Apparently, 1917 was not a year when women went around asking “Does this coat make me look fat?”
This ad for the Bedell’s catalog really got my attention, because it is not a “Lane Bryant Stout” ad. This coat is for teens 14, 16, and 18 years old, and for women with bust sizes 34 to 44 — the normal size range until the 1930s. “It is a stunning New York model made of excellent quality Melton cloth, delightfully warm” and trimmed with “silk caracul fur fabric [i.e., simulated fur];” “the wide cape collar . . . may be worn high or low.” The price is $9.98, with free express shipping included.
Sweaters were not very flattering, either. No one had yet realized that the camera can add pounds, so professional models were normal, pretty women. (An average model now is 5’11” and weighs less than 120 lbs. No wonder these models from 1917 seem a bit stocky to us.)
The coat below, from Wanamaker, was available in black, taupe, or navy blue and has a large cape collar of “taupe kit coney fur” [rabbit.] It cost nearly twice as much as the swagger coat from Bedell’s: $18.75.
These Hamilton coats are in the same price range as the others; the one on the left cost $9.75, and the one on the right cost $17.75.
During World War I, women’s suits and coats often showed a strong military influence, like the one above, right [are those crossed swords on her collar?] — so did their hats.
The very full coat on the left, above, was recommended for an 18 year old girl. The one on the right was for women up to bust 44″.
Very high collars, which could be worn open or buttoned up to the chin, took some rather strange shapes when unbuttoned:
The military influence (and a good deal of jingoism) led to ads like this one, for Kenyon coats and suits:
This coat, made of “high grade Bolivia cloth” and lined with “peau de cygne” [swansdown, either real or artificial] came in five colors, including “wistaria” and cost $55.00! (A Ford Runabout automobile cost $345 in 1917.)
Since most women would not be inspecting battlefields, I wondered why coats were so bulky and heavy in 1917.
These two ads from December, 1917, gave me a clue:
The Ford Model T, introduced in 1908, was by far the most popular car in America: 734,811 Fords were made in 1916. Willys-Overland was second, with 124,834. [Source: Average Guy’s Car.]
You’ll notice that cars could get very chilly.
For some time, cars were similar to the horse-drawn carriages they replaced — open to the elements.
“In 1911, Buick introduced its first closed-body car, four years ahead of Ford,” according to Wikipedia. AfterMarket News says the 1913 Hudson Model 54 was “the first U.S. automobile with a closed body. Previously, cars left their occupants completely exposed to the weather, or, at best, covered by a convertible top.” [Source: aftermarketnews.com.]
Whichever is right, in 1917, most Americans who owned a car were driving through winter rain and snow without a hard roof, glass windows, a heater, or any insulation. And American women were definitely driving cars.
If it was a winter like 2015, they needed warm coats.
7 responses to “Button Up Your Overcoat, 1917”
Also, remember that many of these women, like my grandma, got pregnant right after the war, just as my parents did after WWII. A nice big coat was needed back in those days when ladies didn’t advertise their bumps!
Funny, I was just thinking about post-war baby booms and fifties’ fashions — which emphasized a wide-hipped, fertile looking figure. Waistlines rose right after the US Civil War and were [remained] high after the Napoleonic wars. The nineteen twenties really are strange, because the thick-waisted 1910s’ look became boyish and child-like — the opposite of fertile –although, whether anyone admitted it or not, the horizontal hip line did exaggerate hip size. Can anyone recommend a book about this?
Great theories here! And perhaps the vogue for all things military meant that women wanted to look bundled up like soldiers.
Those are some funny looking collars when they aren’t buttoned all the way up the neck!
I just found myself some bright green (been looking for green for over a year!) Melton wool for a winter coat. I’m planning to use a vintage pattern from 1965 though – don’t think I want my coat to look quite as bulky as the ones made of Melton wool in 1917!
The military influence and social change in the workplace is reflected in the everyday fashions for women during the WW1 period. What was termed “The Great Coat” for men and the wool gaberdine trench coat, became an adapted style for women. The Kenyon ad is a perfect example and includes the reference to “weatherproofs.” Women were wearing practical clothing while working in factories doing jobs usually reserved for men and in Britain women wore uniforms to carry out essential services for example postal and public transit. Women wanted to identify with the sacrifices being made and felt that it was more appropriate to wear slightly subdued clothing out of respect. It is hard today to put yourself in that time but for those countries involved in the war there must have been a profound sense of communal grief and reflection over the enormous loss of life. Fashion seemed to be put in perspective.
You’re absolutely right about the strong influence of military uniforms on womens’ fashions in the 1914-1918 period. Having read about the war service of women in France and England for almost two years, American women were eager to “do their bit” when the U.S. entered the war and responded to appeals for volunteer work overwhelmingly. Of course, at the time, magazine editors were reading heavily censored news, while I’m reading their magazines from the perspective of one who has seen the horrific casualty figures of World War I.
Reading two years’ worth of Ladies’ Home Journal and Delineator magazines (1917-1918) from a 21st century perspective has been very educational for me, but I can’t help seeing women wanting to “play soldier,” dressing their children in miniature military uniforms, and perhaps sewing the uniforms that proclaimed them volunteers even before sewing the hospital gowns, etc., which was their volunteer work. The women’s magazines did great work in communicating the exact needs of the War Office and The Red Cross to civilians, but they were also in the business of selling sewing patterns. Blithe references to “holding the line” and “going over the top” in 1917 fashion coverage shocks me, but the writers had no real awareness — from documentary footage released later — of what they meant.
Some really great coats! Reminds me of the proportion of certain styles in fashion today!