For a designer dressing models for the runway, creating clothing is an art form. The looks that appear on the runway often draw inspiration from past societies and are telling of their lives and values.
Curators at the university’s Old College Gallery gave present-day visitors a glimpse into life during World War I (WWI) by exhibiting fashion and art from that time period. Each year, the gallery offers a total of two to four exhibitions, with its current offering timed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war.
Professor Belinda Orzada proposed the exhibit several years ago, and gallery collections manager Janet Gardner Broske said in an email that Orzada had the upcoming WWI centennial in mind at the time.
“The fashion aspect was to start a dialogue about what was going on at home as well as in the European battlefields,” Broske says.
The current exhibit displays the clothing worn by men, women and children during wartime, with a focus on the evolution of women’s dress, which changed as a result of their efforts on the homefront.
Andrea Barrier, a theater professor and costumer for the Resident Ensemble Players (REP), says nursing brought some women close to the front lines of WWI, and brought others into factories, where they filled the shoes of men who had gone to serve in the military.
Women gained freedom through their work, and it showed in their clothing — for instance, Barrier says a wartime wife who took on her husband’s farming duties would likely have begun wearing a looser-fitting skirt for better movement in the fields. Additionally, Broske says wartime steel conservation efforts meant corsets fell out of use in fashion.
“Women had become so independent and accustomed to running the households in the absence of the men, and having jobs that had previously been delegated to men, that they weren’t willing to go back into restrictive clothing,” Barrier says.
According to Barrier, WWI was unprecedented, and the fear and low morale Americans felt also shaped fashion.
“I think that the women at home, when they weren’t in work clothes, would try to dress as pretty as they could,” she says. “And as much to try to counter how depressing everything else was around them.”
In the Old College exhibit and its focus on the modification of American dress, Broske says footwear best shows women’s shift into more traditionally “masculine” roles. Oxford shoes became popular, but showed off much of a woman’s ankle, which Broske comments was unthinkable before the war. It became a necessary compromise, however, when women began spending long periods of time on their feet.
Although the gallery shows the trends that changed following women’s involvement in the war, not every element will seem so old-fashioned to modern viewers: oxfords and lace-up boots are still popular today. Broske says the cyclical nature of fashion connects the past and present.
“Things that start out as trends become a part of classic styling from which designers can (and often do) take flight,” Broske says. “Adaptive re-use or ‘upcycling’ of garments has become a trend that echoes the WWI garments, in that even wedding dresses were worn again and again.”
Lisa Ryan contributed reporting. Note: Lisa Ryan is currently a student in Barrier’s costuming course. Typically, The Review’s staff may not interview professors with whom they currently have class. It was determined that since Barrier was speaking as an expert, rather than as the subject of a profile or feature, the interview would not influence the professor-student dynamic positively and create a conflict of interest.