Theatre Costumes and War-Kimberly Lamping

The trench coat was originally developed for British and French soldiers in the First World War by Thomas Burberry.

The trench coat was originally developed for British and French soldiers in the First World War by Thomas Burberry.

War and Costume

            Historically, war has a pattern of significantly influencing fashion. Specifically, World War I had a particularly strong impact on clothes for public use, and  also theater. World War I affected what style of clothing was warn, fabrics that were used, and in turn theatre costuming.

World War I (1914-1918) had profound effects on fashion, especially for women. Women’s new, active role in society was enhanced by military inspired clothing that was adopted at this time. There was a move by women into “more comfortable, practical clothes that were required for their more active participation in the variety of jobs they had taken over from men”. Skirts grew shorter and the “shirtwaist blouse and skirt were widely adopted”. Tailored suits, with a distinctly military look became even more popular. One of the most popular military inspired coats was the Trench coat. It became “a standard item of rainwear for men and after several decades was also adopted by women”. Variations of the Trench coat are still very popular today.  Military was able to influence fashion because some of “the clothing worn by soldiers was passed into use by the public” (Tortora). These fashion changes were reinforced by the media and theatre. Movie stars would sport these new fashions and therefore increased their popularity. This also held true for Actresses in live theatre.

Regulations on fabrics and color affected costuming for theatre. Theatres may have been more likely to make simple costumes or to borrow costumes. This also may have affected what kinds of shows were produced. For example, Vaudeville was a theatrical genre of variety entertainment that was very popular during this time period. Several movements in theater begin to emerge during this time, such as: Naturalistic Drama and Realism. Both of these movements try to capture human live as realistically as possible. The acting looks unrehearsed and natural, the setting is made to look ordinary and organic and the costumes are generally simple and ordinary (Wilson). This style of theatre would of made costuming less expensive and more convenient.

“World War I disrupted fiber supplies” (Tortora). During times of war, certain fabrics were tightly regulated or not available to the public because they were needed for uniforms. The fabrics that were most tightly regulated were: wool, cotton, and linen. In the Journal of Home Economics for March 1918, Amy L. Rolfe of the Department of Home Economics said “There is so little raw wool on the market, and so much of that is being commandeered by the government for the soldiers uniforms and blankets” (Tortora). Wool was used to make uniforms and blankets for the soldiers. Since the demand for wool was high, it was in short supply and had to be strictly regulated. “The cotton situation is almost as bad as the wool situation, although the United States has the advantage as it grows more than half the cotton in the world…..the price of cotton has risen to alarming heights” (Tortora). Cotton was used as bandages, khaki uniforms and tents. “The use of linen as a substitute is more impossible still. Millions of yards of linen are needed for aeroplane wings…The reason for the shortage of linen is that much of the flax of the world has been grown near the German border and has been trampled down and broken by the warfare that has been going on there…” (Tortora).  Another aspect of fashion that was tightly regulated was dark colors. This became manifest in the public very quickly. People tended to wear light, drab colors due to the higher price of dark colored clothing.

World War I influenced not only theatre costuming of the decade, but the fashion of the general public. World War I stunted costuming development because of the high price of clothing. Theatre costumes tended to be in line with clothing of the public; they were more subdued, more natural, and less “showy”. It wasn’t until after World War I that theatre started producing huge musical productions such as Show Boat and Oklahoma. Fashion during war tends to be very subdued and then explode once the war is over. This was especially true for World War 1 and theatre costuming.


            Tortora, Phyllis G., and Keith Eubank. “The eighteenth century.” Survey of Historic Costume. fifth edition ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2012.419-442. Print.

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. “Theatres form 1945 to 1975.” Living Theatre, History of     Theatre. 6th            Edition ed. New York : McGraw-Hill, 2012. Print.


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