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Womens fashion 1914 – nurses

May 11, 2016

Britain joined the First World War on 4 August 1914, about two weeks after it had started. Nobody expected it to be a World War, or Great War as it was known at the time: nobody expected the extent of the carnage. It lasted until 1918, four years of suffering, (plus its aftermath) and although it was never directly fought in Britain, home life was naturally very altered. Womens fashion 1914 was affected almost immediately, especially for trained nurses who were called upon to treat the wounded in he countries where they were deployed.

Womens fashion 1914 – nurse’s uniforms

Nurses at the time were required to pay for their own uniforms. These could be made at home, made by a dressmaker, or bought ready-made in shops, including Harrods! There were adverts in the small ads for second hand nurse dresses that had been made but didn’t fit properly, or were otherwise surplus to requirements.


The full suggested uniform list for an English nurse varied according to the hospital they were attached to and the cut wasn’t completely standardised, but it generally included a number of ankle length mid-blue dresses with a high collar and long sleeves, a voluminous white apron, a white nun-like flowing headdress, a short cape of navy lined in scarlet, black woollen stockings and flat black sensible shoes. A detachable collar and cuffs completed the ensemble.

Womens fashion 1914 – Clean white collar and cuffs

White was used for its connotations of cleanliness, as germ theory was being taken very seriously by this point. The fact that the collar and cuffs were detachable made them easier to clean, especially if they were made from cellulose, rather than cotton or linen. Cellulose was made into early form of artificial silk as well as hard items like spectacle frames and billiard balls, and housewives of the period admired it as it cut laundry bills as the men of the family didn’t need a daily clean collar.

Womens fashion 1914 – nun-like nurses.

These official requirements  could be supplemented by a nurse’s own warm cardigans or sheepskin gilets for those sent to the coldest regions. As well as this, nurses often added their own touches to uniforms, hitching up the long dresses to a more fashionable calf length called for in womens fashion 1914 with their belts, only to be told off by the senior nurses.


The nurse’s uniforms were nun-like for a reason, or rather two – nursing was traditionally practiced by nuns, and before the war orders of nuns often trained the nurses, so the uniform evolved from a traditional nun’s habit and headdress. But also it was important for the nurses to look chaste and untouchable as far as possible – to instil in the minds of the soldier they were working amongst that these women were not there for their entertainment.


The women could have found themselves very vulnerable in an all male environment otherwise. That’s not to say that there weren’t many jokes about nurses setting out to capture themselves a handsome major, and there were bitter mutterings among more hard working nurses about certain rich volunteers who packed high womens fashion 1914 of evening silks and feathers along with their dowdy uniforms and were seen in the evenings hanging off officer’s arms in the officer’s clubs.

Womens fashion 1914 – VADs

In any case there was a schism between trained nurses and the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses. The VAD scheme was set up in 1909 by the Red Cross “to furnish aid to the sick and wounded in war” and by 1915 large numbers of VADs were called upon. Basic training was to be completed in as short a time as possible, as organisers were understandable eager to get them sent out into the field. However, the nurses who had trained for years wished they were issued with a distinctly different uniform to distinguish them, mere amateurs in their eyes, from the real thing. The only difference was that their aprons and sometimes caps were stitched with a big red cross.

However, the VADs were immensely proud of their new uniforms, one new recruit, Mabel Bone, admitting to bleaching the bright red of her cross down to a more time-worn looking pink, to look as if she had been in the field a lot longer than she had. VADs wore their uniforms to fund raise at home whilst waiting to finish training and to be deployed, and were a regular sight on home soil.

A sense of pride

Although this was a volunteer position, meaning that women were not paid, and had to buy their own outfits and any necessary personal items like pyjamas, soap etc, it was a popular enterprise because women really wanted to contribute to the war, and they were not allowed to serve. This gave them a British uniform and a sense of pride.


There were other ways to contribute, of course, including knitting socks, scarves, mittens and balaclava helmets for the soldiers, and working in munitions factories, but this way the women were right in the thick of events, sometimes even on the front line. There was a greater proportion of upper and middle class women who signed up as VADs, simply because working class women could not afford to give their time away for free plus pay clothing expenses however patriotic they were. many women who didn’t opt to become a full time nurse did take training in first aid instead, in case of possible invasion.

Womens fashion 1914 – Scottish nurses

The English weren’t the only ones to organise nurses for the Front. Dr Elsie Inglis was an eminent Scottish suffragist who went to the Royal Army Medical Corps with the offer of providing a hospital staffed by female doctors and nurses. The response from the medical men? “My good lady, go home and sit still.” Their loss was other members of the Allies gain, as Scottish Women’s Hospitals were welcomed by the French, Serbians and Russians.


There were several versions of the uniform, all very smart – the grey jacket was acknowledged to be well tailored, with stylish square buttons and was accompanied by a smart felt hat with tartan ribbon, a white shirt and knotted necktie or bow at the neck. Perhaps this chic attire wasn’t appreciated by all though as one affectionate name for the SWH nurses was “Little Grey Partridge”.

Womens fashion 1914 – Valkyries in knickerbockers

In practice and once on those muddy fields, there were alterations to the uniform beyond the raising of a few hemlines. The famous poster girls for the nurses, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, were described by one enchanted photographer as “Ministering Angels”. But “Valkyries in Knickerbockers” was a less exalted description of them made by another journalist.


The pair, and the other nurse who worked with them, did own headdresses and aprons which they wore when appropriate (as well as for photo opportunities) but for every day dress they were more likely to be found in tin helmets, thick khaki breeches and jackets as the women were both ambulance drivers and motorbike messengers.


Elsie and Mairi were press darlings in more ways than one, as Elsie represented the prestigious company Dunhill of London, who specially made her leather biking gear. The public absolutely loved the pair, and though leather biker’s gear didn’t become a feature of womens fashion 1914, the duo did help to make trousers and sporting gear more and more acceptable.

Womens fashion 1914 – Butcher’s aprons

The British media loved to depict nurses working at the Front as wonderful visions of femininity, the mere sight of whom was enough to restore the men. Perhaps a little light brow mopping might be as close as they got to bodily fluids, it was hinted. But for many the practicalities were a bit different.


Even those who didn’t need to wear trousers to sit astride motorbikes might find themselves issued with all enveloping canvas aprons as new deliveries of wounded men were decanted into hospitals, not only to protect their uniforms from splashes of blood and clots of gore, but to keep out the all pervasive lice that came with the soldiers. Lice were not just an annoyingly unfeminine thing to be infested with  but carriers of deadly disease. Elsie Knocker remembers resorting to scraping them off with the blunt blade of a knife.

Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell was another nurse who hit the headlines for much sadder reasons. The First Geneva Convention protects medical personnel from attack or capture during war if they are carrying out their duties. But Edith used her position as a nurse as a cover to get civilian clothes to Allied soldiers who were in hiding from the Germans. She and many other sewed these in their free time, and once in disguise the soldiers were able to escape.


Cavell and her cohorts saved hundreds of lives this way, but she was betrayed and arrested for her activity. She was calm and thoughtful during her time in prison, sending messages of support and instruction to her nursing staff. When the time came for her German court martial she chose to be dressed in civilian clothes – a neat and subdued version of womens fashion 1914 – a blue coat and skirt, white blouse, and grey gloves and grey fur stole – as she didn’t want to appear dressed in her nurse’s uniform and bring the profession into disrepute. The trial was so short as to be farcical, and the death sentence was immediately ordered. Cavell refused to appeal, saying “It is useless. They want my life”. She added that she wanted to be remembered as “A nurse who tried to do her duty”. She was shot at dawn on 12th October 1915.