Red Cross nurses and patients in BristolThe pyjamas in The Crimson Field may not be the stars of the show but they are pretty special – they follow an original First World War Red Cross sewing pattern.

Pyjama pattern used by The Crimson Field

Pyjama pattern used by The Crimson Field

Ros Little, the costume designer for the BBC production, used an original pattern from our archives. So the patients in the camp hospital are all wearing authentic Red Cross pyjamas.

In 1915 these would have been made by our volunteers in London at the Central Work Rooms. The buildings were lent to the Red Cross so they had a rather exclusive address: the Royal Academy.

Dog-hair wool

Throughout the war over 1,200 women worked there, knitting, stitching and sewing items for hospital patients and workers. Between 1914 and 1918 these women produced 705,500 bandages and 75,530 garments ranging from pyjamas, dressing gowns, kitbags and pants to hot-water-bottle covers, surgeon’s gowns , socks and pillow cases.

They worked with flannel, sheep’s wool and even some dog’s wool made from long-haired breeds such as Pekinese and Pomerainians.

The work rooms also issued material and standard clothes patterns to our working parties across the UK. These volunteers followed the patterns to make clothing for Red Cross hospitals at home and abroad.

Strict rules for VADs

1914 VAD nurse uniform

1914 VAD nurse uniform

There were strict rules on uniform for our volunteers (VADs). These covered everything from collars, aprons and sleeves to belts, hats and bodices.

Guidelines on uniform and etiquette for VAD members included:

  • Caps, aprons, collars and sleeves must always be fresh and clean
  • No fancy hat pins are to be worn under any consideration
  • Overalls not to droop at back of hem and not to be more than five inches off the ground
  • Aprons not to be worn out of doors unless specifically ordered.

There were so many garments and layers to keep clean and tidy it’s no wonder that VAD Helen Beale wrote to a friend: “I find three hours off is hardly long enough to get far in as one has to change both out and into uniform”.

At the press screening for The Crimson Field, Hermione Norris and Suranne Jones agreed that the clothes the nurses wore made their work much harder.

“The corsets were restricting. You couldn’t believe you had to do all this work in them – it was exhausting, bending over to make all the beds.”

Uniform uniforms

But despite all the rules surrounding uniform, VADs interpreted them in different ways. As one disgruntled reader of the Red Cross journal put it in April 1916: “the extraordinary variations to be seen on all sides make one despair that the ideal of ‘uniform uniforms’ will ever be realised in our women’s VAD anywhere.

“I can think of one Commandant wearing her uniform […] through the streets of a small country town (with other members of her own VAD) wearing large gipsy earrings studded with pearls, carrying a swagger cane, and smoking a cigarette.”

Many VADs particularly resented the uniform hats. One wrote: “Surely there is no necessity for the enormous unwieldy brims of both winter and summer hats. I am not in the least vain, but I confess I do not aspire to making myself unnecessarily plain.”

Dressing up

Uniforms could be a source of fun, too. In her letters, VAD nurse Florence Baker describes how, during a particularly scary air raid, “one of the boys tied a cloth around his head and put on my apron and said he’d go and flirt on the balcony. I believe he was getting on rather well until he bust up and gave the show away.”

VAD sketch from 1915 showing a woman in uniform turning away from a glamorous dress

VAD sketch from 1915

Swallowed a pin? Try a cotton wool sandwich

Sewing all these garments was not without its perils. Helen Beale was a VAD at Etaples in France, the hospital that inspired The Crimson Field. In a letter home in October 1914, Helen wrote: “We are very pleased this evening as the pin that the girl swallowed on Wednesday last has just emerged safely – she has been having cotton wool sandwiches and suet pudding etc.

“It really is rather wonderful to think that it has travelled so far inside her without pricking!”

  • Hear Ros Little discuss her research for The Crimson Field costumes
  • Find out more about the Red Cross’ work in World War One
  • Items from our archives are on display across the UK. See if there is an exhibition near you.