“We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led.
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.”
I’m remembering Armistice Day this year with a French inspired outfit that places me in the late 1910s, so I can observe this holiday dressing the way a woman like me might have done back then. Worn for a visit to the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri to see their exhibits, these clothes helped me place myself in a position of empathy and insight for the experiences of people from those times. Well done, informative exhibitions always bestow upon me a view through a lens outside of my own. For me, though, also wearing the corresponding era of clothing is a level up in re-enacting an alternate reality for the purpose of gaining understanding. I always take our trips wearing my handmade clothes (the greater percent of my wardrobe now), and most often that is in vintage style…well, now I have done my first escapade traveling in historical fashion!
The blouse I’m wearing is a special teen’s era original “Armistice” style blouse to match the old antique logo pin on my collar lapel which pledges “I will parade – Armistice Day”. Together, my blouse and pin is a 1918 statement of support for the end of the fighting, and a promise to be there for the enlisted when they come home. This is worn with my handmade circa 1917 cotton skirt, based off of late WWI catalog images which inspired me.
For those who wear historical fashions, it is often said that one feels like a time traveler, especially when those clothes are worn in a period appropriate setting. However, I recently got to thinking – what would I wear if I was actually time traveling? It struck me, that out of all the pretty, fancy outfits I would like to wear, the most sensible, useful, and, necessary kind of dressing for going back in time would also be the hum-drum, practical, everyday clothing. I was considering these ideas because our trip to the National WWI Museum included going to the front lines in the trenches of Passchendaele (1917) through the overwhelmingly immersive “War Remains” virtual reality exhibit. Then, I was also going to see the “Silk and Steel” exhibit as well, and learn about the French fashion for women of WWI…a much lighter topic. I felt like a nonchalant kind of historical garb – this not the time or place for a flashy outfit.
Both exhibits opened my eyes to a picture that shows the personal trials, heroic acts, and unimaginable sufferings of those who did and did not survive, not just some numbers and dates to remember. A casualty can be more than just the passing of a life…the veterans who committed suicide in the years following Armistice, the civilians who were collateral damage, or the long term misery of disfigurements from poison gas do not officially get added to the death count of a battle. Thus, even though Remembrance Day commemorates the armistice agreement that ended the First World War on Monday, November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m., the lost lives before that time were not the end of the story. Their sacrifice lives on. Their legacy is beautiful, complex, terribly tragic, and of the utmost importance. This is what makes the poppy such a powerful, simple, silent witness for such an overwhelming bequest. Wearing one is such a small gesture, and so easy to do, but it means so much!
Also, I would like to recognize the “le bleuet” cornflower badge that is the French equivalent to Canada and Commonwealth nations using the poppy as a symbol of WWI remembrance. After all, one in three French men died between the ages of 18-30 by 1917 alone. What is so sad to me is the way many soldiers on all sides thought that they would be comfortably settled back home by the Christmas of that year. The Armistice did not come as soon as expected. I waited to have my picture taken in these faux poppy fields (on the front lawn of the National WWI Museum) until after our virtual reality “War Remains” experience so as to have the full realization of that symbolic flower hit me… and wow, did it ever! I let myself be emotional invested into the living exhibit and it left me ready to bawl… but I heartily recommend it, nonetheless. As the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele’s last living survivor had said, “Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims.” It was a battle of mud, blood, and futility through Belgian fields, with 500 thousand casualties, making it one of the war’s most costly battles of attrition. So whether you choose a poppy or a “le bleuet”, the Remembrance Day message is the same – the legacy on the living to honor the sacrifice of the heroes who are gone but not forgotten.
FABRIC: lightweight 100% cotton plaid, lined in a cling-free polyester, with a hem extension of a cotton knit leftover from this Burda Style dress project
NOTIONS USED: four fabric covered button blanks, one metal vintage zipper, and lots of thread
TIME TO COMPLETE: This skirt was worked on in 2019 for a few hours and halfway completed, but finally finished up after a few more hours’ time in August of 2021.
TOTAL COST: My only cost was for one yard of eyelet material – $12 – otherwise all else was free on hand items from out of my stash
Not only is this unusual for being a historical outfit that traveled out-of-town with me, but this was a refashion project of a dated ready-to-wear item from my old wardrobe, as well. Both factors combined give this skirt a historical appearance, but not when it comes to my manner of making. This is one of those “what you can’t see won’t hurt” kind of sewing projects that I almost never make. Not that this is a messily finished refashion – on the contrary, everything is cleanly serged (overlocked) insides…see what I mean? I usually never use a serger. It’s just that I was making-do with what I had, using up scraps together with some unwanted garments on hand to create something that gives an authentic late WWI era appearance. What was underneath to create that look is not something exactly true to the era. Simplicity (as in straightforwardness) was my key word here. I wanted to travel without the need to bring the proper era undergarments (such as this slip I made) which I usually wear to create the French ‘tonneau’ barrel skirt shape (widest from mid-thigh to the knee) so classic for the late 1910s.
The “Silk and Steel” exhibit made several interesting points about the barrel skirt silhouette. The woman who wore the ‘new look’ of 1917, started by French couturiers such as Jeanne Paquin, was deemed as a fickle woman, one easily turned by the whims of fashion, by some public opinions. A steadfast woman was expected to be constant, waiting for the return of her husband, boyfriend, brother, fiancée. Her clothes were to reflect such qualities. It was feared that the changed silhouette would be a shock to the soldiers returning home after the war, making it clear they were out of touch with the life back at home. Thus, out of consideration, many postcards and images for the enlisted show a constancy of style in women’s wartime garb (yes, a small propaganda campaign).
New and exciting fashion was also considered tasteless when 1917 was the hardest WWI year for the French, with bloody battles, mutinies on the front, economic inflations, increasing food prices, rationing, and widespread shortages. Fashion was crucial to whether there would be a wedge or a bridge between the sexes at home and on the front. Barrel (or ‘tonneau’) skirts were, however, pushed as being economical, needing less fabric with its shorter hem and lighter petticoats, thus it was popular with the middle class as well as those who bought from designers.
My skirt, with its hem extension, very well could be seen as a conservative attempt of a woman of modest means in 1917 to keep up with the popular fad. A plaid like this was not high fashion, after all, even if it was in a very French combo of blue and white. Truth be told, I really was cobbling this together, trying to make a 1917 style out of a year 1997 casual skirt which had a shot elastic waist and overly basic shape. I did wear this skirt a lot as a teenager. Back then, I preferred long cotton skirts for the summer more than shorts…they kept me from getting too much sun, were breezily cool, and made me feel pretty. However, the passing of time for both me and the skirt rendered it no longer wearable, but that didn’t mean I was done with it by any means! I’m way too thrifty, practical, and imaginative to just give up on it now. I had been looking for a good plaid to make an everyday teen’s era skirt anyway, so I might as well use what I already had on hand!
There was no way to save the disintegrated elastic – it was sewn as part of the waistline – so I merely used the skirt as-is…no unpicking, no cutting, no re-sewing needed. There was still a bit of gathering in no-longer stretchy waistband and I liked the stability its thickness would provide, two reasons for my not cutting it off. I did not want my skirt to become shorter, anyways. I merely made two pleats to the front sides at the waist so I could bring it in to fit as well as add more shape and definition to the skirt. That was all there was to it, and everything else was the details and finishing.
Here’s a quick run-through of my remaining steps. I cut a 7 inch slit and hid a vintage zipper in the fold of the left waist pleat, which gives me just enough room to put it on. Two hook and eyes help keep that zippered pleat closed. As the cotton plaid is whisper thin, it needed a lining. I keep all my poly lining fabrics in their own drawer in my stash (yay for being organized), and there I found a dark navy skirt lining draft I made from about 20 years back. It was a basic A-line shape, with an opening slit about 10 inches down from the waistline, and was just the perfect length. I hand stitched this liner into the waistband of my refashioned skirt. It was slimmer than the skirt itself so there was no room for historical undergarments, but I wanted an easy travel skirt, after all, as I mentioned above. Thus, I added a couple rows of ruffled cotton eyelet (made by me, cut from rows of fabric) directly to the lining under the plaid skirt layer to fill the “tonneau” shape out better. The layers of ruffles weigh down the flimsy lining, happily keeping it from creeping up on my body.
Finally, I added a bit of contrast (and length extension) with the solid blue cotton knit. I had one ½ yard remnant of it left, just enough to make a band to wrap around the bottom visible part of the lining. Little odd shaped scraps left from the hem band went towards making four fabric covered buttons to decorate the waistline pleats. They unify the solid fabric hem extension, and (I hope) make it appear as it my waist pleats are buttoned down (which they aren’t, though, ha).
The rest of my outfit is put together with (as I mentioned at the beginning of my post) a true antique Armistice blouse and whatever else I had on hand. My old blouse should be taking the center stage to this outfit, more than my skirt, but that is part of the beauty to it. Such a maze of intricate details gets lost to all but me, the wearer, because they are best appreciated up close and personal. It is a wonder it has survived over a hundred years to still be strong and stable enough for me to even wear it (delicately, I must add…I do not want the guilt of being the one to destroy this in any way). Its details are mind blowing – that complex handmade Irish lace, those impossibly tiny 1/8 inch French seams, and the amazing delicate yet durable traits of the sheer linen are a lesson in themselves to appreciate the lasting, artistic quality that clothes once were. All else to my outfit is modern – my sash belt is a rayon scarf held in place by a reproduction brooch (also blue). My earrings are 1950s from my maternal Grandmother, my hair comb is a new re-make, and my suede heels are vintage style from Hotter.
This 1917 outfit was every bit as easy to wear for the day as anything else I might have worn. I was so happy to wear such an outfit for my visit back to WWI. I will be the first to admit many of the housedresses of the 1910s era are almost too quaint or cute for my taste. They still are much more appealing to me than the sweatpants, t-shirt, yoga leggings, and sports bra of today. I myself can feel more comfortable in the older type of ‘everyday’ clothes much better, oddly, and can’t help but wonder what place our daily wear is going to have in the regard of history 100 years from now, in comparison. Stuff to consider!
The National WWI Museum educator Camille Kulig says “clothing is a barometer of change.” I hear fashion experts of today also applying the same phrase to what we wear in these times following the craziness of 2020. The changes that prompted the transition of fashion from the 1910s into the “Roaring 20s” does have its own parallels to what we have so far experienced of our own decade – inflation, widespread illness, rationing, as well as changing roles for men and women, to name a few matches. Nevertheless, for as much as I love to enjoy studying history, I do realize it is so much easier to look back than forward. What helps me is to see history as merely the story of people much like you and I, much like your neighbors or your friends, only placed into a different setting.
I love Remembrance Day for the opportunity to stop and reflect on all of these points. Today, or any day, remember the humanity of our collective history and give thanks for those who are serving, have served, or those who have passed on from their service for their country.