For example, after the war she felt that the effects had been somewhat scandalous, noting in her 1919 diary that ‘French fashions as exhibited at the races were as extreme as modicum of conscience would allow. Ladies wore short silk socks and showed bare legs and the skirts were shorter and scantier than ever’.(5) In print, however, her remarks are nuanced, lightly humorous and, typically for Playne, slightly evasive in terms of her stance; they deserve to be quoted at length: ‘it was just such ultra-feminine wrappings and trappings which thousands of women flung aside in order to put on the unadorned nurse’s uniform or the factory worker’s coarse overall. Much besides clothes was flung aside – for better or for worse – polite customs, courteous habits, the whole position of living delicately’.(6) In addition to her concern that women should achieve a ‘personal independence’ through less restrictive fashions, there is also here a clear mourning of the loss of an intangible quality of refinement and delicate femininity. Perhaps she found that quality typified in some of the illustrations here, which explains why the catalogues, unlike the vast majority of Playne’s books and pamphlets, escaped excoriating comments in her spidery handwriting. Quite what Playne might have thought of this fragment of her collection being presented in this way is difficult to gauge, though she may perhaps have been reassured by the presence of even this brief indication of its context. Ultimately, the concern is misplaced, as such projects will always be effortlessly outlived by her published works; with their dizzying breadth of quotation, intricate construction and overwhelming passion, they will endure, providing in the process a vivid and compelling portrait of an extraordinarily courageous, eloquent and committed campaigner. 1 C. E. Playne, The Neuroses of the Nations (London, George Allen & Unwin, 1925), p. 63.
2 UoL/UL/4/18/54.
3 C. E. Playne, Society at War : 1914–916 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931), p. 128.
4 Ibid, p. 128.
5 UoL/UL/MS1112/43.
6 C. E. Playne, Society at War : 1914–916 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931), p. 128. Major works C. E. Playne, The Neuroses of the Nations (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1925)
———, The Pre-War Mind in Britain : an Historical Review (London: Allen and Unwin, 1928).
———, Society at War : 1914-916 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931)
———, Britain Holds On: 1917, 1918 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1933) It may be something of a surprise to learn that the fashion catalogues on which this resource was based, with their beautiful cover imagery and wealth of social history, were collected as part of one woman’s campaign for permanent world peace. Caroline Playne (1857–1948) was a tirelessly active member of a bewildering number of peace organisations, and for over forty years journeyed around Europe as a delegate and speaker at many peace congresses. During the First World War, she devoted herself to the Society of Friends’ Emergency Committee for the Assistance of Germans, Austrians and Hungarians in Distress, spending countless hours working as advisor and interpreter for this group, chairing committees, dispensing money to petitioners, personally intervening with local officials and government departments, and even purchasing buildings to act as shelters for the widely reviled ‘enemy aliens’. This experience can be assumed to have hardened her beliefs, and in the decades following the conflict she wrote four idiosyncratic histories, in effect chapters of one great work, which affirmed that in the first years of the 20th century an ‘upburst of primitive passion […] and madness dominated the minds of men’.(1) Madness was Playne’s consistent metaphor for what she saw around her, where the war was only the most acute symptom of a disease that had destroyed western culture. She expressed this very clearly when she came to donate her books, notes and papers to Senate House Library in 1937, specifying to the Librarian, Reginald Arthur Rye, that ‘my great desire is that the collection may be of use to future students in studying the psychological causes of the decline and fall of European civilization in our times’.(2) Provenance of the catalogues
by Dr Richard Espley, Research Librarian, Senate House Library One aspect of that madness for Playne was the immoral opulence of women’s fashions at the start of the war. She recorded that in the first months of war, fashions did not alter and remained ‘hampering and effeminate in the extreme’, (3) wholly inappropriate to the roles women began to assume. Playne also emphasises that such clothes were ‘offered to ordinary women, at extraordinarily low prices, considering the amount of material absorbed in them’, (4) lamenting the waste of resources. However, her judgements are rarely easy to summarise without qualification, and here she also had concerns about the slow rationalisation of dress which the war brought about, allowing women greater ease of movement.