In this guest blog, Caroline Nielsen explores how war changed the lives of women on the home front not just in terms of their daily work, but in the clothes they wore to do it.
One day in early 1915 in the pit village of Horden, County Durham, 22 year-old Elizabeth “Lizzie” Holmes set off to post a letter for her father-in-law. She was on her way home from work, and the Post Office was on the way. This seemingly innocuous errand ended with her being mobbed by children.
Why did Lizzie inadvertently become the centre of attention that day? Lizzie was wearing men’s work clothes. Her heavy shirt, leather trousers and boots was the standard gear of all above-ground pit workers. Along with a number of her friends and neighbours, Lizzie had taken a labouring job at the local pit operating the coke ovens. For the first time, the children were confronted with a woman wearing an outfit that they had previously only associated with their fathers, grandfathers and older brothers. For one brief moment, Lizzie reminded all who saw her that the war had changed fundamentally changed British industry as they knew it. Women were taking men’s jobs in all industries, including in the male-dominated coal industry.
That the simple act of wearing men’s work clothes was evidently so shocking seems odd to modern audiences. But in 1915, trousers were an exclusively male garment. That doesn’t mean that women did not periodically wear trousers albeit in very limited contexts. Women’s fashion had toyed with the idea of trousers for at least three decades before Lizzie set off on her errand. A small number of Victorian and Edwardian ladies adopted baggy trousers and “bifurcated skirts” (long culottes) as part of their campaign against the restrictive fashions of the time. In spite of their efforts, trouser-wearing was not widely adopted until the late 1920s and 1930s when masculine tailoring became a staple of haute couture. Even the sportiest Edwardian lady pilots and racing-car drivers preferred to tie their long skirts modestly around their ankles.
Male impersonators were also a regular feature on British music hall circuits where performers like Vesta Tilley drew large audiences. These women performed risqué songs while dressed as young men. Part of the thrill was that audience could see their legs! Lower-class women had, of course, been wearing work trousers for centuries. During the Victorian era, leather trousers were associated with the “pit brow lasses” of Lancashire. Women who chose to wear “men’s clothes” outside of these contexts risked a more negative response from their communities. Cross-dressing was a moral issue. By the early twentieth century, dressing in masculine clothes was gradually being associated with lesbianism. Trousers were associated with clear contexts: politicised fashion and distinct regional trades. They were not associated with respectable miner’s wives, at least not in the Durham area. The fact that it was Lizzie, a woman who may have already attracted negative comments from her community, probably added to the children’s response. She was an extrovert and in her own words, “a bit rough and ready”. She had tattoos, liked a drink, and on at least one occasion ended up in a fight, an event which she enjoyed describing when she was interviewed in her mid-80s.
Lizzie revelled in the notoriety of being proclaimed “the first woman in Horden to wear trousers!”. We will never know if this title was truly deserved. However, her story demonstrates how the First World War expanded the employment opportunities available to women. Lizzie was offered the opportunity to work in a trade that had previously been barred to her as a married woman in a County Durham village. The Northern Coalfield was almost exclusively male. The 1911 census shows how shocking the arrival of female coke oven workers would have been in Horden: officially there were only 13 female coke workers recorded in the entire Durham area. While this figure was definitely an under-estimate, it explains why the children were so surprised!
Lizzie’s time in the coal industry was short-lived. Like most women who joined heavy industry during the First World War, Lizzie saw her wartime job as a temporary expedient. She expected to leave the job once her miner husband came home from the front. The majority of married women never entered the labour market during the war, believing that their place was at home with their families. The Government, trade unions and employers similarly saw women’s employment only as temporary. The end of the war saw the mass withdrawal of women from the labour market. Some went voluntarily like Lizzie. Many others were summarily dismissed. Some trade unions began lobbying for a ban on the employment of married women, concerned that the war had all too readily demonstrated that women were able to compete with their male counterparts. Women were encouraged to return to more “gender appropriate” trades like domestic service. Lizzie spent the rest of her working life as a charwoman, raising her family and caring for her wounded husband Jimmy.
Lizzie was interviewed in 1976 as part of the Peterlee Development Project, a collaboration between the artist Stuart Brisley, Peterlee Council and the Artists Placement Group. Some of the materials from this are now available on through Durham County Records Office and their People Past and Present Archive.