing: more obviously through military-inspired styles and more subtly through the lens of economy via wool conservation and home sewing. The growing responsibilities women had during World War I directly influenced their desire for greater rights and freedoms in the post-war era. It emboldened them to fight for their right of representation, and they had gained the right to vote by 1920.

For more on how Americans’ daily lives were affected by World War I, see Artifacts from American Fashion (available November 30, 2019).

Sources:

“The American National Red Cross.” 1917. The Ladies Home Journal. September.

“Combat helmet from World War I used by the 93rd Infantry.” N.d. Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Division. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2011.155.298

Doering, Mary D. 1979. “American Red Cross Uniforms”. Dress. 5 (1): 33-48.

King. Gilbert. 2011. “Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called ‘Black Death.’ Smithsonian Magazine. October 25. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/remembering-henry-johnson-the-soldier-called-black-death-117386701/#jDBb4mevkKsQHLE5.99

Patton, James. 2018. “The Brodie Helmet.” Kansas WW1. February 28. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.kansasww1.org/the-brodie-helmet/


Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America and the UK. Her forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is available for pre-order on Amazon (November 2019 from ABC-CLIO).  More posts by the Author »

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