Fashion by the Book: The First Casualty

I recently read The First Casualty by Ben Elton, a murder mystery set to the background of the horrendous meat grinder of the Third Battle of Ypres.

A Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Douglas Kingsley, is sent to Flanders under unusual circumstances to investigate the murder of a celebrity war hero who was killed under unusual circumstances. The book begs the question, why investigate the murder of an individual soldier while thousands were being slaughtered around him everyday?

The Germans launched the First and Second Battles of Ypres in 1914 and 1915 respectively; the third battle was intended by British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig as an Allied forces breakthrough in Flanders, ending the stalemate of trench warfare. The Third Battle of Ypres was launched on 31 July 1917 and continued until the fall of Passchendaele village on 6 November.

The offensive resulted in a gain of a few kilometers for the Allies but was by no means the breakthrough Haig hoped for, and the gains that were made came at great cost in human terms. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) incurred some 310,000 casualties, with a similar, lower, number of German casualties: 260,000.

While it was impossible to ignore the historic background of The First Casualty, I gravitate towards women in novels and this one has two: Inspector Kingsley’s wife Agnes, a London society woman; and Kitty Murray, a Royal Army Medical Corps nurse serving in France. Although these women are very different both have an effect on Kingsley and his investigation.

Novels always have a visual impact on me and as soon as Agnes and Kitty were introduced I began wondering how they dressed. Elton spent more time describing the dress of the male characters but Agnes, the socialite, would’ve worn the latest, highly structured fashions of the time while Kitty, a far more “modern” and pragmatic woman, would’ve worn less fussy clothes when she was out of uniform, which was rarely. Their clothes reflected their differences in class and personality. In this respect not much has changed between 1917 and now.

Research: Angelina Pieros

Sources: Costume: 1066-1990s, Fashion in Costume, McCall’s, The Daily Mail, The First Casualty, Twentieth-Century Fashion: The Complete Sourcebook, various history websites