Uniforms and Fashion in the Ready-to-Wear Clothing Industry before 1914

Dr Clare Rose (The Royal School of Needlework)


From the 1840s onwards, uniforms of various kinds formed an important driver in the formation and development of the ready-to-wear clothing industry. Army uniforms had traditionally been commissioned by the colonel of the regiment, leading to profiteering that drove down both payments to workers and the quality of the garments. Clothing for inmates of institutions such as prisons, workhouses, and orphanages was contracted out to large manufacturers, forming an important part of their business. However, local management of contracts and contemporary reluctance to admit commercial interests in institutional clothing means that evidence for historical practices is fragmentary, notwithstanding the work of Maynard (1994) and Ash (2010).

What is much more evident in the literature is the extent to which military and naval uniforms provided inspiration for fashion at all levels. References to uniforms have been a staple of both male and female fashion since the 1770s and continue into the present, adding a hint of danger and for women an element of cross-dressing (Bonami, Frisa and Tonchi, 2001; Craik, 2005). In historic texts, military and naval references in dress were most often interpreted in terms of patriotic symbolism. However, my analysis of the sailor suits worn by British boys before 1914 has shown that the practical advantages of this style for both producers and consumers were what determined the extent and the longevity of this fashion (Rose, 2007; 2010; 2011).

This paper will examine the use of military detailing on ready-to-wear women’s garments c1885-1900 using documents registered by manufacturers and retailers in the Board of Trade and Stationers’ Hall archives. It will argue that, as with boys’ sailor suits, the motivation behind the use of ‘military’ detailing in women’s fashions was pragmatic rather than symbolic. Military-style braid and frogging could be used to cover flaws in the fabric or fit of ready-to-wear garments, or to update a standardised cut. Moreover, the focus on the ceremonial uniforms of elite cavalry regiments such as Hussars and Lancers distanced the female wearers from actual military practices. This distancing is brought into focus by the shift in practices during the patriotic fervour at the outset of the Boer War in 1899. The new fashion was not for cavalry officers’ braiding, but for the khaki coloured cloth worn by the rank and file.