Keep Calm and Look Fabulous

Humber Museums Partnership - Keep Calm and Look Fabulous

About Keep Calm and Look Fabulous


The First and Second World Wars brought great changes in society; some of which were reflected in the clothes people wore. This exhibition takes a look at how fashion changed and adapted from the 1910s to the 1940s. The greatest changes were felt by women as they took the journey from corset and hobble skirt to fashion freedom.

This exhibition is a celebration of the historical British attitude to ‘keep calm and carry on’. Even at a time of war people still strove to look fashionable and retain a sense of normality.

1910s – Bright Young Things

Early 1910s fashion was led by designer Paul Poiret and inspired by oriental styles. ‘Harem’ trousers and kimonos were popular. Poiret introduced dresses that did not require a corset, but introduced the ‘hobble skirt’ which made the wearer shuffle. High, boned collars were replaced by low-cut necklines. During this time men worked and women generally stayed at home.

The First World War in 1914 saw men go to war and women employed in the work that they left behind. Women wore trousers in factories, so fashion steered towards a less restrictive style. The fashion market slowed down when young designers enlisted in the army. Military styles became fashionable and some garments, like the officer’s great coat, were worn by both men and women. The ‘war crinoline’, a calf-length skirt, was promoted as ‘patriotic’ and ‘practical’.

Towards the end of the war the government introduced a ‘National Standard Dress’, which was a garment for every occasion. It was not popular, but people dressed less extravagantly and Coco Chanel introduced costume jewellery. 1918 marked the end of the First World War. The same year women over 30 were given the vote. Although women’s clothes were simpler, they were still far from functional.

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  • Cream crepe dress trimmed with satin and lace, c.1910-1912. The high collar, long narrow skirt and corseted waist are all typical of the period before the First World War.

  • Homemade woollen twill dress with beaded detail, c.1910-1916. It is worn with a dyed fox fur tippet, 1915.

  • Russet pink dress, c.1910-1912. The high neck and the motifs on the bodice are typical of the period. A corset would have been worn to emphasise the waist, bust and hips.

  • Women's Auxiliary Army Corps uniform, 1917. The skirt signalled a revolution in women's fashion, as it had shortened to a comparatively practical ankle length.

1920s – Bright Young Things

After the First World War, young people wanted to have fun. Women’s fashion had been shaped by the freedom experienced whilst men had been away fighting. They were reluctant to return to restrictive clothes and lifestyles. Many women worked, drove cars and smoked cigarettes.

Skirts shortened, waists reached the hip and curves were no longer the focus. The corset was abandoned and the bust was flattened. The boyish ‘garconne’ style featured a jumper, pleated skirt and flesh-coloured stockings. The ‘Flapper girl’ cut her hair into a short bob and wore dark eye make up and a string of pearls. Coco Chanel’s designs made the wearing of jersey two-pieces very popular. They could be mass-produced, so fashion became available to the lower classes. Jazz appeared with upbeat dances like the ‘Charleston’, and with them came dresses that were short, sleeveless and beaded.

Menswear became more informal. Pullovers, brogues and plus fours were popularised by the Prince of Wales. Hats were still worn for all occasions. Cloaks were worn to the theatre, with a top hat and a silver-topped cane.

The Wall Street Crash in the autumn of 1929 brought the Roaring Twenties to a halt. Suddenly these extravagances could no longer be justified.

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  • Artificial silk and chiffon dress with embroidered detail, c.1921-1929. The dropped waist, lack of sleeves and fur detail place this dress firmly in the 1920s.

  • Black tulle and satin evening dress with bead, sequin and gem detail, c.1923-1927. This style of dress was influenced by the post-war craze for dancing.

  • Men's dinner suit comprising jacket, trousers, waistcoat and shirt, c.1925-1930.

  • Orange silk knitted and crocheted tunic, c.1920-1925. Crochet and knitwear became popular during this period, as did the colour orange.

  • Tailor-made wool pinstripe suit, c.1920s. The business-like nature of this suit reflects the independent nature of the 1920s woman.

1930s – Era of Elegance

During the 1930s a much more feminine and sophisticated look was promoted by designers such as Coco Chanel and Jean Patou. Sporting past times like tennis, cycling, and motoring became more popular. Showing a tan and dieting were soon essential for the athletic silhouette.

As more women took on paid employment, daytime looks became tailored and angular. Square shoulders, plumed hats, low heels and gauntlet gloves were stylish. Women also wore trousers more often. Some knitted garments from the 1920s were cut to the new higher waist.

In the evenings women sipped cocktails in long, backless, figure-hugging gowns. Designer Madeleine Vionnet popularised the bias cut dress, which flowed gracefully over the body. In 1935 nylon was invented and used as a substitute for silk in many different products.

The new ideal male shape had wide shoulders, a prominent chest and narrow hips. Double-breasted coats, peaked lapels and striped suiting helped to achieve the desired shape.

On 3rd September 1939 Britain declared war against Germany. Once again, fashion would have to leave luxury behind and look for ways to survive.

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  • Artificial silk outfit comprising top, trousers and bag, c.1930s. Women had worn trousers for informal events since the 1920s, but they only became widespread in the late 1930s.

  • Evening dress comprising dress, bolero, belt and shoes, 1930s. The long slim elegant style is typical of the period.

  • Girl's blue synthetic silk dress, c.1930-1940. It is embroidered in finely detailed smocking designs.

  • Navy blue satin dress, c.1935-1939. The sophisticated feminine look has replaced the boyish look of the 1920s.

1940s – Second World War

During the Second World War of 1939 to 1945, women once again took over the work of men as they were called away. Women also served in the armed forces and in voluntary services such as the Women’s Land Army.

To deal with shortages, clothes rationing was introduced in June 1941. In May 1942 the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers designed a utility range. These garments used the minimum amount of cloth and were sold at controlled prices.

The Board of Trade advised people to ‘make do and mend’. People also made their own clothes by re-using material from old garments, furnishing fabrics, surplus army blankets and blackout cloths. Stockings were scarce so girls applied watered down gravy or weak tea to their legs, and used eyebrow pencils to draw ‘seams’.

In 1947, designer Christian Dior unveiled a collection of clothes dubbed the ‘New Look’ by Carmel Snow, editor of ‘Vogue’. Dior used large amounts of material, bringing back the wasp waist, curved bust, high heels and decoration. Officials disapproved, as clothes rationing was still in force. However, manufacturers managed to produce it at reasonable prices since everyone wanted this luxurious look compared to wartime clothes. Rationing finally ended in 1951.

Humber Museums Partnership