Fashion in World War I: December 1917


Afternoon dresses in rich fabrics, showing a variety of influences

The December 1917 issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes devoted several pages to a detailed discussion of the latest trends in lingerie, and linked this to the large number of society weddings for which trousseaux were being ordered.  Apparently the shortage of high quality linen and cotton fabrics (produced in areas of France at risk from German invasion) had led to an increased use of silk for underwear. Silk crepe, transparent mousseline de soie, and even silk tulle net in colours or in black were favoured for the new underwear. These were trimmed with rows of tiny ribbon flowers (a hallmark of the house of Callot Soeurs) and with straps and ties in contrasting ribbon. The cut was also becoming simpler and shorter, with knee-length drawers replaced by briefs the size of a baby’s nappy. These allowed the shape of the legs to be glimpsed through lightweight summer skirts. Of course the scantiness of the garments could be excused as war economy of fabric.

Latest styles in underwear in silk crepe and tulle

Another trend which turned wartime shortages to good account was the introduction of cloth shoes by Jenny, a couture house specialising in young women. These were made of black satin, with leather (required for army boots) restricted to trimmings. The soft fabric uppers would be useless for serious walking, showed off dainty feet and ankles better than the finest leather. Trends in hosiery were even more impractical: the finest grades of silk stockings were being worn for fashionable day events, even though scarce taxis had replaced chauffeured cars. Coloured stockings were no longer high fashion as they had become too common; instead fashionable women were wearing sheer silk decorated with lace or embroidery. There is a suggestion in the article that it is only the nouveau riche families of war profiteers who would go in for such extravagances.

Wartime economies were affecting the trade of milliners; apparently couture clients were jibbing at the prices requested for fashionable hats. Women who would pay for a couture dress or suit without blinking were trying to bargain down the prices for the matching headgear, and choosing to do without if the milliner refused. This added to the problems faced by milliners who were facing shortages in materials – not only exotic feathers but also the fancy plaits and braids needed to make hat structures. Worst of all, the skilled male workers who could mould felt ‘hoods’ into fashionable shapes were being called up by the army, either as soldiers or to work on army headgear.

The article on the state of the fashion trades discussed an area in which French firms were at risk from German competitors: commercial training for their workers. Since 1880, every German town with over 1000 inhabitants had been obliged by law to proved evening classes in business practices, with a network linking schools, business colleges and universities. This was seen as one of the reasons for the boom in German exports, which had apparently increased by a factor of 2,000 from 1890 to 1910 (French exports grew by a measly 50% over the same period). In contrast, the French state had concentrated business training on the elite, funding the École des Hautes Études commerciales in Paris and fourteen regional business colleges. This left the vast majority of shop assistants and sales representatives lacking the training that would help them to serve both their employers and the national economy. Two solutions were proposed: one was to set up evening or morning classes for apprentices, and make attendance a compulsory part of their training, as was done in Germany. German employers could be fined or even imprisoned for obstructing the training of their apprentices; to replicate this in France would require not only new legislation but also a change in attitude.

A more workable solution was the initiative recently launched by the Chamber of Commerce of Lyon: two new trade schools for women of any age, one with a commercial syllabus (commercial and employment law; accountancy; international trade regulations; shorthand and typing) and the other covering technical subjects (technical drafting; preparation of blueprints; machine maintenance; geometry, physics and materials science; shorthand and typing). These were intended for women of any age, from school leavers to war widows trying to carry on the family business. The fees were to be 75F per term for business classes, 150F for the technical courses, over a total of six terms (part time), with scholarships for hardship cases. To put this in context, a year’s subscription to Les Élégances Parisiennes cost 64F, almost as much as a term’s teaching.

An afternoon dress by Lucile in silk trimmed with fur

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Fashion in World War I: November 1917

Tailored ensembles - the one on the right by Jenny - showing eighteenth century influences
Tailored ensembles – the one on the right by Jenny – with eighteenth century influences

The November 1917 issue of   Les Élégances Parisiennes opened with a strong defence of  the fashion industry in wartime. Fashion, and more especially couture, was crucial not only to the French economy but for national prestige. The recent order from Paris couturiers by the Queen of Spain was cited as an accolade; as Queen Victoria Eugenia,  daughter of Princess Beatrice of England, had been a client of Worth before the War this was only to be expected.

The reports on fashion trends show the wartime problems with materials were biting deeper. Many leading couturiers were cutting their dresses narrower than ever – Buloz as little as 1.2m (48″) wide – but as skirts were now shorter this would not have the hobbling effect of the narrow skirts of 1910. This narrow cut would economise on fabric, and allow garments to be exported to the USA under the regulations discussed in the previous issue. Another reported trend was the use of broad ribbons, not only as sashes or floating panels, but draped round the body as shrugs, or stitched to form bodices and sleeves. The most lavish of these ribbons, with coloured motifs on metallic lame grounds, were compared to the decorative cuirasses of enamelled metal worn by Renaissance knights. While these ribbons were no doubt a tribute to the workmanship of weaving houses in Lyon – or more likely St Etienne – they would also be significantly cheaper than equivalent dress silks because of their reduced width.

A multi-function scarf / wrap/ motoring hood by Jenny

Multi-functional accessories like the garment by Jenny which doubled as an unstructured wrap (with handwarmer pockets) and a motoring hood also served an economy agenda, as did the blurring of lines between tailored suits and dresses. Tailored jackets could be removed to show soft chiffon blouses, transforming the ensemble from outdoor to indoor wear. Other suits included oversized decorative waistcoats which lightened the look, while referencing the style of eighteenth century courtiers – or even clerics, in an episcopal purple suit with a black soutane like tunic .

News from within the French fashion trades included a worrying report on international competition both in silk textiles and in garments. The import duties on silk fabrics were criticised as ineffective and unequal; American silks were charged at 15F per kg, and Asian silks only at 3.25F. This was based on pre-war conditions, when Japanese and Chinese silks had been relatively low grade base fabrics. However, in recent years Asian manufacturers had upgraded their production to include dyed, printed and pattern woven textiles which were competing directly with French silk textiles. This competition was skewed by the huge differential in wage rates, which allowed Asian manufacturers to price their goods much more cheaply. French silk manufacturers were calling for a revision in import duties, applying a surcharge to goods from low-wage countries in order to protect French industry. There was further discontent among French high-end clothing manufacturers. A new law had fixed a sales tax of 5% on ready-to-wear garments, and 10% on made to measure. This was denounced as penalising self-employed tailors and dressmakers producing made to measure garments for private clients at the expense of large clothing manufacturers. After all, not all private clients were wealthy -some of them were forced to buy made to measure because mass produced clothes weren’t made in their size.

Day ensembles with long waistcoats - one of which looks like a sleeveless coat

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Fashion in World War I: October 1917

Three ensembles by Poiret showing the new trends for Winter 1917

The fashion articles in the November 1917 issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes flagged up some radical new trends in cut – and its articles on the state of the fashion industry explained the economic rationale behind them. The new styles were being made with hems under 1.8m (6ft) wide, taking only 4.2 or 4.5m fabric for a dress. The narrow silhouette was given variety by panels of contrast fabric – inserts of gathered tulle at the side, or apron panels of heavy silk down the front, wide ribbon sashes with trailing ends, or even strings of beads hanging from the bodice. Sometimes narrow skirts were topped with wide tunics, with pointed hems falling below the waist or panels extending down over the skirt. These tunics were being made with wide open necklines which meant they could slip over the head without fastenings. The writer pointed out that heavy fabric jackets made pullover style might be comfortable but were awkward to put on and off in public. This cut can be seen in the jacket by Poiret on the left of the plate above, which has a neckline with a deep centre slash held together by a high buttoned collar. The jacket front panel is buttoned to the back panels at the hip, with what appears to be open side seams – but the garment is described in the caption as being ‘without fastenings’. The buttoned motif is repeated on the skirt, which has back panels buttoned on to the front at the hem to give a tulip shape. This ensemble, with its wide dropped waist and straight skirt, makes the the Poiret coat in the centre of the plate look slightly old fashioned, with its high waistline and full skirt stiffened with a deep band of quilting.

In this issue the reports from the Syndicat de la Couture clarify the stark economic framework for the French clothing trades. Legislation governing imports had just been revised, and some raw materials were only allowed in with special permission, while others were limited by quotas. Imports of silk and cotton fibres were to be cut by 75%, dealing a savage blow to French textile firms who were already struggling. All Allied nations were drawing up similar restrictions, cutting down the French export market. French firms wishing to send fine lingerie to England, or English manufacturers selling umbrellas to France, needed to obtain special permits from the English customs office in Paris, or the French customs bureau in London. Countries less affected by war, like Brazil and Argentina, were becoming important markets, with the value of clothing and lingerie exported to Brazil increased 400% (to 14 million Francs) since 1914. This in spite of the distances involved, and the danger of attack from enemy shipping.

Trade in fashion items between France and the USA was subject to some very complex variables. French textile manufacturers depended on American cotton to stock their textile mills, and were importing the same amount as in 1914, without any quotas being imposed. In return, France  had increased sales of some fashion products to the USA. Sales of French fine lingerie and ready to wear dresses had gone up from 17 million F in 1914 to 25 million in 1916, a 50% rise. However the export of wool clothing to the USA had hit an obstacle in the shape of new American legislation restricting the amount of wool available to manufacturers of civilian clothing. This was done to prioritise wool supplies for army uniforms and blankets. American clothing manufacturers responded by slimming down the cut of their women’s clothes so as to make the best possible use of scarce yardage – only 4.5m would be allowed for a dress or suit. The American government had then set this yardage as the standard for all dresses imported into the country, so as not to disadvantage their home manufacturers. The result was that French firms, if they wanted to export to the USA, had to comply with American war economy standards. Hence the new cut announced in the fashion pages was not a purely aesthetic decision – but one enforced by harsh legislative and economic realities.

Ensembles by Jean Lanvin showing apron panels and a raglan-shouldered waistcoat

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Fashion in World War I – September 1917

Blouses decorated and constructed with fancy ribbons

In the September 1917 issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes the emphasis was on textile houses rather than Maisons de Couture as innovators of the new season’s fashions. The leading article on ‘Les Dernières Créations de la Mode’ discussed lace and hand embroidered textiles which rendered designs from Byzantine, Japanese and Chinese art on a large scale for use in panels to trim dresses in plain fabrics. There were also new types of fabrics in a combination of techniques for added richness – velvets with brocaded designs, or metallic lamés with  motifs printed in ikat or woven in different metallic yarns. Some of these lavish textiles were featured in the fashion plates of this issue – but there were also many designs made up in plain fabrics trimmed with bands of stitching or of decorative ribbon. There were several fashion plates showing ideas for using ribbon, in narrow widths to create a striped effect, or in wide breadths to construct a simple bodice. These ideas would support the French ribbon weaving firms based around St Étienne, and would also provide an economical alternative to expensive fashion fabrics. A similar spirit lay behind the trend for contrast linings which added variety to scarves and sashes – and extra warmth as well.

Following on from previous discussions about the future of the French fashion trades, there was an article about post-war competition from German textile and clothing manufacturers, following a report in the American press on the highly organized state of German industry. The German government was apparently subsidising promotional ventures such as a forthcoming showcase of German fashions in neutral Switzerland. Apparently there was not only a German Ministry of War Production, but a separate Commission for Post-war Trade, which was providing manufacturers with materials and information to develop new products. Wartime shortages of imported materials had led German industrial chemists to innovate in producing substitutes – including fibres such as ‘artificial silk’ (viscose) which had been praised as in previous issues of Les Élégances Parisiennes. These were not only novel but also cheap enough that it would be hard for buyers to resist them, no matter how distasteful it was to purchase from a former aggressor. This article claimed that German factories were keeping down costs by drafting in prisoners and civilian women, and paying them below the peace time rates. French manufacturers, in contrast, had been forced by strikes to raise their wages, as detailed in the previous issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes.

The page of ‘Nouvelles Syndicales’ reported on a different type of labour substitution – the retraining of war-mutilated soldiers for work in the fashion trades. Apparently this was not an unmixed success – workshops in tailoring and cutting had been abandoned as too arduous for injured men. Workshops in fur work and shoe making (the latter a traditional resort for workers invalided out of other trades) were proving more successful, with 50 residential places and a plan to double that number. Importantly, the workshops were sponsored by the leather workers’ trade organization, which guaranteed trainees a job on a wage scale with scope for improvement.

Ideas for reversible scarves and sashes which double as hoods and shoulder wraps

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Fashion in World War I: August 1917

Evening dresses referencing ‘Ancien Regime’ and ‘Empire’ styles

The August 1917 edition of Les Élégances Parisiennes looked resolutely ahead to the future, both immediate and long-term. For the immediate future, couturiers and fabric manufacturers were preparing their new ranges for the coming winter. These showed some recognition of the worsening conditions of civilian life in Paris, with full-length coats of heavy furs such as beaver, and day ensembles in thick wool. The accessories pages highlighted useful inventions such as foot muffs, indoor mittens, and fancy shawls to make up for the lack of coal to heat houses.

Cozy accessories for cold houses

The fashionable cut was still very varied, with some dresses and blouses showing intricate arrangements of ties that slotted through belts, zigzag armholes, and draped panels. The waist was usually high, though wide sashes brought the level down somewhat. There were historical references to the court of the Emperor Napoleon in evening gowns with high waists and lace trains, and to Revolutionary ‘incroyables’ in tailored suits with wide lapels and high-necked cravats. These styles were closer to those of 1914 than to the loose chemises that would prevail after 1919. However the fabrics in vogue were more forward-looking, with much use of knit jersey in a variety of fibres and finishes.  Artificial silk (rayon) jersey was recommended not as a substitute but for its increased brilliance and weight compared to natural silk. Rather than fancy weaves, fabrics were plain but trimmed with machine or hand embroidery in contrast shades. This could add an exotic note with designs taken from Berber textiles, or emphasize construction with lines of top stitching at seams and hems.

Looking further ahead, editorials in Les Élégances Parisiennes reflected on the likely role of American investors after the war. Citing a new study by Victor Cambon, they warned that outside investment would be needed in order to win the peace – as it had been before the war. They claimed that this would not be to the detriment of local investors, since American industrialists were happy to take a chance on new areas while French bankers hung back until they could see a certain return. However, they saw a limit to American collaboration in French fashion industries, claiming that attempts to co-produce fashion lines had failed as American manufacturers did not understand the French mentality. French textile producers, fashion designers and seamstresses were in such perfect harmony that none of them could work effectively if transplanted to American firms. This is an early example of the argument used to combat German attempts to co-opt French fashion during the 1940s occupation.

Embroidery inspired by Berber designs adds an exotic note

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Fashion in World War I: July 1917

Blouses and tunics for fall 1917

The July 1917 edition of Les Élégances Parisiennes revealed that Paris fashion houses were threatened not only by international competitors, but by internal problems. A series of strikes by workers in different branches of fashion production, from buttons, to ready-to-wear, to couture, had forced employers to agree concessions with workers’ councils. The summaries of these agreements make sobering reading. The first clause was for wage levels to return to what they had been in 1914 – clearly they had been cut during the war. The second clause was for additional payments to cover increases in the cost of living – rising costs, plus wage cuts, would have hit workers doubly hard. A hard-won concession was for a half-day on Saturday (with no loss of pay), and for working days to be limited to nine hours. There were special provisions to cover overtime during the busy seasons, and for workers paid by the piece (normally in ready-to-wear). The final clause in all the agreements: ‘ no dismissals following strikes’ indicates that workers seen as troublemakers had been victimised. These agreements are sobering, as they reveal the conditions in which the garments described in the fashion columns were produced. They also suggest that the tendency towards simplification in fashion may have been motivated by changes in the economics of clothing production, as much as by changes in the lives of fashionable women.

The fashion coverage in this issue is slightly disconcerting, as it predicts a return to the ‘Empire’ cut of 1910, with high waistlines and jackets based on 1810 spencers. This goes against the low waistlines and loose cuts discussed in previous issues – a factor addressed by the fashion columnist, who admits that loose ‘chemise’ dresses had sold well in the USA, but that a change in cut was necessary to drive sales. However the ‘Empire’ line was being promoted mostly in tailored suits and coats – other garments were looser and less fitted. The fashion columns acknowledge that sales of evening dresses have plummeted in France, as upper-class gatherings are taking place in the afternoon or at tea (with guests bringing their own sugar ration in embroidered pouches). For these, smart tunics or blouses or lacy ‘tea gowns’, would be suitable. These garments, even when beautifully decorated, were unfitted and hence easier to make and to wear than formal dresses. They could also be purchased as separates and combined with a variety of skirts, or plain under-dresses, to give added value to the wearer’s wardrobe.

Pleated silk slips with ribbon straps by Jenny

While fashionable women were able to economise on evening gowns, there were new temptations in lingerie. The latest undergarments were not made from white linen, but from fine silks in pastel shades, trimmed with ribbons, lace, decorative ties, and even ceramic beads. These materials would require careful laundering , probably by the wearer’s maid, as commercial laundries would be set up for boiling and starching linen petticoats, not for hand washing silk slips. Underwear had always constituted an essential, but hidden, part of women’s wardrobes – and an expensive one, with multiple sets of chemises, drawers, petticoats, corset covers needed for every season and for every change in fashionable shape. The gradual simplification in the cut of dresses towards 1920, and the narrowing of skirts, meant that fewer layers were needed – but not necessarily cheaper ones.

New styles of underwear by Jenny, in silk and ribbon

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Fashion in World War I: June 1917

Dinner dresses with contrast embroidery

The June 1917 edition of Les Élégances Parisiennes highlighted some of the paradoxes of fashion production in war conditions. This issue showed a foretaste of styles for the coming autumn -  in recognition of the increased lead time required to produce, and ship, garments for export when every parcel needed a permit from the customs authorities of both countries. Many of the next season’s styles were trimmed with embroidery – tone on tone for wool coats, and contrasting for dinner dresses. However in the same issue an article on the state of the fashion trades industry pointed out that French firms producing embroidered yardage were in dire straits. Originally centred around Saint-Quentin, in the Aisne district, their factories had been destroyed by German bombardments, their equipment seized, and their workforce scattered. In order to keep their businesses afloat, proprietors had become middlemen for embroidered goods imported from Switzerland. This trade was now threatened by new legislation limiting imports in order to protect French production – even though in this case French production had ceased. The author went on to argue that the textile and clothing industries were ill served by legislation drawn up by civil servants with little understanding of the complexity of the fashion trade, and of the importance of seasonal events such as textile fairs.

Another article reported on a controversy which had split the American fashion press. Edith Rosenbaum had written in the Dry Goods Economist praising French designs, only to be harshly criticized in the rival publication Frocks and Frills, which only published American fashions. Miss Rosenbaum had responded with an account of her recent trip to Paris, on which she had taken some samples of American fabrics that had been presented to her by manufacturers as new and unique designs. However when she showed them in Paris they were identified as copies from Bianchini-Ferier and other French firms from two years previously. Rosenbaum went on to point out that all of the fabrics currently popular in America, lightweight silks such as crepe georgette, had first been introduced in France. She charged American manufacturers with being too preoccupied with keeping costs down to invest in design development.

Japanese-influenced fashion by Premet

This issue also reported on a show by leading couture houses in the centre for French design in Madrid. Several of the styles illustrated had a strong Orientalist flavour, with a diagonal Chinese neck in a Paquin dress, and kimono sleeves from Premet.  The how-to-sew pages in this issue featured some highly inventive sleeves, with dress sleeves inserted with puffs of contrast fabrics, and mantles draped around the arms like 1880s ‘visites’. There were also complex waist treatments, with sashes threaded through skirts, or growing out of bodice panels.

A refreshing contrast were the simple styles recommended for sportswear – like a tennis outfit in green and white wool jersey by Beer.

Tennis outfit by Beer

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Fashion in World War I: May 1917

Evening dresses by Callot showcasing Lyon silk brocades

The May 1917 edition of Les Élégances Parisiennes reported on some encouraging signs for the French fashion industries. The textile trade fair in Lyons had been better attended than in its first year, and with over 2,300 stands including 380 from overseas firms. This is remarkable for wartime, and testimony to the extent to which France was still seen as the fashion leader of the world. The commercial success of the event is harder to evaluate; some of the exhibitors were not able to take new orders as their output had been cut by wartime shortages of materials and of trained workers. Overseas exhibitors might find it hard to deliver any orders placed by French clients, as there was a new law proposing a total ban on imported goods. While intended to support French industry and to cut off funds to German firms, this threatened to undermine fashion houses with their constant need for new and varied materials and trimmings. Previously fashion manufacturing had been highly fragmented, with different firms and different areas specialising in different types of cloth and different garments or accessories – hats, gloves, shoes, hosiery, bags, corsetry, lingerie, lace, dresses, tailoring, furs….. When the wool-producing areas of France were occupied by Germany it was not easy for silk weavers to make up the shortfall, although they were trying their hardest.

The report on the Lyon trade fair also noted some encouraging signs in ready-to-wear clothing manufacture. Some factories had been reorganised along American and German lines to give improved efficiency and quality, while retaining French stylishness in their products. There is an admission that German factory-made clothes had often been superior in quality to French and that this is an area that needed attention. This acknowledgement of the importance of ready-to-wear is important, but it is strange that Britaish manufacturers are not mentioned, since they had been pioneers in this area.

Ensembles by Worth with diaphanous sik jackets

The reports from Lyon clarify the way in which fashion design at this time was driven by high-end textile production. The trade fair included a show of garments designed to showcase luxurious French silks; the evening dresses by Callot shown above were seen as particularly successful. Daytime ensembles in transparent silk voile were less obviously showy, but their novelty and impracticality would make them clear indicators of the wealth and privilege of the wearer. As always, deep pockets were needed to dress in couture – and helpfully, the latest trend in daywear was for jackets with handbag-sized pockets that hung below the hem!

Ideas for pockets

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fashion in World War I: April 1917

Coats and costumes by Premet

The April 1917 issue of  Les Élégances Parisiennes showed designs that followed the dual trends featured in March: on the one hand, simple smocks or shift dresses, and on the other garments featuring flying panels, interlaced strips, and draped effects. There was also a continued reference to historic garments – like the Premet ensemble above, with a waistcoat copied from menswear of the 1720s. Historicism was also a trend in fashion textiles, with motifs borrowed from the 1830s, or from ‘peasant’ cultures.

For the French fashion industry, one of the main news stories was the establishment of a ‘Maison de France’ in Madrid, promoting fashion, decorative arts and perfumes. The garments were shown on on live mannequins; this was not new, as Lucile and other couturiers had held fashion parades before 1914 – but it was still felt to be a noteworthy innovation. Meanwhile Paul Poiret had gone further afield, opening Poiret, Inc. in New York to sell clothing, furnishings and even glass ware to his designs. This enterprise had an American director and legal advisor. The latter would be needed to deal with the numerous and flagrant breaches of copyright that Poiret had suffered from US manufacturers and retailers.

Coats and dresses by Poiret

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Fashion in World War I: March 1917

The March 1917 issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes showed spring fashions for day and evening; evening gowns in lace and fragile chiffons, and practical suits for day. The leading fabric for day was jersey, in wool, silk and mixtures which gave a soft, flowing drape. Not surprisingly, Chanel’s name was mentioned as one of the designers working in jersey. Her simple two-pieces in plain colours or checks look refreshingly simple compared to the intricate cut proposed by other designers.

Chanel suit in checked wool and jersey

In this issue, the article on the state of the French garment industry was refreshingly frank about the problems of finding skilled workers during wartime. Some workers had been tempted away by well-paid jobs in war industries; others had been forced by wartime disruption to move to areas where there were no clothing workshops; additionally, some workshops had been forced to relocate to areas where there were few skilled workers. Moreover, too many applicants for jobs in couture workshops proved to be badly trained, after an ‘apprenticeship’ spent running errands for their employers. One solution was to provide more training schemes for young girls – there were already six Trade Schools in Paris, and all of their graduates found employment. In order to increase the numbers of trained garment workers, the author proposed that a 1911 scheme should be implemented: girls would spend the final year of Elementary School learning needlework and household skills. This proposal is illuminating in its categorisation of working-class girls as clay to be moulded into forms that suit the state. It is also misguided, since the skills that could be taught in a classroom setting were not those that were needed in couture – the needlework syllabus in British schools was decades out of date, and focussed on mending household linen. Then, as now, it is hard for the fashion industry, with its emphasis on seasonal change to mesh with educational policy, which plans decades in advance.

Evening wraps in kimono and medieval shapes

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