Wednesday, October 26, 2011

For the Creative Anachronist: What to Wear to War (Part I)

In honor of Halloween's approach, I thought I would write a bit about the look of a Great War soldier or woman volunteer. The possibilities for such a look are almost impossible to contain--there were simply multitudes of uniforms for men and women in the First World War, depending on gender, role, location, peacetime occupation, service corps or military regiment, and rank. I must be brief, however, so I will touch lightly today on a few instances of Great War dress, although I may return to the topic later.

First, some resources. This seems like a useful place to start:

The many regiments within the British Army had their own particular uniforms and identifying marks. For instance, consider the uniform of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders vs. that of the Royal Field Artillery:
Thomas Curr. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 1914. Poster, IWM. ©IWM, Item Art.IWM PST 12148.
Gunner John Phelps Williams.B Battery, 108 Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, 1916. IWM, Item HU 93576.

High ranking British Army Officers were a dashing silver-templed lot:

John Singer Sargent. General Officers of World War I. 1922. National Portrait Gallery, London.

The above is a stunning piece that hangs on its very own wall at the NPG in London. A fact, over which I still cannot get, is that it is a composite image (another of my favorite things, to be dealt with later). There was no one occasion on which all of these officers stood before Sargent as they appear in the portrait, but there they are, captured for posterity as though a collective body symbolized visually by the broad line of khaki that stretches from one end of this massive painting to the other.

Now, for a glimpse of women's service uniforms, there is this lovely painting at the Imperial War Museum:
Edmund Dulac. The Sisters, 1917. ©IWM, Item Art.IWM ART 2509.
The three women in Dulac's work represent, according to the IWM's information, a Land Army servicewoman, a nurse, and a munitions worker. Three roles in which women served during the war, whether on the homefront or abroad. These, of course, are not the only womens' jobs and uniforms that existed, nor are all details captured. For example, a nurse's uniform had many specific elements and was quite different depending on her role within the hospital.

This is just a brief dip into the wide pool of possibility for Great War uniforms. Consider it a tiny, manageable, snippet of the broad and sometimes intimidating swath of war-era British sartorial history. There will be other snippets, more bits and bobs, to add to this one, but until then, I bid you happy costuming and a happy Halloween.

© Fiona Robinson


Sources and Further Reading:

At the National Portrait Gallery:

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