How WWI Changed Men’s Style Forever
The look of the modern man was actually invented in the trenches of Europe.
American men dress differently after every major conflict. After the Revolutionary War, Americans embraced the navy jacket. After the Civil War, mass production allowed for off-the-rack shirting. After the Spanish-American War, the first durable jeans hit the market. But no war changed men’s style as much as WWI. The war that began a century ago this month shredded western culture, rendering the ideal of the “enlightened” man obsolete. If the pre-war man was measured and intelligent, the post-war man was vigorous, tough, and efficient. He was dressed for any occasion.
Clothes got tougher, bulkier, and better fit. Patterns were tweaked and accessories were streamlined. Men went from looking civilized to looking efficient. We still do – largely because we’re wearing garments built for war. Here are the holdovers from “The Great War” you keep in your closet.
During the Spanish-American war, U.S. troops were kitted out with Russet Marching Shoes, streamlined calfskin boots with a delicate, elongated profile and a single sole. Soldiers spent nearly as much time cursing their footwear as Alfonso León Fernando María Jaime Isidro Pascual Antonio de Borbón y Habsburgo-Lorena, the king of Spain. The soles fell off and the brogue-like bodies crumpled. The boots looked glamorous – some even had circular metal heels to help soldiers pivot while marching on the drill field – but weren’t a practical choice for combat on the fields of Flanders, where trenches filled with water. To combat trench foot, a condition caused by prolonged dampness that leads to gangrene, the army introduced the “Pershing Boot,” which had a thicker sole, Chrome Vegetable retained cowhide sides, and an enlarged, waterproofed toe box. Soldiers called their boots “Little Tanks” because they were so much larger than their predecessors.
At the end of the war, factories continued to produced the trench boots. Today, men refer to the ancestors of the hobnail boot perfected by General John Pershing as “work boots” and wear them with jeans. Wolverine and Red Wing, the popular Minnesota brands known for footwear that wouldn’t have warranted a second glance at the First Battle of the Marne, have been ubiquitous over the last few years. The bulkier, un-breakable men’s boot is an American classic. We go to work in shoes design to go to war.
Prior to the Great War, well-made coats had tails, profoundly cinched waists, narrow shoulders, and tight sleeves. Rather than accentuating the natural triangular shape of a broad-shouldered man’s body, jackets gave men a soft, almost hourglass form. The look worked for men of leisure, but it was a disaster in the field, where men need to be able to move their arms. That’s why the British Army adopted the 1902 Service Dress Tunic, a boxier jacket with rifle-pad shoulders, large chest pockets, and a barrel chest. The new uniform was such a success that the American military basically copied it with the Wool Uniform Coat. The new coats looked sharp and masculine – so much so that veterans continued wearing square-bottom blazers with expanded chests when they returned home.
Though the current trend is toward more tailored suits, modern jackets are still designed for action, not leisure. The right fit allows men to move.
Pocketwatches dominated the market in 1910. The vast majority of timepieces sold spent their working lives on the ends of chains connected to belt loops and buttons. A decade later, the hand-held time piece was disappearing and the wristwatch was on the rise. Two models were largely responsible for the change. The Hamilton watch, worn by flying aces who couldn’t reach into their pockets during dog fights, was the first truly mass-produced wristwatch. The Hamilton Watch Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, made over a million “Khaki” watches for the military before the war was out. For decades after, fighting men wore their Hamiltons as a reminder of what they accomplished and who they left behind in Europe.
The second important watch of the era was designed by Louis Cartier, who was impressed by the Renault take he saw while fighting on the Western Front. In 1917, his family jewelry business released its first “Tank” watch, a rectangular stainless steel timepiece with prominent roman numerals. If Hamilton popularized the American field watch with the “Khaki,” Cartier created the modern European luxury wristwatch business with the “Tank.” The prototype was gifted to General Pershing, re-inventor of the boot.
British infantryman weren’t allowed to wear trench coats, the long rain jackets made of Thomas Burberry’s miraculous gabardine fabric. Only officers were allowed to have the coats and – even then – they had to purchase them at their own expense. Many well-heeled and well-bred leaders bought the greatcoats as statement pieces. They were a classic British affectation, class statements disguised as clothing.
Modern trench coats look a great deal like their WWI antecedents, though most feature fewer pockets and less pronounced collars. To this day, most high-end trenches have d-rings on their belts, a call back to the days when officers had to clip on map cases and scopes.
In 1917, the U.S. Army mobilized to make sure that servicemen could see by hiring American Optical, a then-91-year-old firm out of Southbridge, Massachusetts, to build eight mobile optical units capable of supplying troops on both fronts. The contract was all-important for America’s fighting myopics, but it also militarized AO, which had a patent on an early tinted lens designed by British chemist William Crookes that was quickly incorporated into flight goggles. The goggles were deep, rounded, and well received by pilots, who kept asking for bigger lenses.
Over the years after the end of the war, AO evolved those goggles, creating both next-gen anti-flak goggles used in WWII and the first aviator sunglasses. The company would eventually make the glasses worn by Neil Armstrong during the first moon landing, but that was a ways off. What WWI forced eyewear designers to do was create eyewear that could thrive in almost any condition. American men have been reluctant to take off their sunglasses ever since.