Dressed for War
Uniform, Civilian Clothing and Trappings, 1914-1918
London: I.B. Tauris, 2015
Hardcover. xiii+218p. ISBN 978-1780767079. £25.00
Reviewed by Jane Tynan
Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London
Many books have examined the cultural meaning of the First World War. Published in the second year of the centenary, this book, by Nina Edwards, explores the significance of wartime dress codes. According to Edwards, ‘what people wear matters’, which sets the scene for her close analysis of the war seen through the lens of dress. By reading the smallest details of personal grooming and dress during wartime, she offers interesting perspectives on the conflict one hundred years on.
The book deals with more than dress; both uniform and ‘civvies’ are considered but so too are smaller details such as hair, cosmetics and underwear. Edwards is mindful of the pleasures and pains of the body at war. With little provision for washing clothes and shaving on the frontline, hygiene and grooming became a key concern, and not, as Edwards observes, a trivial one, ‘what many longed for was simply the luxury of feeling clean again’ . Thus, this book goes beyond fashion and dress to explore a range of body techniques created by civilians and recruits to cope with the upheaval of war. The discussion is wide-ranging; we get a glimpse of an emerging cosmetic industry, the various ways in which appearance reflected women’s newfound liberation, but also how their participation in combatant and non-combatant roles became a catalyst for changing gender roles.
Altogether, Edwards gives us a sense of a growing consumer culture at the beginning of the twentieth century that was rudely interrupted by the Great War. I wholeheartedly agree that dress, style, appearance and clothing all play a critical role in our lives, all too often neglected by scholars of social history and material culture. She adds to the growing sense in the arts and humanities that the visual and material are not incidental to warfare, but can offer new insights into the nature of big power struggles. To that extent, I share her interest in asking serious questions about how bodies are fashioned for war. I am also painfully aware of the need to tread carefully, so that studies such as these do not trivialise war and its human consequences.
But this is also why I am troubled by research that fails to offer a systematic and searching analysis of the subject. Edwards does offer insights into war experience but the book lacks a central focus; she is not at all clear about her contribution to current debates on the subject. For instance, it is well documented that drab colours, including khaki, were introduced primarily for camouflage purposes, but when she misses this important detail it derails her analysis of uniform changes leading up to the war [80-81]. Her attempt to locate its inception in the Indian Mutiny, while true, fails to cite the various studies that established camouflage as the major driver in changes to uniform in the early twentieth century. The interplay of ballet and fashion in wartime was another such thread; it promised to further her analysis of war and fashion but instead fails to fully consider its cultural significance.
The discussion is wide-ranging, seemingly covering everything from the uniforms worn by soldiers to their hygiene and grooming habits, from the fabric shortages on the home front to wartime costume design; almost nothing relating to wartime clothing is left uncovered. Edwards examines wartime knitting, clothing children, wartime fashion design, shopping, dental work, trench art, mourning clothes and demob suits. This list is dazzling, but without a framing device, she moves awkwardly from one subject to another, without reaching any satisfying conclusions. The study could, for instance, have focused in on a few key areas. Her discussion is full of fascinating details but I was left wondering what to do with this list of examples.
I also wonder who this book is intended for. Not the social or cultural historian, who is likely to ask where Edwards sits on wider debates concerning the relationship between war and civil society. Further, much of the material has been covered elsewhere, and often with more attention to scholarship. The breezy style might suggest that it targets the general reader, in which case it offers a diverting, though not wholly compelling, account of the social role uniforms, clothing and various other trappings played in the social life of wartime Britain. I suspect that the general reader would prefer to be steered by a stronger narrative. Yes, what people wear does matter, but highlighting cultural aspects of war is all about reaching new audiences. This book does not go far enough to engage readers in this important but lesser-known aspect of war experience.
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