Fashion in history is a topic which has come of age in recent years, as scholars have turned to addressing what is chic and what is style over the ages and across different cultures. The history of fashion, and the role of fashion in history, is not just confined to the study of dress and costume, but encompasses design and innovation, taste and zeitgeist, treats as its subjects both people and objects, and crosses over into related disciplines such as the history of art and architecture, consumption, retailing and technology.

All of the above encouraged the choice of fashion as the theme for the 2015 Anglo American Conference of Historians, and the online exhibition Fashion and consumption in the First World War was planned and released in conjunction with this event.

The online exhibition is the result of a collaboration between the Institute of Historical Research’s IHR Digital Department and Senate House Library, with the former designing and hosting the website, and the latter scanning the catalogues, taken from its Playne collection holdings.

It may be something of a surprise to learn that the fashion catalogues on which this resource was based, with their beautiful cover imagery and wealth of social history, were collected as part of one woman’s campaign for permanent world peace. Caroline Playne (1857–1948) saw catalogues of this sort as evidence of the immoral opulence of women’s fashions at the start of the war. She recorded that in the first months of war, fashions did not alter and remained ‘hampering and effeminate in the extreme’, wholly inappropriate to the roles women began to assume.

The catalogues themselves provide fascinating evidence of how fashion had changed by the mid-point of the War. Some fashions, such as smaller hats and less structured clothing, predated August 1914, but these trends continued as the war wore on. The combined impacts of lower consumer spending, reduced availability of higher quality fabrics and a growing need for clothing that allowed a freedom of movement for women to work, shaped the fashions following 1915.

If we look at the Bradleys 1916 summer catalogue, there are few evening gowns, especially in comparison to coats and suits. We see ‘useful gowns’ and ‘sports coats’ in Bradleys spring 1917 catalogue, but just three tea gowns and no evening gowns. The skirts in Dickins & Jones Advance Spring catalogue are inches above ankles, a more practical length for movement. John Barnes autumn and winter catalogue gives evidence of the preference for ‘the practical tailor-made suit with loosely belted jacket and walking skirt’. These select catalogues from 1916 and 1917 illustrate well the effect of the First World War on women’s clothing, providing visual evidence of the war’s impact on materials, the roles of women and fashion itself.

The project was also concerned with the way in which the catalogues have been conserved and restored. All of them were mechanically cleaned using a soft, inert eraser, and then had those staples which had begun to damage the paper removed. Missing and damaged pages were repaired using Japanese paper.

With regard to the scanning of the material, which was done in-house in Senate House Library, the process was as follows: the catalogues were placed upon the copy stand, where they were staged and held using typical support cushions and/or restraints. The catalogues were then flanked by Q3 colour targets for accurate colour reference. We used a Canon EOS 5d MK3 DSLR for the actual image capture and lighting was supplied by Bowens light boxes.

The exhibition will be a permanent resource hosted by the IHR and freely available to anyone wishing to explore the role of fashion in history. Schools in particular will find it a useful resource that can provide new insights into the study of the First World War. It is anticipated that new catalogues may be added in the future, and anyone with material to suggest, or with questions of any sort, should contact:

Danny Millum is deputy editor of the IHR’s online journal, Reviews in History.