Women and the Second World War: How tweed helped drive the feminist movement

The experts at Walker Slater explore the role tweed played during the Second World War and beyond.

AHEAD of Remembrance Day tomorrow, now is the time for us as a nation to look back in history and commemorate those who fought for us in the war. Since then, society has seen many evolutionary changes take place that have achieved some major milestones when it comes to greater equality. One movement in particular is the rise of feminism. Women’s suffrage back in 1918 led to the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act. This was the catalyst for many powerful gender-equal movements—with tweed contributing to this during the Second World War.

Originating in the Highlands, this rough, twill-patterned fabric remains a popular material. Today, it’s used to design clothes with a nostalgic twist to them. However, this material was once much more than a fashionable ladies’ tweed jacket. In fact, tweed played a huge role in the feminist movement and the normalisation of women wearing trousers.

Here, we take a look back at how this durable material helped the fight for equality back in the Second World War.

Women and the workforce

Looking back through history, the division of labour between men and women was defined as “expressive” and “instrumental” roles. This meant that, traditionally, men went to work and played the breadwinner role in the family, while women stayed at home for domestic tasks and childbearing. But when the Second World War began in 1939, society suffered a skill shortage with men going to fight in the war. This is when the role of women changed significantly.

Since industrialisation and the demand for factory work was dominant in society, many women stepped up to the plate and worked to help prevent factory closures. Other than the jobs being physically demanding, long and flowy dresses were impractical clothing attire. This is where tweed trousers were introduced across the labour force.

What did this mean for the feminist movement?

Before trousers were worn by women in the workforce, it wasn’t a universally accepted concept for women to wear them. However, the 1940s sparked a change in social attitudes and saw a merge of both men’s and women’s fashion. From trousers to trouser suits and utilitarian coats, tweed led the evolution of less gender-orientated clothing.

Trendy tweed

As the tweed trend continued to prosper throughout the Second World War, this saw the introduction of the “wartime cycling girl” outfit. Featuring a jacket, trousers, and skirt, this outfit allowed women to cycle to work in trousers then change into a skirt. Not only did this combine both men’s and women’s fashion, but it acted as inspiration for tweed clothing items in later decades.

So, what’s happened since then?

Following its transformation of practical womenswear during the war, tweed took the high fashion world by storm. For many, tweed is synonymous with one fashion designer: Coco Chanel. She began introducing tweed into her collection as early as the 1920s, but it was the 1950s when she launched the iconic jacket we all associate with her. It truly cemented its place in fashion history when it was worn by Jackie Kennedy in 1963, and has been re-adapted and re-styled ever since.

As women strived to make trousers part of their everyday clothing attire in the 1960s, tweed became an integral part of this movement. The variety of colours and abstract patterns derived from the Chanel jacket ignited a shift away from the original moorland tones that tweed once entailed. Instead, the 1960s saw the introduction of mini-skirts and flared trousers in western societies inspired by tweed. Even Chanel’s iconic jacket was designed to free women from the restricted fashion styles of the 1950s. This again contributed to the feminist wave across society.

As the punk movement in the 1970s hit the world by storm, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood took inspiration from both this and the historical tweed design, creating the ultimate historical punk-inspired collection in the 1980s.

In more recent news, during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016, her consistent wearing of pantsuits did not go unnoticed. She was pictured wearing them to every public event and it became an admirable trait of hers by her devotees. So much so, the “Pantsuit Nation” became a social media trend that gained the Facebook page 3.9 million followers.

As the end of 2020 approaches, society continues to drive changes toward greater equality. From women’s suffrage to the more recent “me too” movement. As proven by tweed, any resource around us can help promote change—after all, who would have thought a pair of tweed trousers could help excel the rise of feminism?