British Soldiers, 1914-1918
Laura Ugolini (University of Wolverhampton)
Recent histories of consumption have shown that far from ‘renouncing’ any interest in fashion and dress, Victorian and Edwardian men were keen – in some instances even enthusiastic – consumers of clothes, with masculine purchases ranging from the most exclusive bespoke suits and outerwear, to relatively inexpensive outfitting items such as collars and ties. However, we still know relatively little about the relationship between masculinity and clothes consumption where garments that (seemingly) do not involve consumer choice are concerned—uniforms of various types being a prime example of this neglect.
Focusing on military uniforms, and more specifically the uniforms worn by British combatants during the First World War, both officers and other ranks, it is thus the aim of this talk to explore the relationship between uniforms and masculine identities. The paper argues that the uniform played a central role in marking a great variety of ‘transformations’ brought about on individual men by the war: changes of uniform could mark, for example, promotion, a move to a different branch of the armed forces, special duties, as well as illness or injury.
However, this paper will focus on three specific moments of recruits’ engagement with the military: the moment of first putting on a uniform after enlistment, the moment of becoming a combatant with experience of the front line and finally the moment of shedding the uniform upon demobilisation. It will thus explore the transformation from civilian man into a ‘real soldier’, fully kitted out in ‘proper’ accoutrements of war, the subsequent transformation of the spick and span raw recruit into an experienced veteran, the condition of the uniform showing the signs of active service, and finally the transformation of the soldier into a civilian, the demob suit marking the return to civilian life.
Throughout such transformations the army sought to use the uniform to further its own ends: to foster a strong sense of military esprit de corps, high morale and discipline. However, whatever the armed forces’ intentions, most men did not entirely jettison the practices associated with their civilian lives, even as they left these behind. On the contrary, the paper will conclude, as civilian men became servicemen, then veterans and then demobilised soldiers, clothed in items that seemed to involve no consumer choice, they in fact continued to maintain a strong adherence to their identities as consumers, the link between masculinity and consumption remaining intact.