Museum Of Musings

Heritage, history, and books.

The enduring fashion legacy of aviatrix mania

We’re all familiar with it, the chunky goggles, flappy flying hats, the leather jackets. It’s aviation apparel, or rather what we imagine someone would wear when flying a plane. By today’s standards, these classic garments are impractical and probably quite dangerous to wear. However, in the 1920s and 30s, aviation fashion was game-changing and permanently changed women’s wear.

THE WOMEN’S NURSING SERVICES ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1918 (Q 108195) Demobilised Army Nurses on a transport ship at Boulogne, ca. 1919. Copyright: © IWM.

After the first world war, the trends in fashion for both men and women was changing dramatically. Yet, for women it was more pronounced than ever before. The huge increase in working women was changing how clothes were obtained. Whilst homemade clothes were still popular, ready made clothes were on the rise to meet the demanding changes in styles that many could no longer keep up with. Many women in Europe and America had worked in war-time factories alongside machinery and in make-shift hospitals, and part of that life was the wearing of suitable, practical, clothing. This also brought about a clear distinction between working clothes and leisure clothes. Prior to, and during the war, clothes were largely kept over several years in a constant state of being mended and tweaked. The new working woman, however, did not have the time to spare mending or altering her clothes.

Enter the aviatrixes.

Memorial Day air races, 1934, USA.

The breathtaking confidence that it took to fly an early plane combined with the symbolic power of a giant metal machine, meant those first female pioneers were rocketed to stardom. It wasn’t just Amelia Earhart who enjoyed being a household name, others such as Mary, Lady Heath, Bessie Coleman, and Amy Johnson were sensationalised. Each aviatrix had their own unique story to tell, and became known in turn for their unique dress sense. Whilst these women were usually reported with individuality, their fashion choices were rather a homogeneous phenomenon. Yet, it is important to remember that, during the Depression, these pilots were often middle-to-upper class, with money to spend. Their expensive hobby was a fascination to a society in which large sections of the population were struggling to even feed themselves. For example, Amy Johnson appeared in magazine adverts for Castrol Oil, and had music composed and published for her homecoming flights. You couldn’t escape them.

Advert for Castrol Oil, Woman Engineer Magazine, March 1933.

The aviation outfits that appeared in magazines and in newsreels reflected the practicalities required of uniforms and popularised the wearing of unrestrictive garments, even if the cost wasn’t practical. The wardrobe of these female pioneers consisted of separate skirts and blouses, sturdy boots, and oversized jackets, which were very popular with those with a more relaxed attitude towards clothing. Accessories such as ties, large belts, and scarves were also worn. Gone were the restrictive and hyper-feminine shapes of the Edwardian period. Women no longer wanted to be confined to the indoors, they had had a taste of non-domestic physical work and they needed their clothes to reflect that.

Garment label from ‘Amelia’s Fashions’, from the Henry Ford Collection.

Amelia Earhart even launched a fashion line, Amelia’s Fashions, which included items such as trench coats and wool suits, and may have even been the first to sell separates meaning that women could purchase each garment in the correct size. No faffing about with tailoring at home. Then, in the 1940s, lightweight ‘sports clothing’ officially bridged the gap between clothing for work and evening. Think Katharine Hepburn, with her wide-legged trousers and loose shirts, who further helped lessen the pressure of justifying practical clothing. 

Of course, there are many other social and economic factors that dictate the evolution of styles but the effect of aviation mania encouraged the conversation on the changing occupations and aesthetics of women that had begun with WWI. We can still see traces of this fashion craze today, from photoshoots in posh magazines where a supermodel leans boldly near a propeller, to collections on the runway (you only have to do a quick search on Pinterest to see examples for both).

The legacy left by these aviatrixes has been that flight, and the clothing that goes with it, can be a by-word for empowerment. One could even say that whilst female aviators pioneered fashion, their unique fashions in fact helped garner a public passion for flight.

Madness to the Heart: A bleak picture of alcoholism in Georgian London

 

In 1751 William Hogarth published two prints in support of the Gin Act. The Gin Act was the government’s attempt at reforming England’s addition to drink. Hogarth’s depictions of ‘Gin Lane’ and ‘Beer Lane’ (thinly disguised portrayals of London) were his attempt at using his fame to prove to the Georgian public the evils of consuming spirits. Somewhat ironically, or perhaps not for the cynical, the increase in gin production in the late 1600s was supported by the government as a way of propping up the price of grain and increase trade. Hogarth’s Gin Lane is full of death, suicide, crime, and general dispair.

You only have to look at the newspapers at the time to see how problematic drink was for London. In 1751, the year Hogarth published his prints, The National Gazette reported of three types of gin being seized from an illegal distiller and poured into the sea.

The National Gazette (London, England), Saturday, December 28, 1751.

The following report tells of a man who had been found dead in one of London’s infamous meat markets after drinking too much Geneva, a popular type of dutch gin and one that was frequently demonised in the press.

Daily Post (London, England), Wednesday, January 4, 1727.

It is thought that Hogarth didn’t gain much in profits from the publishing of these prints, they were highly available and cheap reproductions were made. Rather, he wanted to show his audience the blight that drink was having upon them. Indeed, Hogarth had already made a name for himself as a ‘political artist’, publishing satire which disturbed the public and government alike. In 1811, Charles Lamb wrote that he had seen “many turn away from it [Gin Lane], not being able to bear it”, praising Hogarth for his ability to “unvulgarise” even the most profane topics.

The Gin Act of 1751 was not the first. In 1736 the government passed the first Gin Act, which forbade anyone to distill and sell spirits without a proper license. It also introduced a higher tax on the spirit meaning that the price went up. Yet, two decades later, England’s problem with spirit consumption was reaching crisis point. Not only was it costing parliament a considerable amount in controlling crime committed under the influence, it was also causing a huge strain on the relationship between the upper and the lower classes. Those with the least in life were often the worst affected. Gin was a cheap past time in an era where disease, un-employment, and appalling living conditions were normal.

Yet it was the new type of middling class that was having an unseen yet substantial impact on those at the bottom of society. Consumerism, as we know it today, was gripping the high streets. Households had more income to spend due to the lower cost of living, and there were more people stepping outside the home to drink. This meant more could be spent on alcohol, and the more that was spent on alcohol the higher the production of it, so much so that illegal distilleries selling cheap but lethally strong spirits were widespread. Supply and demand.

In contrast, ‘Beer Street’ was produced to show that those who veered away from the stronger stuff were better off in every possible way.

The residents of Beer Street, in contrast to Gin Lane, are well nourished, jolly, able to enjoy cultural pursuits (note the pile of books and the sign painter, which could quite likely be Hogarth himself), no one is dead, and the pawn broker is out of business. Beer had long been a staple of the English diet. Water was far too dodgy to drink regularly so weak beer was drunk morning, noon, and night. A slightly tipsy population was much more preferable to the zombie-like behaviour of gin addicts.

Throughout history we see authorities lay blame for the worst problems in society on substances, and the story of Georgian England’s relationship to gin is comparable to today’s war on drugs, and the effects were not unlike that of the synthetic drug ‘spice’ that we see in the news. Usually, and to put it simply, there is always a link between issues in society and the rise in a problematic behaviour.

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